The Problems and Pressures of Participation
At Stuyvesant, though there are many intelligent and creative students, the reality is that many of them are not willing to participate in the classroom environment.
Reading Time: 6 minutes
Within the first few minutes of class, one may notice that it is the same few people who are always answering the teacher’s questions. The rest of the students either appear as if they are completely dozing off or meticulously taking notes. The teacher is visibly irritated, attempting to engage the students through group work and even cold calling. This instance is not unique to first or last period; a similar pattern of engagement can be found in nearly every class. At Stuyvesant, though there are many intelligent students, the reality is that most of them stay quiet in class.
To be completely honest, I only participate frequently in some of my classes, and not so much in others. Some of us aren’t motivated enough to engage in class for many reasons. I recognize that a lot of us graduated from the top of our middle school classes. However, like everything else in life, grades and class rank slowly settle down from the hectic ups and downs of freshman year. Some of us might be unable to accept that truth, causing some dissonance in the way that we think, which may then transfer over to the frequency of class participation. I have personally experienced that myself as I contemplated if I was even doing enough to be a model Stuyvesant student. I also have had some friends complain to me about this exact same situation and how close they are to giving up. These are the exact types of thoughts that we need to defeat.
To me, the biggest reason preventing students from raising their hands is the fear of sounding dumb. There are often cases where students think their questions are too basic, or their comment is pointing out something obvious. All of the tentative half-hands that I see in class, or the lack thereof, might be an indication of this sentiment. No one wants to sound stupid, because what if everyone is not asking the question we are thinking about because they already know the answer? I have seen people trying to search up answers on Google instead of just raising their hands and asking their questions. This fear of being out of the norm has a serious effect on the learning environment here.
Leaving a bad impression is something that many students fear, as they worry that it may affect their grades and future letter of recommendations. However, teachers are extremely understanding when it comes to the process of learning from mistakes. Something that we as students need to keep in mind is that teachers want to help their students. There is no reason to think that you are wasting a teacher’s time by asking them questions. Going up to them with questions or simply communicating with them during office hours will quickly reveal how nice and supportive they are. I learned this lesson when I finally approached my computer science teacher to talk about a project after deliberating whether to do so. It turned out to be both surprising and pleasant to be communicating in a different setting and having my questions thoroughly addressed. Having this engaging experience led me to be a lot more comfortable in class and not afraid of raising questions. This is the kind of experience that every student should experience, the exhilaration of being in the classroom and ready to learn without any reservations. I have seldom had a bad experience when approaching my teachers with any problem I had, despite being a quieter student in class. Learning that lesson has provided me with the confidence to participate in all of my classes.
Another experience that I have had with my AP Mandarin teacher that worked quite well for the entire class is her method of going table by table and calling each student in a predictable fashion. It is in this way that students are more comfortable and less scared for when they would be cold-called. Perhaps this kind of guided participation strategy could also be applied to other classrooms to facilitate a more lively atmosphere. And participation isn’t just commenting on what other people have already said, but adding your own unique ideas or approach to a problem to the table. Developing the mindset that other people won’t care about your mistakes and that the teachers are incredibly understanding is the key, at least for me, to more active participation.
On the flip side, I feel like I don’t have a major problem with participating in most of my classes. Usually, it takes me a few weeks to adjust to the class environment, as I try to navigate the coursework and befriend some of my classmates. Participation in classes, for me, generally revolves around whether I know enough about the material and if I have enough confidence to provide an answer or an opinion about a certain topic.
Of course, there are times in class when I think about asking a question, but I hesitate and overthink because the question is very simple and I’m worried that my peers might think too little of me. For example, in my English class, there are times when I don’t particularly want to participate because I don’t understand the events in the book and my analysis isn’t well-developed. However, the reality is that these sentiments and this mindset are shared by a lot of my peers. Many people, including myself, are afraid to look foolish in front of others because, let’s face it, we’re too arrogant. We want to appeal to the rest of the class in order to keep up our knowledgeable persona, but sometimes we have to recognize our shortcomings.
Another factor that contributes to low class participation that I’ve especially noticed during the second semester is the lack of sleep that Stuyvesant students get. Sleep deprivation and running purely on that morning cup of coffee is an undeniable hallmark of Stuyvesant students. However, it is also this phenomenon that contributes to the eerie silence of the classrooms. Sleep deprivation may lead to tiredness, fatigue, and a depressed mood, all of which aren’t exactly push factors for participation. For both semesters of my junior year, I’ve had first free, but I usually get most of my work done in the morning. However, during the second semester, I’ve had more work piled up, so I usually spend the night completing my tasks. I’ve noticed a correlation between the amount of sleep I get and my engagement in the classroom environment: on days when I get enough sleep (which is usually around seven to eight hours), I have much more energy to get through the day, while on days when I don’t get enough sleep, I struggle to stay awake in lecture-style classes such as physics and precalculus. Sleep deprivation is the reality for many, if not all, Stuyvesant students, and the best we can do is manage our time wisely to ensure that we don’t overload ourselves with work and succumb to burnout.
It’s also important to recognize that this is the first school year that has been fully in-person in the last three years. The pandemic cut off our culture of in-person social interaction, and many of us are uncomfortable when it comes to getting to know our peers. Our current junior class had only been in school for a little over one semester before being thrown into remote learning. Some students might only be comfortable within their small group of friends and not in the bigger classroom setting. The first day of school was an uncomfortable experience for me because there were many people that I hadn’t caught up with in a year, and most of my classes had people that I hadn’t met previously. As time passed, however, I was able to befriend many of my new classmates simply through conversation and recollection of good times. Anyone in my classes could tell you that I’ve embarrassed myself multiple times in class by frequently joking around with my teachers and peers. I believe that simply reaching out to someone and talking with them will heighten your experience in the classroom.
As you can see, there are many reasons why a student may not be active in the classroom: fear, sleep deprivation, ego—the list goes on and on. In the American school system, most classrooms are set up in an “every man for themselves” fashion, where the standard is that the loudest and most frequent contributor in the room is the best student. Each student is placed in this individualistic standard, where they are expected to progress through their own efforts. For many Stuyvesant students, this environment is especially problematic, as some of us are not naturally talkative people.
So, as students, the best advice that we can act upon is to do what is best for our own learning experience. There are many friendly teachers and helpful students that are willing to help make the classroom environment as comfortable as possible.