In the documentary, Becoming, about Michele Obama, Michele is asked about feeling invisible. Her description made me think more about how many of our ESL/International students probably feel invisible in classes, on campus and in society, and how we can help them.
My personal experiences with feeling invisible are quite trivial compared to what some of our students experience, but a recent episodes gave me a bit of a taste of how it feels.
I was talking to a colleague (we’ll say his name was Ben) outside the library when a young woman whom I didn’t know walked up to us with a smile on her face. The two of them obviously knew each other and started talking animatedly, without Ben introducing us. After a couple of minutes, they walked off together across campus.
That experience had little effect on me other than feeling a tad off balance or slightly irritated momentarily. But for International and minority students, being treated as invisible can be quite disheartening.
One young man described it this way, “The problem is that to many people, I am simply invisible. Nobody says ‘hello’ to me. Nobody nods to me. Nobody recognizes me as a person with something to say. Nobody listens to me. People make assumptions about me on the basis of my color and where I come from…But I am a person and have something to say — both as an individual and on the basis of my distinctive experience.”
In our classrooms, we can see the students who are probably feeling invisible. They are the ones who are not greeted by others who look past them and start talking to more familiar friends. Or the ones overlooked when their classmates are told to find a partner for an activity. Or the ones who sit silently seemingly unnoticed in group discussions.
How to help our ESL students feel visible.
In Becoming, Michele Obama says, “We can’t afford to wait for the world to be equal to start feeling seen…. You’ve got to find the tools within yourself to feel visible, and to be heard, and to use your voice.”
One of the most powerful tools that students can use to feel visible is asking questions, especially follow-up questions. In fact, research shows that people who ask questions are considered more likeable. (See Want Your Students to Seem More Likeable? Research Says: Teach Them Follow-up Questions) And best of all, we can help them develop this technique by including the following in our classes:
1) A pair-work activity (Student A/Student B) that focuses on asking follow-up questions. For this, it’s best to match students with someone whom they probably don’t tend to talk to often. In some ways, the activity is a kind of “set up” for making all students to feel visible. For example, Student A reads a question, and Student B answers. Then Student A has to ask a follow-up question based on Student B’s response. Thus, Student B will feel like someone actually listened to them and was interested in their ideas. (See Conversation magic: Two most important techniques. (Part 2) downloadable activity.)
2) A mixer activity. After students become accustomed to asking follow-up questions, a great way to practice it and to help invisible students feel more visible to all their classmates is this mixer activity. (See Whole Class Conversation Mixer Activity: Good for Students’ Skills, Brains and More .) In this, students are given a list of survey questions. Standing up, they circulate among each other, asking a question and at least one follow-up question and then move on to another classmate.
3) Another mixer activity practicing small talk. Once students have “mastered” the art of small talk, they’ll have a technique that they can apply to engage with others (including strangers) in many situations. (See Expanding Students’ Conversation Opportunities with Small-Talk Techniques (Includes a Group Mixer Activity)
4) Promote asking follow-up questions during small-group discussions. We can encourage students to ask follow-ups by including a reminder with the discussion questions. For example:
-“This is a discussion question. We should all answer this and ask follow-up
questions. Do you think social media can cause loneliness or can it keep people from
For a discussion unit with examples of this, see Stimulating Small-Group Discussion Activity 2: Loneliness Might Not Be What You Think
5) Another powerful technique for students to use to acknowledge others is using rejoinder (e.g.I see / That’s great! / That’s too bad. / Cool!) See Conversation magic: Two most important conversation techniques (Part 1) for downloadable activity.
6) When giving feedback to students concerning their participation in conversation / discussion activities, we can include prominent items for asking follow-up questions and using rejoinders. (Here are downloadable sample feedback forms: Conversation participation feedback and Discussion participation feedback
Why these techniques are powerful for helping students become visible.
If all the students (visible and invisible) practice these and are encouraged/required to use them, listening and responding to each other will be built into every activity. No one will feel invisible in our classrooms. Also, there tends to be a carry-over in that students will use these not just during formal activities but also with each other when they arrive to class, between activities, during breaks or as the class is letting out.
For the students who feel invisible outside our classes, they will have tools (follow-up questions and rejoinders) that they can use to engage with others. As Michele Obama said, “We can’t afford to wait for the world to be equal to start feeling seen.” For students who are feeling invisible around other people, instead of silently waiting for someone to notice them, they can try to interact with others by asking questions and responding with rejoinders. In most situations, the others will reciprocate.