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).