How–and Why–I Teach Silently

how I teach silently

image credit: Jason Taellious

“Holy crap!”
“Is she not talking?”
“Can we talk?”
“Whoa, this is going to be really cool!”

These were the reactions of my sophomores when they realized I was participating in the Day of Silence today. Yes, that means I taught for an entire day without speaking. No, I didn’t show any movies.  And it’s not a game of charades. I’ve done this about 6-8 times before, so I know a lot of people are curious about it.

I think the most common question from non-teachers is “don’t you have to yell?” which I think is funny (or maybe a little sad) because I rarely yell even on a normal day when I am using my voice.  So I’d like to talk about how I do it and what I get from it, for teachers who are curious, and for non-teachers, too.

But first, a bit of background

The Day of Silence is a high school thing generally organized by a Gay-Straight Alliance club. (Due to the school calendar, ours is usually a day earlier than other schools’). Different clubs use different acronyms, and if you’re curious about all of the letters in something like GLBTQIA+, there’s more info here.  The basic idea is that people who identify as non-straight or not cisgender can often feel silenced, or like they can’t easily talk about typical high school topics like who they have a crush on.  So volunteering to be silent for a day raises awareness of this issue.

And it’s an important issue to me.  Although I am cisgender and straight, I’ve felt different often enough to know how painful it can be, and I’d like my students to know that I support all of them and believe that all of them have a right to share their stories and experiences without judgement.

I also like that the action of the Day of Silence is actually related to the purpose.  My seniors have done action projects (AKA service learning) for around 10 years, so I’ve thought a lot about activism and awareness and action in high schools.  Personally, I’m not a big fan of buying a t-shirt and wearing it on a certain day, which seems to be the most common action.  I cringe at the thought of all of those worn once t-shirts.  I’m also skeptical that wearing a t-shirt involves much thought or brings about a lot of change.

The Day of Silence does involve a t-shirt, but its purpose is to help others know why you’re not responding when they talk to you.  It’s super helpful because there are some awkward moments when people start conversations and my only response is a nod or shrug. But I still wear the original t-shirt I bought in 2003 or so.  Reusing t-shirts (I do this with other yearly fundraisers) seems to confuse some kids who are deeply ingrained in the t-shirt model of fundraising.  They’ve accused me of keeping money from the organization by not buying a new t-shirt every year.  So I explain that by donating the same amount of money but not taking a t-shirt (which has production costs), I’m actually giving more money.  An important lesson in the economics of fundraisers.  

Now that we’ve set the stage, on to what you’re probably curious about.

How the hell do you teach without talking?

Having an established class structure and procedures is absolutely key.  I couldn’t do this in September or October.  But having spent the fall reinforcing classroom procedures and a culture of respectful listening and turn-taking, I can usually reap those benefits in the spring.  So for example, every day in my sophomore class, someone takes notes in a digital log on what we did that day.  This procedure is so well-ingrained in them that if I walk up to a kid before class starts on the Day of Silence and point to my laptop with the log open, they get it.

My sophomores are also very used to working with a seat partner for think-pair-share type activities.  I also usually establish small  groups for each longer text that we read.  Since I teach 90 minute block classes, having those two different groupings to fall back on allows me quick and easy ways to build in movement and collaboration without spending a lot of time in transition figuring out who’s working with whom.

Granted, on a normal day, I would say “please work with your seat partner to find two quotes from today’s reading that show change” or whatever.  That’s where Powerpoint comes in on the Day of Silence.  I can usually do most of the same activities as long as I write out all of those directions on slides with a sound cue.

It’s also a good opportunity to have students step into leadership roles. A slide like “who is the oldest student in the room?”  is kind of intriguing and gets everyone involved for a moment in figuring out who it is (notice I say student not person, because yeah).  Then I assign that oldest student a role, such as calling on people during a discussion.  I find that most students when singled out in that way rise to the occasion.  In fact, I find that most students in general are supportive of what I’m trying to do by teaching silently and are more helpful than not.

If anything, I have less discipline issues than a normal day.  But if necessary, I resort to glaring and standing right next to students engaged in less-than-scholarly behaviors and they stop.

What I learn

Having written that students are usually helpful (a true statement), I have to admit that every year I’m a bit nervous about the Day of Silence.  But I think overcoming that fear and putting my faith in the students is an important lesson for me.  Teaching is always risky and vulnerable. The Day of Silence may be a bit more so, but it’s also a good way of staying aware of the everyday difficulties.

I’m also repeatedly reminded of the importance of wait time.  Frequently, the discussion will hit a point where I want to jump in and say something, perhaps to correct an error or to urge them to consider another perspective.  But since I can’t, the discussion goes on, and someone often makes the point I wanted to eventually.  It makes me wonder how often I jump in unnecessarily on normal days rather than trusting the process of discussion. And if the discussion strays, it makes me wonder how many of the issues I would normally bring up are important to students anyway.  

Other questions around silence, work, and engagement usually surface for me as well.  Is a silent class working hard?  Or is noise a sign of engagement?  Have the people who talked during a discussion done more than the people who didn’t?   These questions are relevant to all teaching, but they become more apparent when you’re just listening and not talking.

Which is not to say that listening isn’t an important thing.  I always want my students to feel like I’m listening to them, but it can feel strange to listen knowing that you can’t respond.  That discomfort makes me aware of how often I’m waiting for my turn to speak instead of focusing on listening.  

Last thoughts and questions you may have

Have I ever made a mistake and said something?  Yes, usually an automatic response like “bless you.”

Is there anything I wouldn’t teach silently?  Sure.  Very controversial topics where I felt like my being silent could be potentially harmful.  I avoid grammar as well because I like to teach that inductively, but I worry that if I wasn’t guiding the discussion, it could spread confusion or misinformation.  And it’s not a good day to give major new assignments that kids have questions about.

What’s the hardest thing about teaching silently?  It takes longer to prepare.  The years when I haven’t participated in the Day of Silence have usually been because I didn’t have the time to think through what I wanted to do and make the powerpoints.

But in general, I recommend choosing to be silent (maybe because Scandinavians are more comfortable with silence).  If not in a classroom, or for the whole day, just to see what it feels like.  If I haven’t convinced you, here’s another interesting experience of being silent.

silence is a really good answer

image credit: seaternity

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