Has it ever occurred to you that how you respond to students sleeping in class could be an indicator of your capacity to reach and teach them? Well, this was definitely the case for me, and at first I took it personally when students nodded off: How dare they put their heads down after I stayed up till midnight planning a lesson? And so, I would dart over to students’ desks, tap them on the shoulder, and say, “This is important. You need to pay attention.”
Of course they’d be asleep again by the time I walked away, and before long I concluded that sleeping was a sign of students being unmotivated. And since many sleepers were disruptive when they were awake, I figured letting them sleep was better for everyone. Until, that is, an administrator popped into my classroom as two kids were catching Zs—and I was soon catching hell.
No more letting kids sleep. But no wasting words trying to wake them either. It was time for action rather than rhetoric, and the action I found most effective at rousing slumbering students: dropping a textbook on their desks. It was also, however, a great way of antagonizing and alienating them. What’s more, it ignored the root of the problem, since I eventually learned from students that sleeping in class was not in fact a sign of them being unmotivated, but rather usually a sign of them being bored or genuinely tired.
The bored part I took to heart, and began to make my lessons more interactive (see prior posts including Assessing Through Asking for some of the ways I did this). The tired part, on the other hand, was beyond my control. Yet the more familiar I became with students’ circumstances, the more I realized it was often beyond their control too. Circumstances like working the midnight shift at McDonald’s or caring for younger siblings—as was the case even for some first-graders I’ve worked with.
Still, no matter what the reason for students being drowsy, I couldn’t condone sleeping in class, just as I’m sure you can’t—and not just to protect our butts, but because we need to hold students accountable even under difficult circumstances. The question, then, is how to keep kids from sleeping in class without being insensitive toward them. And the answer for me was a simple rule: “You may sleep in class as long as you’re standing up.”
Sounds sarcastic perhaps, but that wasn’t the spirit in which I presented it nor how kids perceived it. On the contrary, what this rule conveyed to kids—in a slightly more peaceful, lighthearted way than dropping a textbook—was that I understood how difficult it might be for them to stay awake, but that they had no choice. So if they couldn’t stay awake, they needed to stand up. Not to sleep, of course, but to perk up—by standing in the back of the room, getting a drink of water, etc. And I was there with encouragement as necessary, sometimes even doing a few jumping jacks with a student.
Getting back to the link between how we respond to sleepy students and our capacity to reach and teach them, I’m not saying that student learning in my classroom improved because of my crazy “stand if you want to sleep” policy. But I am saying that it wouldn’t have improved without that policy or, more accurately, the change in classroom culture that it embodied.
Rise and shine.