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.