When I went to French camp in high school, we would have cours de conversation, conversation class, where we might talk about art or movies or immigration or the soul or how to save the world. It was consistently my favorite part of the day. All the other work we did on tenses, vocabulary, and usage was invaluable--and I'll never forget the class on the plus-que parfait du subjonctif, which turned out to be the most hilarious grammatical tense in the entire world. But conversation was what stretched my abilities and got me to the point where I could actually speak French--that is, think of and express an idea in French without first translating it from English, and likewise absorb other people's comments in the language they used to express them. (I still tended to remember these conversations in English, for the most part, which is a phenomenon I can't really explain.)
Although there were only four or five of us in the class most of the time, sometimes we would all get really opinionated and loud, and I would have difficulty making myself heard. One day, as I raised my voice higher and higher, my friend Marie-Hélène told me in confidential tones, "If you want to be heard, whisper."
It worked, and I've seen it work in other places. Once I was in a bar in lower Manhattan where they had live music a few nights a week. My friends and I had come to hear a friend of ours sing, and after her set we all started talking to each other and generally stopped listening when the next musician came on. That next musician was loud, and she had very strong feelings, and it was easy to shout conversation at each other while she shouted at the microphone. Then she sang her one quiet song. We shut up. It was the only song I really heard, and certainly the only one from her set that I still remember.
I thought of this advice again this week, especially the day I taught five classes and was going through a bottle of water per class, my voice getting higher and louder and coarser every time there was another noise to override. So, can whispering work in a classroom full of 45 or so Chinese students who are restless from spending all day every day in the same room, and who are kind of worked up and excited about having a foreign teacher come in, and who keep whispering and giggling to each other when the foreign teacher says something that, for reasons unfathomable to her, they find really funny?
I've tried it a few times--not whispering, but lowering my voice to a register and volume that's actually comfortable. And I think it works. It sounds more serious and, oddly, more confident to speak softly, and the students have paid attention.
So, that's my teaching insight for the week. I'd like to see I can infuse anything else from cours de conversation into these classes--I think what these students need from me, more than any grammatical or cultural instruction, is simply practice.