Let's Help Students Speak Up Across the Cultural Divide

November 11, 2012

The most trouble I ever got into in school was in the second grade. I spoke out of turn in class; the teacher called my mother; my mother took off work and went to school to watch me apologize. As a nurse, my mother found it difficult to leave work midshift, so the impact of her presence (and disapproval) weighed heavily. The message was clear: School isn't for talking—it's for listening.

Fifteen years later I was in graduate school and teaching my first section of composition at a large public university in the Midwest, and I was wondering how to get my students to participate in class discussions.

I empathized with their reluctance to speak up. In my own undergraduate years, I had managed to get away with remaining silent in nearly every course, avoiding my professor's eye while writing down words like "hegemony" and "liminal" and scurrying home later to look up their definitions. I had learned that being a good student meant being quiet and deferential, and I found encouragement to speak up in class confusing and a little scary. Wasn't the teacher the teacher? What did I have to say? I now suspected that my students, who were mostly from rural, working-class backgrounds similar to my own, might be feeling the same way.

Still, the boilerplate syllabus the department had provided me with had a grading breakdown—class participation: 35 percent. So I had to get my students to say something. At the time, I was reading bell hooks's Teaching to Transgress. In it, hooks writes, "In academic circles, both in the sphere of teaching and that of writing, there has been little effort made to utilize ... any language other than standard English."

She is writing primarily about African-American vernacular and its relationship to the American classroom, but the suggestion that the language and behaviors within the university were themselves part of a specific culture seems important. What if the problem with my students wasn't that they were unprepared for college discussion, but that, like me, they had simply grown up with different expectations? What if the root of the problem wasn't academic readiness but a cultural clash?

I began to look for more information on the link between class and the classroom. I read Richard Kitchen's report in Mathematics Teacher on the "multiple challenges faced by teachers when they attempt to develop discursive classrooms, particularly in rural schools in areas with high levels of poverty." I learned that scholars in Britain had researched student and teacher expectations of talk in the classroom and found that teachers had highly pessimistic views of working-class students' verbal abilities.

The most interesting resource I came across was Annette Lareau's Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, in which the author observes that "discussions between parents and children are a hallmark of middle-class child rearing ... middle-class children learn to question adults and address them as relative equals." Children of blue-collar families, on the other hand, learn to accept authority and to consider the line between adults and children as firm. Since the cultures of institutions (like universities) often align with middle-class modes of behavior, Lareau suggests that working-class children can be erroneously perceived as deficient.

Armed with a better sense of what might be complicating class participation, I began brainstorming ways to make my students more comfortable with speaking up. I started by requiring them to e-mail me to get their homework assignments. This step was not difficult, but it set a precedent for contacting me that circumvented any hesitation on the students' part—a hesitation I remembered well from my own first semester.

From there, I moved on to vary the types of our discussions (partner, small group, large group, and calling on them) to jolt the intermittent conversation out of its rut. The cold-calling technique, surprisingly, was one of the most effective strategies; many students who had never previously contributed to class discussions revealed themselves to be well prepared, as though they had simply been waiting for permission to speak. I encouraged them to raise their hands as well, which allowed me to occasionally bypass the few talkative students in favor of their less-confident peers.

Those steps helped, but it wasn't until I assigned reading on the topic of social class and conversation that the ice really broke. I chose a passage from Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers that directly references Lareau's Unequal Childhoods, and on the day of the assigned reading, I arrived to find the classroom buzzing. I had prepared discussion questions, but we hardly needed them. Students who had previously been reserved became animated, sharing personal stories, critiquing Gladwell's rhetorical strategies, and engaging in a broader debate about the benefits of different discourse styles.

Everyone seemed to have something to say. Students told stories of learning that extensions for assignments were available in other courses to students who knew to ask for them, and of missing class to work a shift but lying and using the more "acceptable" excuse of illness. One student spoke of a professor who had given her a C and told her, "This is college. You have to talk to earn your grade."

The campus had a support system for students with disabilities, international students, and English-language learners, but little attention was given to the needs of the first-generation, working-class/working-poor, or rural students who made up a sizable part of the campus. When I asked my students about their ideas for improvement, they had many suggestions: Make professors aware of the costs of the books and materials they assign, offer cheaper and more-flexible meal plans, promote more teachers from backgrounds similar to the students' own. I would add to that list: Offer workshops on classroom participation and self-advocacy, and educate students about fields with which they may have had little contact, such as law or academe.

Students carry a heavy burden when they face an unfamiliar culture with no support system, and a college's duty to help them succeed should go beyond financial aid. Administrators, faculty, and staff must be informed and engaged with every student for all students to thrive.

When the class discussion was over that day, I went home and called my mother, who is still a nurse. I told her about the conversation, and she said that it sounded like I had some opinionated students.

I said yes, I did; they had great potential.

SJ Culver is a writer who works in the Center for Student Success at Walden University.