Time to Think

My classes are starting a research project this week. We have been studying the Roman Empire, and they are creating a museum exhibit around a topic of their choice. We have spent the last month learning about the rise and the height of the empire, looking at the different characteristics of empires that can be found in Rome. We will use this model to then look at the Islamic Empires.

The students chose topics of interest to them, ranging from Roman baths to arches to how various gods were worshipped. I worked with them to expand or contract the topics that they had chosen, as they only have 3 days to do their research. Then, before moving into the research itself, I wanted them to pause and think about what it was about their topic that interested them. What questions did they hope to answer? What did they already know, and what did they want to find out?

I decided to give them a 10 minute “Thinking Time” to reflect on their topic. I didn’t give them any specific questions to answer; I just told them to consider what they were interested in. Each of them took a sheet of unlined paper and went to find places around the Middle School where they could sit and not be disturbed. I cautioned them to no sit too closely to their best friends, as they might be distracted. I encouraged them to draw or write if they wanted to, but that I mostly wanted them to focus on thinking about the topic.

I sent them out and then began to slowly walk around the halls. It quickly became apparent that many of them felt like they had to fill up the sheet of paper, that just having it represented a “task to be done” and they were madly scribbling away. Others were clearly watching other students walk by or paying attention to conversations down the hall. Others were simply sitting, looking around them or focusing on the wall in front of them, no outward sign of mental activity at all.

When I called them back after the 10 minutes, I asked them if they had learned anything. The main response was that they loved the quiet. Simply sitting still felt like a treat to them, an almost unknown kind of time that they really enjoyed. They clearly were surprised at how much they liked it. I think they thought that they were getting away with “no work” by having time to be still. That part made me smile, because part of what I want to train them to recognize is their brains at work, without a lot of outside stimulation. To teach them that, I have to give them quiet time to listen to their own thoughts. I am willing to give up some “teaching” time to have them learn to hear their own ideas rattling around inside their brains.

When I asked about using the paper, many of them acknowledged that it had been more of a distraction than a help. They had felt the need to “show” that they were working and focused on recording more than on thinking.  Note for next time: no paper.

While I am not sure how much they accomplished in terms of thinking about their topic, they clearly loved the time to pause and think. Time to be in control of their own minds. They recognized that too often, they just give in to each new distraction, and without anyone or any task to intrude, they enjoyed the work of their mind. As they started researching today, many of them seemed to have a sense of purpose and attention to the facts they found. They demonstrated a connection to their topic and to what they wanted to learn that appeared deeper than I have seen in the past.

We shall see! If nothing else, it showed me that it is a good thing to pause and let my students’ brains relax and then build. It is a good skill to for them to know their own thinking. And there is so much that comes at them all day long. Some peace and quiet can not hurt.

One response to “Time to Think

  1. Thank you for this post. As a middle school teacher of history myself, I always felt pressure to cover so much material that I rarely felt time to slow down, pause and reflect. In my own work, I know that I need this time to reflect but somehow never thought of translating it to the classroom. This is a great way to do just that.

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