The blessings of silence - some reflections on talk in the classroom.

Have you ever heard the wonderful silence just before the dawn? Or the quiet and calm just as a storm ends? Or perhaps you know the silence when you haven't the answer to a question you've been asked, or the hush of a country road at night, or the expectant pause of a room full of people when someone is just about to speak, or, most beautiful of all, the moment after the door closes and you're alone in the whole house? Each one is different, you know, and all very beautiful if you listen carefully.”   Norton Juster: The Phantom Tollbooth.

It strikes almost every year and has since I began teaching over 30 years ago. Winter comes and inevitably…despite all my efforts at warding it off, I get a virus that leads straight to laryngitis. In my line of work,  not being able to use my voice is a major problem!  I fondly recall my class of five year olds many years ago earnestly seeing if they could ‘find’ my voice out in the yard!  

The only way to recover from laryngitis is to stop talking. Completely. No talking, no whispering.  And that has been my great challenge for the last 3 days.  What a strange, frustrating experience it has been – but it has also given me pause to consider the issue of what it means to ‘have a voice’. I’ve been wondering more about the experience of those children who have no voice in the classroom both literally and figuratively and has helped me gain a little more empathy with our quieter learners.

Here are some of the things I noticed during my enforced days of silence:

Not being heard often felt like not being seen too!  I could not use my voice to get anyone’s attention so had to walk right up to people and tap them on the shoulder to initiate communication. After a while, I noticed I stopped bothering and became less connected with others - even in my own home.  It made me think about those quiet kids who we stop seeing…because we rarely hear them and the sense they might have that they are not really part of the group. 

I needed people to be incredibly patient with me.  Whether I was writing them a message, mouthing words or using extravagant hand gestures it took much longer to get my message across. It made me think about those kids who, for whatever reason have trouble communicating verbally and the subtle messages we might give them to ‘hurry up’ or our temptation to finish their sentences/interpret too early  - and how disempowering that is.

On the upside, not being able to be part of conversations meant I was incredibly selective about the moments I chose to try to ‘say’ something.  Because it took an effort to write/mime/mouth something, it had to be important. I listened more. I stopped needing to comment on everything and was amazed at how often my impulse to say something arose. I did think ‘my goodness, I talk a lot!’   It made me think about the teachers (myself included) who don't listen carefully, who feel they need to weigh in on everything or respond to every comment their kids/team members make. It reminded me of the power of listening and how our impulse to talk needs to be consciously managed. 

Not talking to people had the strange effect of making it FEEL like we were upset with each other for some reason.  I drove my youngest daughter to her various commitments in complete silence where we usually use time in the car to chat.  It felt strained and strange and I found myself giving her lots of reassuring hugs and smiles to make sure my silence was not misinterpreted!   It made me think about those really quiet kids/teachers and how we can misinterpret silence for sullenness or reluctance?  In our culture at least, talk is valuable currency.  We view talk positively -  as involvement, engagement and connection  - and silence can be met with suspicion.  How do we help our kids understand the many reasons someone might choose not to speak -  and that it does not necessarily mean there is anything ‘wrong?’  

One night during my enforced vow of silence, I slid into my (musician) eldest daughter’s opening night performance at a big, noisy pub in Melbourne.   Ordinarily, I would be there with friends and family, joining in some of the songs, joyously whooping my approval, talking to others in between songs, commenting on the performance as it unfolded,  but this time I was alone and silent. It was a completely different experience.  Watching something knowing I didn't have to talk about it was actually quite liberating. I was simply in the moment, completely engaged in the performance and in this rather lovely ‘bubble’ of quiet, solitary listening and appreciation. It made me think about how quickly we ask kids to respond to powerful experiences (a story, a clip, a provocation….) how often I say ‘Now turn to your partner and….’  How often do I give them opportunities to be with their own thoughts or to NOT share- at least not straight away.  In our zeal to make learning interactive, collaborative and active can we overlook the need for quiet contemplation? 

My voice is returning now.  Slowly.  Which is just as well because I need it these next few days here in India.   In caring for my voice though, I hope will be more mindful of when I choose to speak and why. This can only be a good thing. Like other teachers, I am constantly working on my ‘talk less, listen more’ mantra and this is forcing me to do it. 

Many of us would equate the notion of ‘having a voice’ with learner agency. And indeed, the right to be heard is vital in the inquiry classroom. I will continue to champion the need for kids to engage in productive dialogue in the classroom and for a high level of active, interactive engaged learning.  But I am wondering a little more now about the right to be (and benefits of) quiet, both literally and figuratively.  Silence can be frustrating and limiting – but it can also be very illuminating. 

How do you balance noise and quiet in your classroom? How do you encourage those children who may take time or are even less inclined to speak to feel both reassured and encouraged? How might we be more accepting and understanding of children who choose not to speak even when we ask them to?  How might we give the ‘talkers’ opportunities to experience the benefits of not talking?  How do we help kids see that ‘having a voice’ does not always mean talking?  How well do we value the multiple ways in which we can express ourselves? 


Just wondering…