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“reading” the classroom: silence

It’s fair to say that in my work as a teacher educator I want to help beginning teachers develop their repertoire of teaching strategies; however, I think one of the central aims in my work is to help beginning teachers develop their professional judgment in order to use those strategies wisely. More simply, I want to help beginning teachers “read” the classroom so they can use their own judgment to consider what they might do next.

As a teacher of readers, I need to help people who are new to this kind of text by making visible what I notice, what I think it might mean, and how I might respond.

More precisely, when a beginning teacher and I discuss a classroom situation, my line of questioning might be something like the following: What did you see or hear? Why do you think it might make sense for the student to say or do that at that particular moment? What might be another reason it makes sense to that student? What might you do next to be sure?

Perhaps the most perplexing kind of classroom situation is “silence.” For example, when I recently asked a pre-service teacher, “What did you notice about the boy in the group sitting by the door during the whole-class conversation on Chapter 4 of the novel?”

She said, “Oh, he’s always quiet. He never gives me any trouble. He’s a good kid.”

“What do you think he thought about what happened in the chapter?”

“I’m not sure, but I think he likes it. He’s reading ahead – or at least he was yesterday.”

“What do you think he thought of the class’s discussion?”

“I don’t know.”

“How might you find out? Do you think he was participating?”

“I could have given them an exit note to see what questions he had.”

Our conversation moved on to other moments during the class, but the quiet student has me thinking more about how I could help this teacher think more about how the quiet student was or was not making sense of the book and, perhaps more importantly, what the student thought about the classroom community and his role in it.

Since that conversation last week, the idea of “silence” seems to be everywhere around me.

*** Susan Cain’s Quiet keeps popping up. Here she is with an RSA animation as she tries to explain the balance between extroverts and introverts. Classrooms are filled with each, and sometimes who is an extrovert or introvert changes by the day or by the conversation.

*** In the car I heard this interview on the Diane Rehm show. The guest was biologist David Haskell who wrote the Forest Unseen. He sought out “to better understand forest ecology: he visited the same spot in the Tennessee forest every day for a year. His days were spent quietly listening and observing.” Haskell got me thinking about how I do or don’t provide opportunities for my students to just sit with a situation over time and how silence could be a catalyst for making observations and patterns and connections.

*** Someone in my twitter feed linked to this opinion piece by Silas House in the NY Times. The piece is entitled “The Art of Being Still,” and House makes the case that too many writers are afraid to be still. The piece had me wondering about why people avoid silence. That is, people have their own relationship with silence, and silence means something different to each person and in different contexts.

*** Somebody else linked to this link to an Atlantic blog post. The piece presents a study that explains how “moderate noise level in busy cafes” can “perk up your creative cognition.” It made me think about how in some moments of my writing process I need and crave that kind of background noise and how in other moments I do better with less noise and more silence.

*** I saw this Scientific American piece entitled “How to Use Your Ears to Influence People.” The piece ends with a few tips for people who want to be more attentive listeners, “don’t zone out or interrupt; be open to alternative points of view; incorporate details that someone said previously into a current conversation. Basically, pay attention.” This got me wondering about how people use silence in order to understand others.

With each mention of “silence” I hear or see, I keep coming back to this question, “How do I help the teachers I’m working with to explore what the silence in their classroom might mean?” This is an interpretive question (e.g., what does it mean?) that leads to a judgment and possible actions (e.g., if that’s what it means, then what do I do about it?)

Often, I think we tend to think of silence on a few different continua. There’s the frequency scale (e.g., “He is always quiet.” “She is never quiet.”). There’s the expectations scale (e.g., “My mentor teacher always wants the class to be quiet.” “The teacher next door never wants it quiet.”). There’s the compliance scale (e.g., “Silence means students are good and illustrate how much I’m in control.” “Silence means that students are never leading which means I’m just trying to transmit knowledge from me to them.”). Of course, these scales are simplified, and they often compete with one another.

I’m left wondering how I could help beginning teachers interpret silence, especially within the context of the kind of classroom community they want to cultivate and lead. How do I help beginning teachers develop their professional judgment about silence or silent students? And, why do I think reading silence matters?

This post is really one way I’m trying to work through these questions, and my current response seems to involve a few things.

One, it involves naming what we notice. For example, what do beginning teachers notice before, during, and after the silence? Can they name what they see and hear? What do body language do they notice? What do they notice as the triggers for a break in the silence? And, how might I describe what I notice and name too so that I can model my “reading” for the beginning teachers?

Two, it involves making visible our assumptions about silence, about learning, and the connection between the two. Bringing these assumptions to the surface is the kind of move someone who practices teacher or practitioner inquiry might do. Marliyn Cochran-Smith and Susan Lytle write about this in their book Inquiry as Stance (more here).

As educators we need to be intentional about the stance we take in classrooms and by extension we need to enact that stance with particular practices. Silence and listening can be practices for us too. That is, we can choose to be still and observe; we can listen to and learn from our students.

Three, it involves the process of interpreting silence rather than simply labeling it as good/bad, frequent/infrequent, or as an indication of compliance and control. Katherine Schultz does extensive and careful research in interpreting the meaning of silence. She focuses her work on what silences mean in classrooms. Schultz describes her work a little bit here …

The National Writing Project features Schultz here, and she talks about silence as a form of participation. Schultz suggests “that teachers inquire into the meaning of silence and attempt to understand what it indicates about students’ response to ongoing classroom interaction (142).” I like this idea of trying to understand what silence means, because that aim is different than jumping ahead to evaluating it. Instead, it encourages an inquiry of sorts – “I notice there is a silence here. I wonder why it would make sense to the person (or people) to be silent. I wonder if that silence is a choice or not.”

As for the question, “Why do I think it matters that I help beginning teachers learn to ‘read’ classroom situations, including situations that involve silence?” I have a tentative answer: I think we can learn from silence, which in turn, makes us more responsive teachers and people.

To be sure, I was a quiet student and if you were to watch me today in any of my many meetings today you would see me being silent for long stretches of time. Yet, I know from my own experience that being silent does not mean someone isn’t participating. When I’m silent I’m often trying to piece together the different points of view in a conversation. Or, I’m trying to think about what I want to say when I have a moment to interject. Or, I’m wondering what the group needs me to say in order for us to move forward. Or many other possibilities.

More broadly, perhaps, is that I want my students to be independent and strategic in their teaching. Silence can be a part of their teaching repertoire, and I want them to be comfortable and intentional in using silence to reflect on their own thoughts and feelings. In addition, I hope they are curious about what silence might mean for groups and for individual students.

I also hope beginning teachers are vocal and are able to take action when they need to do so. Part of reading classrooms and reading silence in classrooms means knowing when and how to respond to what young people in a community need from the teacher leading the group. As students read and write and even converse, silence is part of any process and can always be an option. As students form and sustain a classroom community and a creative space, silence will be present. Therefore, being able to recognize silence, to use silence purposefully and with empathy, and to foster a comfort with silence are elements of any teacher’s repertoire.

I need to keep learning how I “read” silence, how I respond to it, how I choose to keep using it. I need to be still and listen to myself. I need to keep learning.