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Teaching to the Eyes

In my last post, I talked about not knowing what students walk in the room with. This was reiterated in the comments on the post and I believe an important discussion was started and is continuing in our blog posts.

This post, as a continuation of my last and the discussion that followed, is to give some concrete, practical ways that one can teach to the eyes. Not all of these may work for your classroom, or for every students. Rather, they can be a guide of options that you can mold to fit the culture of each school, class, and student.

  1. Daily Engagement Assessment (DEA) – I’ve been using some form of the DEA for years in my classroom. It has changed and evolved over the years, but its ultimate use stays the same: using the DEA I can quickly assess whether students are “with me” in class or are not. This includes everything from focus to comprehension. When I can see their eyes, I can tell if there is an issue in class the vast majority of the time. From this point on, in this list, if something is included explicitly in my DEA, I’ll mark it with the phrase DEA.
  2. Be present, be on time (DEA) – Every teacher wants this. But, this is key in helping students succeed in class. If a student has excessive absences, it would behoove us all to look further into it. Many times what many teachers thought was laziness or a lack of care actually was…. a job to help support the family, having to be home to care for younger siblings, sleeping too late because their work made them stay late (the laws regarding child work are not as tight as we might think!)
  3. Eye Contact (DEA) – This has evolved over the years. Rather than eye contact, it means more along the lines of…. “give your attention to the speaker”. This is coupled with another item: sitting up and square shoulders. I must admit I am more a stickler for the sitting up and square shoulders than specifically “eye contact”. Nota Bene: not all students are comfortable with sustained eye contact. This may be misconstrued as not knowing a response or rudeness when in reality it can be a host of other things (I would refer you to the great conversation in my last post’s comments). This is why it is more important that I see their eyes, not that they necessarily see mine. In these scenarios, I have always been willing to make exceptions or alterations to this.
  4. Hand Signals (DEA) – I am going to start by saying that I am VERY careful about hand signals. As language teachers, we are all aware of the danger of certain hand signals that are innocent to us but not others. We should also be aware of any appropriation we might make of sign languages. Any hand signals in my room are ASL and are used in a communicative manner. I use hand signals to support students who do not make eye contact regularly, do not wish to speak up all the time, or for other special circumstances. We have signals to indicate – understanding, questions, and immediate needs.
  5. Good Will Attitude (DEA) – This may be the most important thing in my room. I am known as a stickler for it, even giving “fair warnings” when I myself am having an off day. This allows for conversation to happen on a personal level if there’s ever an issue.

Some Exceptions:

We all have students who need change and for a variety of reasons. Here are some things I’ve done to make change that works for my classes and students:

  • provide a student who speaks out of turn a notebook to record thoughts and questions. Read them every day and respond in kind.
  • provide stuffed animals to students who fidget or who have anxiety. Turns out… they love them.
  • allow students to draw or trace figures.
  • allow students who are tired to stretch, stand, or sit in closer proximity to you (even on the floor)
  • provide special hand signals for specific students to signal when something is needed.

Lastly, here is what I tell my students each semester and as needed: We all walk in the room with something and our classes should be a place where we can leave those things at the door to pick up later. I don’t mind if you just want to leave it there. It will be there when you are ready for it again. 

If we work to include all students, no matter what they walk in the room with, we will all be successful.


Latin teacher in Gwinnett County Georgia and editor for the Georgia Classical Association's journal, "The Classicist"

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