Monthly Archives: March 2011

An Hour of Silence

I tried an activity with my class this week that I used to do when I was homeschooling our children. We used to have “Quiet Time,” an hour or more after lunch when they had to be alone in their rooms – no TV, no computer. Just themselves, lots of paper and crayons, and books to read. One of our sons once said that “Quiet time + crayons = Creativity.” I decided that it would be interesting to try something like this with my students, many of whom are plugged in 24/7.

We had completed a week of research and investigation. Their task was to take a point of view and present it in any format that they wanted. They could create oral arguments; build models; sing songs; make movies; paint pictures. They needed to decide how they felt about the topic and show their argument in the most convincing way that they could. To start them going, I told them that they were going to take a piece of paper and something to write or draw with and find a place anywhere in the school where they could be quiet for an hour. I said that they could sit near their friends, but only if they could avoid being distracted by them. If they were going to laugh or make faces at each other, then they needed to find another location.

I told them that I wanted them to simply be quiet, to let their minds relax and think whatever thoughts that they had. The point of the time was not so much to develop a full-blown argument and strategy for presenting it, but that it was to give them space to think, with few to no distractions. They knew that if they wanted to take a walk, they just needed to let me know, but that if they thought that would help them focus, then they could do that. I said that I had a special topic that I was going to be thinking about as I walked quietly around the school.  Then I let them go.

Now I have to admit that I teach at a wonderful school where the halls are always filled with students collaborating or working independently, so it wasn’t startling for anyone for my students to “take to the halls.” They quickly found spaces, in the halls and empty classrooms, to sit or lay down, some doodling immediately and some just sitting in silence. There were 50 students spread throughout the middle school, and with practically no exceptions, they all settled down to try this experiment.

As the time went by, I was amazed at how few of them even tried to talk to me, much less their peers. They had found a space to let themselves think, to listen to what was going on in their minds. It was so exciting to watch. Some of their comments when they were done:

“I thought more thoughts than I knew I had.”

“I kept changing my mind about what I thought the more time I spent thinking. I was able to see it from different sides. It was really interesting.”

“I just got so much done. More than I ever thought I could. I know what I want to show and how I want to do it.”

It was a wonderful experiment, one that surprised them and me. In today’s world of constant interruptions, it is the breaks in concentration that are the norm. The distractions are accepted. We need to teach our students how to take time to listen only to themselves and the thoughts in their heads. There is a lot to be found in the silence.

We also have to remember to do it ourselves, to not give in to the Siren call of email, tweets, Facebook, RSS feeds and beyond. We need to take time to be still and listen to our thoughts. We will all learn and grow more if we do.

It’s All about People!

After a very busy few weeks at school, I am struck once again by the fact that teaching and everything to do with education comes down to individual people. It is the little and big people that fill our classrooms; it is their parents with their needs and goals for their children. It is our colleagues, who they are in school and all that they bring from their home lives and their background. It is our administrators and what they seek to achieve. And it is ourselves, with all of our strengths and challenges.

We never work in isolation or in a vacuum. We may plan alone and grade alone, but we always take whatever happens in that quiet space into the crowd of our schools. It is there, in the midst of other’s strengths and needs, that we practice our craft. Sometimes we understand what is influencing those around us, but most times, we do not. We especially have to try to bring out the best in students whose full experience of life is a mystery to us.

Teachers take that on every day. We walk into school, prepared to have to adapt to whatever presents itself. It is the joy and the struggle of being a good teacher. Lesson plans can only go so far. We are constantly inventing the best lessons that we can for our students and then are willing to immediately tinker with the design if it just isn’t working. We have to let the students be part of the equation as they bring all of themselves into the classroom. A lesson may fly with all the kids involved, taking on a life of its own as they engage in the work. Or it may crash to the ground, sometimes for no identifiable reason. We can present an task for the class  and within minutes, it can become clear that they are not engaged. They are bored or distracted. What looked good on paper is simply not working, because the real people, who are our students, are not connecting to the challenge before them.

Teachers have a choice in those moments. They can decide that they know what is best and ignore the signs from their students. They can power on through the lesson and refuse to notice the minds that have shifted away from the learning and onto thoughts of what they are going to have for lunch or their best friend’s new shoes . The other choice is to be readily accept failure and let go of what is precious to you, the lesson that you planned, and focus on what is most important, which is the learning of the students.  If we can model a willingness to accept failure and a commitment to learning, then we can give our students a tremendous gift.

Our plans can never be more important than the students in front of us. We are trying to lead them into a place where they love to learn. If what is happening in the classroom is training them to hate learning or to think that learning is boring, then it is time to adapt. Get out of that lesson, quickly, and dream up something new. Put out a game to practice a skill. Take a walk with them, and ask about what was going wrong and how it could be better. Anything that accepts that they are real people, who want to learn and be smart but who may have struggles with the lesson, with the day, with themselves. Teachers have to be therapists, magicians, active learners. We have to pay attention to the children who are before us and adapt to meet their needs so that they can have success. We need to show them that hard work, like we put into planning a class,  doesn’t always lead to success and that sometimes hard work leads to more work, and that that is okay!