Exhausted students need a break after completing a task

In a recent Twitter thread, a teacher commented to the effect that a good tenet of classroom management is:

Make sure kids understand they will be busy from the starting bell until class is dismissed.

Um…except.

Now it’s possible that this teacher really meant something more to the effect of “make sure students will be busy doing something during the whole class, but that the activities they are doing reflect their state of fatigue at that moment, and some are designed to refresh them instead of requiring continued intense mental effort.”

Intense mental effort? But acquisition is unconscious and effortless, right?

It is. Acquisition is something that “just happens” when we hear and understand language. But the hearing and understanding — usually cast as “listening”, not just having the sound hit the ear randomly — costs attention and energy. And the less foundation a person has in the language, the more costly that listening is.

Even after 37 years in Chinese, being rated as ACTFL Superior and having lived and worked in-country for a decade, I really can’t listen attentively (that is, to really understand everything, be able to contribute constructively and accurately to a conversation, and so on) to Chinese for more than an hour. I’d be more comfortable labeling that 40 minutes, really. And that’s a language I’m supposedly very fluent in. Even if the language going in is comprehensible for me.

And that’s after nearly four decades, and talking about an adult who is motivated and (okay, supposedly!) emotionally mature and not distracted and so forth.

Now let’s think about a typical language student in middle or high school. They have very little foundation in the language, so there are going to be more unknowns that have to be negotiated. Even if the teacher is a good CI teacher and is establishing meaning for all unknowns, those are still going to “slow down” recognition and processing when they come up because they ARE new words or phrases.

They may have little background knowledge of what’s being discussed. This is the advantage of personalized or customized input — the topics are much more within the students’ wheelhouse, so one potential roadblock is removed. If the teacher is attempting to teach content while simultaneously having kids acquire new language, that makes the input more difficult. It’s another issue that will further reduce the length of time the student has the capability to listen.

And of course, most 12- or 14- or 16-year-olds are not as emotionally regulated, immune from distractions, and mature as older adults. There’s a lot going on in those minds, and it’s not even nearly always related to the class at hand. And before we assume that the distractions are all “silly”, think about how many of those kids may be experiencing things like cyberbullying, gender dysphoria, neurodiversity, economic instability, dysfunctional families, and so on. Telling them to “snap out of it and pay attention” is about as logical as expecting someone with a broken leg to will themselves to walk normally.

So let’s be careful with statements like “keep them busy the whole class”. Sure, admins love that. Sure, we do want to make best use of all of our class time. But brain breaks are a necessary thing. Sometimes, throwing the lesson plan out and just respecting where the students are that day is a necessary thing. With so much emphasis on self-care and avoiding workplace burnout for adults, don’t we owe it to our students to provide them with what they may not know or be able to ask for?