Does anyone know how wait time works?
(Silence, followed by crickets chirping…)
Okay, yes, that’s exactly how wait time works, and it’s letter W for our A-Z blog challenge. Why would I want to write about wait time? Because it’s the only letter W buzzword I could think of, so don’t be too critical. Well, you CAN be critical, but do it in the comments section, so I can read it and cry later.
Wait time is just that – time you wait in order for the students to answer your questions. Wait time means silence, anathema to most Americans. A friend of mine says the Japanese love to joke about how Americans always talk as if they're afraid the silence will take their tongues. Teachers are no exception. Most of us don’t like silence, so if we ask a question and no one answers it, within a few seconds we'll break the silence by trying to explain the question again, or pointedly asking students to answer, or maybe just keep repeating it. I guess we'd rather stand awkwardly at the front of the class talking than stand awkwardly not talking.
Either way, it's awkward.
I’m a big fan of wait time. See, believe it or not, students have been using wait time on us for years. They're experts at it. Students know that if their teacher asks a question and they say nothing, eventually the teacher will jump in and supply the answer, and the class will move on. But move on to what? I’d rather my class comes to a screeching halt than move on when no one knows what I’m talking about. A wrong answer is better than no answer. At least then there's thinking happening.
So I've learned to wait out my students. As awkward as I might feel, waiting while students blink silently at me, it's nothing compared to how awkward they feel watching me blink silently back at them. Apparently students aren't used to teachers who wait because when I first used wait time in my classroom, my class didn't know what to make of it.
"Ms. Marlowe, did you forget what you asked us?" one student asked me.
"No," I replied. "Did you?"
Another student jumped in, "Well you're the teacher. Don't you know the answer?"
"Why would I ask you if I already had the answer?"
More silence. I glanced up at the clock then started scoring some quizzes I had on the podium.
Finally, one student asked in the faltering voice of the truly penitent, "Can you repeat the question?" That whispering, humble tone, so rarely heard but recognized by every single teacher worth her salt, is the sound of a student who realizes you just might have something to teach him.
“Well, Charly, that’s all well and good for you,” you may say, “but what if the students genuinely don’t know the answer or are confused by the material?”
If my students don’t know the material, then waiting is the only way I'll find out. I can’t keep pushing forward, trying to drag my students along with me.
I once worked with a teacher who was determined to push through his material, even though the students struggled with it. His theory was that the sooner they got through the material; the sooner he could go back and review the material the students didn’t get. This teacher spent most of his time lecturing without a lot of give and take. (I also heard from students that the Illuminati came up quite a bit in his lectures). One day, I was asked to substitute for his eleventh-grade class while the class worked on a paper.
I don’t remember what the paper was about, but I do remember a student coming up to ask me what he should say in his paragraph.
“What do you want to say?” I asked.
He just looked at me, then repeated his question.
“Um, Bradley, I’m asking YOU what you want to say. I have no idea what point you want to prove, so if you want my help, you need to answer MY question,” I said.
“Can’t you just tell me how to write it?” he pleaded.
“Write what? What’s your paper about?”
The crickets started chirping. We blinked at each other. I wanted to say something, but I figured I’d asked enough questions. For some reason wait time never gets easy.
He tried another tactic. “Mr. Randall usually helps us with our papers.”
“I’m trying to help you. I’ll ask again – what’s your paper about?”
“The Revolutionary War.”
“Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. What do you want to say about it?”
Crickets again. Then, “I don’t know. When Mr. Randall helps me, he just tells me what to say.”
Crap. “Look, do you have the rubric? Let me see what you’re supposed to do.”
The good news was; the rubric helped us figure out how to approach the topic. The bad news is that the topic was the Civil War, not the Revolutionary War. The worse news is that Bradley thought they were the same thing. Sometime back in October, Mr. Randall had never stopped, and waited, to see if Bradley understood the difference between the two wars.