First Person

Parent blog: Introverts at school

Boulder mom of three and psychologist Suzita Cochran reflects on why public schools seem to favor extroverted students and wonders what can be done to boost the confidence of  classroom introverts. 

Ashley is an 11-year-old who lives in our neighborhood. She’s soft-spoken and curious. Her big brown eyes constantly take in the world around her. A while back I bumped into Ashley’s mother and we got to talking. I asked how Ashley’s transition to middle school had gone this year, since our son Daniel had been through a harder transition than I’d expected.girlwithwings1

Ashley’s mom said in elementary school her daughter had always had difficulty speaking up and never liked group projects, but had managed to show her other strengths. Ashley soon discovered, however, that middle school had even more group work and seven teachers to get to know rather than one. She’d been a good student in the past, but at conferences in middle school a number of teachers said they’d like Ashley to be more active in group work and talk more in class.

Ashley said she would try to improve on these areas. Yet her mom had noticed that as the year progressed, Ashley seemed to be enjoying school less even though she had good friends.

Introverts in an extroverted world

Soon after this conversation with Ashley’s mom, I began reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain, and met many others like Ashley within its pages. Cain points out that we live in a country that reveres extroverts.  This stance has become more extreme in recent generations. As Ashley has found, and my kids will attest, group work is widespread in today’s public schools.

Cooperative learning favors extroverts who like to think through problems aloud rather than gathering their thoughts prior to offering them, as introverts do.  Yet today’s teachers are told they must prepare students for the working world where teamwork is the norm.

Cain lists additional research showing that working in groups is not always the best context for creativity.  Introverts do their best work alone, at least for a good portion of their working day. Studies have also shown that organizations that don’t allow employees to close the door to distractions are less productive than those which do – for both introverted and extroverted types.

Skills of introverts

Cain also highlights the strengths of introverts. They tend to have fewer interests, but pursue them more deeply over longer periods of time. This goes for friendships as well. Introverts notice their environment more accurately and are sensitive to changes around them, often catching problems in a project more quickly than others. Their sensitivity to people and environments, and lack of focus on wealth and fame, often makes them more effective leaders than extroverts. Introverts enjoy taking in large and varied amounts of information, and excel at synthesizing and strategizing.

When I spoke to Ashley’s mom, she told me that creative writing was Ashley’s favorite class and mentioned that her daughter brought a fairly mature understanding of the happenings around her into her writing. Her writing teacher noticed too.

Like many introverted children, however, Ashley was feeling that school wasn’t a place where she could regularly draw on her strengths.  Instead she often got the message that she needed to learn to be an extrovert. Granted, the skills of extroverts are important in life, but so are those of introverts. If we are teaching introverted kids to be more extroverted, why are we not helping extroverted kids learn the strengths of introverts in school?

Introverts and modern technology

Upon finishing Quiet, I picked up Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.  Turkle, an anthropologist and psychologist, has studied the effects of technology on today’s young people and our culture in general. She worries that teens who are constantly online or texting, are not “cultivating the ability to be alone and reflect on one’s emotions in private.” Young people who consistently look outward to their social networks, aren’t learning the skill that comes naturally to many introverts like Ashley, self-reflection.

Having interviewed numerous teens and adults throughout America about the role of technology in their lives, Turkle concludes:

A stream of messages makes it impossible to find moments of solitude, time when other people are showing us neither dependency nor affection.  In solitude we don’t reject the world but have the space to think our own thoughts.  But if your phone is always with you, seeking solitude can look suspiciously like hiding [to those contacting you].

I haven’t quite finished reading Alone Together, but after reading three-fourths of it, it occurred to me that perhaps Cain’s introverts have an extra layer of protection against the allures of modern technology – their natural comfort with solitude. And they have another leg up due to their tendency toward introspection.

I’ve always thought of myself as more of an extrovert, and two out of three of my kids are definitely extroverts. Yet reading Quiet reminded me that each of us has a unique mix of introverted and extroverted traits. Quiet helped me appreciate my introverted qualities, those of my neighbor Ashley, and my older son Stephen. The book even encouraged me to further develop some introversion characteristics that I don’t have in excess.

I think I’ll make a cup of tea, sit down in a quiet spot, and finish reading Alone Together.

How do your introverted kids handle school?  Please share your thoughts.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.