Teaching Silently

A few months ago, I read a great idea for teaching a class in complete silence (“Using Silence to Make a Point” by John M. Knight, from The Jnl of the Imagination in Language Learning). In his article on silence, Knight talks about running an entire class non-verbally — without speaking a word — in honor of the National Day of Silence. As students entered the room, he’d hand them a card that read:

“Please understand my reasons for not speaking today. I support lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. People who are silent today believe that laws and attitudes should be inclusive of people of all sexual orientations. The Day of Silence is to draw attention to those who have been silenced by hatred, oppression, and prejudice. Think about the voices you are not hearing. What can you do to end the silence? “

The article explains how Knight artfully used in-class writing, the overhead projector, and other non-verbal devices to conduct a knock-out Intensive English class. Changing the rules of the game and forcing students to use alternative forms of discourse really got his students thinking contemplatively and resulted in an unforgettable learning experience.

His article is from 1999, but the Day of Silence — which happens at college campuses nationwide as a form of protest against homosexual discrimination — still happens annually. In fact, it is coming up next month, and I’d hoped to have a “surprise” silent class and write about the results here afterward. But I just checked my syllabi, and realized I can’t change things now because students are scheduled to give presentations that day and the schedule is too tight to change things (and I doubt they’d receive the challenge of conducting a presentation non-verbally very warmly!).

Still: I encourage anyone reading this to give it a try. This year’s Day of Silence is Wednesday, April 13, 2005. The DoS website offers helpful resources online for organizing an event. I might try to conduct a class silently despite it not being a “national day” anyway, as an experiment sans politics, to see how well it works.

Teaching non-verbally is one thing, but I’m reminded of what an important role “silence” can play in the art of teaching…. The pregnant pause. The “waiting game” of the Socratic method. The meditative reflection. Writing in class before discussion. It’s all silence, framed by pensive pedagogy. Philosopher Paul Woodruff has written about silence as a form of reverence, and the power of silence to enhance education. Like any “moment of silence” it can prove productive. For more on this topic, I recommend reading a profile of his work, “Paul Woodruff: The Silent Teacher” (.pdf file from BYU’s Focus on Faculty newsletter).

On an almost-barely-related note, I advocate educating people about “TV Turnoff Week” (April 25-May 1, 2005), and possibly even giving it a try yourself. I have used this as a class project before (in a “Media & Society” course I taught once) and while the class had fun making posters for the event and promoting it all over campus, I learned it was very difficult for students to live without TV for a week, let alone a “media free” day. (Perhaps I will blog more about this when the date approaches — for now, I remain… silent).

Published by

Michael Arnzen

Professor of English, Seton Hill University.

3 thoughts on “Teaching Silently”

  1. I did this once with my 8th graders, but not for the same reasons. During my second year of teaching service, I had a terrible case of pharyngitis. Very painful. I couldn’t call a sub, as I had just gotten in from a long trip. So I wrote on the board that I couldn’t talk, and would have to write everything down or use hand signals.
    Believe it or not, the kids were very game about it, and we got through the day just fine.
    Kids at that age can be so unpredictable…..

  2. I’ve taught silent lessons in my high school ESL classes. Silent for me, that is, but the students speak quite a bit. I gave no explanation, and did it not for any cause other than pedagogical. I use the black board and handouts, gestures and expressions. It usually takes the students a few minutes to realize I’m deliberately not speaking, then they whisper to each other about it, then they really get into it.
    Matthew Dwyer
    Eyuboglu HS

  3. I have been fighting for attention while teaching with a group of kids I see twice a day. I have always heard that I talk over my students too much. Today I decided to take it to the opposite side of the spectrum. I didn’t tell my students that I was not talking. It took them a couple minutes to realize what was going on, but then they were pretty excited about it. I taught the class exactly as I normally would. Using my white board and a lot of non verbal cues. The kids were forced to really concentrate on the lesson to understand. They relied on their table groups for support, rather than swarming me when they missed directions or had questions. It was really cool. I will do this often to remind them of the great learning practices they already know!

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