So, I’ve been thinking about being silent in a group, how different it can feel, and how it should figure in my teaching.
My personal family and I attend Quaker meeting. We all show up, sit down, and settle in to the silence for an hour. Sometimes people stand up and “share their testimony” but there are no official statements, songs, sermons, messages. I have to say, when we first started going, it felt odd. I had a hard time quieting my mind; I made a lot of lists in my head. However, once I became more familiar with being in community and in silence at the same time, it became comfortable. Many people close their eyes, which is not a euphemism for sleeping (at least not always). So there we are, a group of people sitting in silence, maybe even with our eyes closed.
Sitting in silence in a group for an hour and not feeling awkward? Not the norm, but what might be gained by adding some Meeting silence to the classroom?
In the classroom silence often feels different. When a discussion is going nowhere and students are not participating, silence can be awkward or signal lack of engagement. When students are taking an assessment or working independently that silence feels purposeful. All that working going on gives the silence an entirely different feel. Rather than the emptiness of non-participation, this working silence is full and busy.
The school situation that might be closest to Meeting is “think time” –time we give students to think in preparation for writing or discussion. Think time is generally a few minutes. Yet, I find that it is often not easy to spend even 5 minutes in silence, for me or for the students. What is it about the expectations of the classroom that make silence uncomfortable? Do we feel like we need to be “doing” all the time? What does it mean to make good use of the time? I feel pressure to have class be useful, to prove my value add. When students are working quietly, I take the opportunity to have individual conversations with students. So much for silence.
Back to silent think time in the classroom. Does good teaching mean that teachers are thinking a lot or students are thinking a lot? This Edutopia article says students should be doing the thinking. I agree that students should be learning to think, and I think that teachers should be doing a lot of thinking too. I would just say that my teacher thinking should neither negate nor make unnecessary student thinking; it should support student thinking, or parallel it, or be next to it.
Often thinking means quiet. If we can’t be silent, can we think deeply enough? A few years ago I overheard some students talking. One said to the other,
I can’t be creative at school. If I really need to work, I have to do that at home.
To me, those words ‘creative’ and ‘work’ speak to thinking and silence. Here we are again at how to be quiet in community. How can I support that in my classroom? Am I asking students to give me updates on their thinking too quickly? How comfortable am I with students thinking but not doing (because thinking takes time)?
Some things for me to consider in the new year.