How Much Do You Speak Up in School?

How Much Do You Speak Up in School?

Are you the kind of student who speaks often in class, and feels confident when you do? Or are you quiet, hoping not to be called on — perhaps someone who would rather write than speak aloud? Or, are you somewhere in the middle, speaking up in classes and during activities that you like, and staying quiet otherwise?

In general, how do you feel about your level of participation at school? Have you changed over the years?

In “Breaking My Own Silence,” part of a series of essays on the question “What is Power?”, the novelist Min Jin Lee reflects on how she came to learn that “power is the confidence to speak for yourself.” Her essay begins:

It makes sense that I’m a writer, which allows me to draft, hesitate, then rewrite many times before I say anything that I can live with for good.

In 1976, my mother, father and two sisters and I immigrated to the United States. I was 7. We moved from Seoul to New York, and Dad enrolled my sisters and me at P.S. 102 in Elmhurst, Queens. None of us girls knew how to speak English.

Even back in Seoul, I was a quiet child who fidgeted and had attention issues. I found school and friendships difficult, and it got worse when I moved to a new country.

The first few weeks in America were tough. There was one other Korean girl in the class. Like me, she had small eyes. Unlike me, she knew English and had friends. She wanted me to stay away …

She continues:

At Junior High School 73 in Maspeth, N.Y., I had a wonderful teacher named Mr. Sosis, who taught law, and he selected me as a classroom monitor. He allowed his monitors to eat lunch in his classroom, and I don’t know if he knew this, but he rescued me from the terror of the middle school lunchroom and from the reality that I did not know how to act around children my age.

I had other fine teachers there, and I started to talk a little more. I did production work for the school play, and when an actor dropped out, I was given her role because I’d already memorized all the lines. For my law class, I did a mock trial, and I was not awful.

I got into the Bronx High School of Science, where my older sister went, and I made up my mind that I had to learn how to talk well.

As a child immigrant, I had read straight through Lois Lenski, Maud Hart Lovelace, Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume then through Dickens, Hemingway, Austen, Sinclair Lewis and Dostoyevsky — books recommended by good-hearted librarians and teachers.

In Western books, heroes spoke well and could handle any social situation, not just through action, but also through argument. In Korea, a girl was virtuous if she sacrificed for her family or nation, but in the West, a girl was worthy if she had pluck and if she could speak up even when afraid. As a kid, I’d watched Koreans criticizing a man for being all talk and no work. In America, a man was considered stupid or weak if he couldn’t stand up for himself.

Both things were true: I didn’t want to talk, and I didn’t want anyone to think I was stupid.

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

— Can you relate to anything in this essay? Have you ever felt the way Ms. Lee did? If you haven’t, do you know others who have?

— When are you most confident speaking up in school? When are you the least? Are you different at home or with your friends than you are in the classroom, in terms of speaking your mind, asking questions or participating in activities? If so, what do you think accounts for that difference?

— Ms. Lee notes the different standards around “talk” in America and in Korea. Do you come from a culture that prizes different things than those that seem to be prized in the school you attend? How so?

— How do you speak up for yourself, and how did you learn to do that? This essay describes many steps Ms. Lee took to begin to learn how to speak up. She also describes teachers and others who helped her along the way. What are the key events in your life story that have helped you learn to claim your voice — whether through speaking, writing, artistic expression or in any other way?

Students 13 and older are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.