It's no easy task.
The architects of public school buildings rarely took sound into consideration when designing them - poor insulation, poor windows, noisy HVAC systems, noisy appliances, too much reverberation, poor acoustic design to support the teacher's voice, and poor acoustical design, such as high ceilings or open school design --- all create an exasperating amount of noise pollution that students must be able to filter in order to hear and focus on what is being taught.
Research on student learning has found that, on average, students miss approximately 25-30% of what is being said by the teacher in the classroom. For children with hearing loss, it is much higher. Those missing parts in the instructional day can lead to academic and behavioral problems.
There have been many studies conducted about the benefits of a quiet classroom and school. Many of the things I've learned will take changing the mindset that "a noisy classroom is a busy, learning classroom". It also takes changing common practices in schools -- unchecked loud talking in common areas such as cafeterias, hallways, and gyms. Then there's my least favorite practice of encouraging students to scream at the top of their lungs in assemblies. "I can't heeeeeeeeeear you!" I've watched too many times as students grimace, cover their ears, yet continue to be called on by assembly leaders to make as much noise as they possibly can. Practices like these can actually harm our students' and our own hearing.
Other suggestions are easier. I've incorporated many of these in my own classroom -- mostly out of need to reduce noise clutter for my own benefit. Noise is a contraindication to hearing well with hearing aids. But it can be harmful to your students as well. Here are some things teachers can do to make their classroom more hearing friendly:
- Maintain a quiet classroom. Teach students to speak and interact with each other in an appropriate volume. A classroom of 25 students talking all at once can reach more than 90 dB. Exposure to that volume for very long can damage their ears. And that old practice of playing background music in your classroom while you teach? It only adds to the noise. Make music listening purposeful and give it its own time. Or just stop it altogether.
- Reduce sound reverberation. Drape, drape, drape your hard surfaces whenever possible. Sound reverberation from hard surfaces can affect hearing and comprehension. I use fabric remnants to cover bulletin boards, filing cabinets, my desk, and bookcases. I use a tension rod and valances across the shelves of some of my bookcases to absorb sound. (The added benefit is that it also covers some clutter!) Stuff some stuffed toys in between books and materials to help absorb even more. Put curtains over windows. And bring in area rugs if your room isn't carpeted. My district also provided me with some acoustic tiles from an old band room to place above cabinets in my classroom. Just ask!
- Limit students' use of headphones. Headphones are a necessary evil for students to work independently at computers and listening stations. But be certain to set the volume at an appropriate level and check it often. Students tend to turn it up too loud. Then limit how long students are required to use them. The concentrated sound delivered to the ears from headphones is the number one cause of environmentally-induced hearing loss among our young people. Don't contribute to that statistic!
- Work to encourage quiet halls during instructional time. Encourage staff members to teach students to respect the learning going on in classrooms they pass by keeping their voices off. Staff should also be aware that their voices often carry into classrooms from hallways as well, and they should take their conversations into spaces where they will not be interfering with hearing and listening themselves.
- Speak to your principal about abandoning the practice of having students scream at the top of their lungs in assemblies. That's just no good.
- Be aware of noise and how it affects your students. Make it a priority to reduce the noise clutter. Invest in a decibel reader or download one from the internet. I downloaded an app to my phone and place it under my document camera during student work time. Students can see it and use it to monitor their own noise level, and I can see it at a glance to remind them if they've exceeded safe levels.
Hear well, my friends.