When I talk, you listen.

That was the opener. A member of our faculty began an address to the freshman class with that line the other day. A few kids held out and s/he said it again.

“When I talk, you listen.”

I imagine a lot of folks — especially those who promote the equivalence of teacher and learner, who promote a perfectly democratic discourse — will chafe at the authoritarianism of it all. Others — Andrew Keen disciples mostly — won’t mind.

Personally, I was unoffended. I don’t have much interest in a classroom (or society) where every voice carries equal weight, where experience and education merit no preference. That goes double in a gymnasium full of freshmen.

But I become particular and somewhat critical in the moments immediately after you’ve exploited your authority. In the five seconds after you’ve caught the attention of every freshman at your school (like the Labrador finally catching the car) you either lose it or keep it.

You lose it by leading with filler, by continuing, “Your teachers have talked a few things over in our meetings, which we have every month, and we’ve decided that certain issues face our campus, some which are more pressing than others, etc., etc.”

And they’re gone. Just gone.

If you want to keep their attention, to earn it, you let that silence sit for what screenwriters call a “beat,” essentially the length of one thought, and then you say, “Look, we need you in class, on time. You may not like this but here’s how we’re going to fix the tardy situation around here.”

One is filler. The other is content.

One is signal. The other is noise.

One abuses the strange power dynamic between teachers and students. The other respects it.

Practically Speaking:

  • Cut the first chapter of your book.
  • Lose the first paragraph of your essay.
  • Don’t introduce yourself at your conference presentation.
  • Open with a question or at least a big statement.
  • Don’t follow a joke with leaden, nervous laughter.

Personally Speaking:

In my classroom, if we’re in a work session and I need to talk to the class, to steer ’em somewhere new, I head to one corner of the whiteboard, my only serious place in the classroom, and say, “I need you back here in 5 … in 4 … in 3 …If kids are still talking after the countdown, I don’t give ’em any dirty looks or anything, I just write their names down and keep ’em after class for a minute.,” and whenever they quiet down I pause for only that beat and I immediately — no filler — offer them something meaty, succinct, and worth their while.

“If you fell out of an airplane, how long would it take you to hit ground?”

“How fast does Archie, the world’s fastest snail, travel in miles per hour?”

“Are you more likely to roll three sixes with three rolls or flip six heads in a row?”

How I Earn Their Attention from Dan Meyer on Vimeo.

You can throw your back out, as I did for two yearsSneaking suspicion: the seed of all lousy classroom management is fear., imposing comprehensive rules and escalating consequences all to keep your students’ attention or you can just give them something worth listening to.

About 

I’m Dan and this is my blog. I’m a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. More here.

19 Comments

  1. Same goes for professional development. Tardiness is often a problem at schools. When I do pd I try to start right away with something cool. It’s not the most important part of the presentation but it’s valuable.

    If you want people to listen you have to provide ’em with something worth listening to.

  2. Love it. I’m going to see how well something similar works for my 5th graders — I spend too much time nagging with very little results. I think the writing names on the board with the consequence being clear is a great strategy. Hope I can train myself to do it.

    I did laugh though — you called the kids “boys and girls” — I call my students “ladies and gentlemen.” Neither is exactly true, eh? :)

  3. Well, yeah. No sense trying to get anyone’s attention–a classroom full of sophomores, an auditorium full of The Future Of America, a chamber full of senators–if you have nothing to say. The podium can be a dangerous weapon.

  4. You describe the corner of your whiteboard as the only serious place in your room. How did you establish the serious spot with your classes?

    The video was a great way to bring your point home with readers. Thanks!

  5. I go for the extreme right or left, a place that will contain every negative disciplinary interaction we have. I previously wrote about this here.

  6. This video was shot during lunch, incidentally. There were two students in class, one whom I tutored and one holding the camera. I recorded the audio separately and layered it on in post.

    There goes the magic.

  7. I like the message here Dan. However, there is something I am curious about. There’s an old theory that people will act differently when observed, and the same goes for when being videoed/filmed.

    Only you can answer this. How much different are you students’ behaviours without the camera in the room? Is your behaviour/style/clarity etc. any different when you know you are being recorded (more so in this case)? I am trying to determine (more selfishly than anything) how closely this produced scene reflects the reality of your classroom. I’m not insinuating it isn’t similar, but I’m curious.

    In any sense, the message you’ve constructed here is a good one, and this is something I’ve sent to my preservice teachers.

  8. I don’t know if you caught my last comment, Alec, but this classroom interaction was constructed, both because I knew with the camera hovering around, they’d react differently, less predictably, probably getting quieter faster & because I didn’t want to waste class time on this little blog thing of mine.

    But, for better or worse, this is how it goes in my class.

  9. Ahh, I was wondering if all of those empty seats in your room ever gave you much trouble (they certainly don’t have problems talking after your countdown!). But your explanation above cleared that right up. And tagging off Liza’s comment, I also caught that you called your students “boys and girls” (does that happen with a full class also?). I most often say “folks” but maybe that’s a little bit of a Southern thing….

  10. Good stuff, Dan. I agree that this can be applied to staff meetings as well. What do you do after that 5 seconds, if/when there are more than just one or two students still talking? I’m thinking about those occasional days when something different is going on in school that day: Homecoming, cool assembly in 15 minutes, etc… I guess I’m just wondering if you have a plan B in place.

  11. Rich, yeah, “boys and girls” is so much a part of my default classroom interaction (“bye bye, boys and girls, good to see you again today”) I didn’t even notice it until here, where y’all have called me out proper.

    Rick, if one or two students are talking, I’ll just start writing names down slowly while everyone shushes them quickly.

  12. This is just more proof to me that the best teachers have thought through everything. I don’t mean that your whole lesson or class period is scripted, but that you have a thorough plan for everything. Powerful.

    Just to add on to previous comments, I noticed the boys and girls thing. It struck me in a similar vein to Lisa. I call my 5th graders ladies and gentlemen as well. They know we’ve got a problem when I revert to boys and girls.

  13. Now there’s a fun edupoll waiting to happen. What do you call your students? Reflect on it. Why have you made that verbal decision, and what does it mean (if anything)?

    In fact, I have just put it up. ;)

    http://theline.edublogs.org/2008/01/20/what-do-you-call-your-students/

    I have three levels of nicknames for my students, apparently. In general use they are “chickies” or “chickadees.” This is exactly what I call my two toddlers, so clearly there’s a maternal thing going there.

    For more serious, grandiose, or pressing issues, “ladies and gentlemen” is what usually comes out.

    And then there’s the “I’m about to say something so earth-shatteringly wise that I hope it will change your life, so pay attention” moment, and that name for them is the highly socialist, and therefore somewhat ironic, “PEOPLE.”