Master Teaching

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The Gift of Silence

Gift of Silenceby Aliel Cunningham

The first time I remember ever being asked about my relationship with silence was during my teacher training program after being observed in a class. After the first initial questions, my supervisor asked me a question that I have never forgotten – “Are you afraid of silence?” I remember thinking, “What does silence have to do with teaching in the classroom?”

The topic of silence, while not new to teachers, is usually thought of in terms of classroom management rather than a separate entity unto itself. At a recent conference I asked a group of educators what their associations with silence were. Most of their answers were negative associations – connected with punishment or embarrassment.

Silence has often been associated with an authoritative presence which allowed for no questions or disturbance or unique expression of personality. In a book entitled Silence in Schools, Helen Lees describes two kinds of silence – “weak silence” and “strong silence.”[1] When talking about utilizing silence in the classroom, I think it is important to separate out these two kinds of silence in order to avoid misunderstanding. “Weak silence” is seen as a teacher-imposed silence that emphasizes the importance of listening to the teacher’s explanation or directive and responding appropriately. This kind of silence is necessary for classroom order and flow in any lesson. However, this understanding and use of silence is not the only valuable one for the classroom setting.

There is also a second understanding of silence – Lees refers to it as “strong silence.” This kind of silence is not imposed, but cultivated by the teacher and entered into together by teacher and student alike. Both scripture and science agree that this kind of silence is enriching and renewing. We read in Psalms, “Be still and know that I am God!”[2] and in another Psalm, “I have stilled and quieted my soul.”[3] We see this theme continued in the training of the disciples when Yeshua takes them to a solitary place to rest. This kind of hallowed quietness of taking time to be fully present in the moment to yourself or to others and being intentionally still and silent together is a rare thing in our ever more demanding, noise-dominated, technologically-driven cultures.

When I began to experiment with integrating silence into the structure of the classroom environment, I was surprised to discover that my students had never been introduced to the concept of intentional silence as a separate entity – something crucial to promoting mental connections, wholeness of heart and ability to focus. Likewise, they had never been invited to discuss the role of silence (or lack of silence) in their lives in an educational setting. Throughout the course, silence became a theme we continued to engage with in different ways. As we experienced times of silence together, we discovered how its presence changed our classroom dynamic.

These moments of silence had a distinctive mark on the class, setting it apart from the normal hectic pace of the academic day. Here are a few of the ways that our class engaged with silence in the classroom:

  1. Shared Journals – A reflection question is asked and each student responds in silence in writing, and then that response is passed on to another student who responds in silence to the original reflection with their own thoughts. Then the journal is moved to the next classmate. After 2-3 turns, the journal is returned to the first author.
  2. Musical Silence – An instrumental piece is listened to in a group.
  3. Conversations about Silence
  4. Silent Reflections – Learners are given time to reflect in writing before responding to a question or topic in class.

[1] Helen Lees, Silence in Schools (New York: Trentham Books, 2012).
[2] 46:10, New International Version.
[3] 131:2, American Standard Version.

Further exploration

  • Psalm 46:10, Psalm 131:2, Isaiah 30:15, Mark 6:31
  • Paul Goodman on different kinds of silence.
  • Be Still (our teacher lectionary entry for this series on stillness/rest)

What’s your perspective?

We welcome your comments on any of the ideas in this post or in answer to the questions below.

  • What would you say if someone asked you if you were afraid of silence?
  • What role does silence play in your daily life or in your classroom?
  • How can practicing silence bring us closer to Yahweh and others?

Post Author

AlielAliel Cunningham, PhD is an Associate Professor in TESOL at LCC International University in Lithuania. Aliel has experience teaching ESL/EFL in a number of contexts over the past 14 years including Virginia, Indiana, and Illinois in the United States, and England, Kazakhstan, China, and Lithuania. In her free time, she enjoys taking walks, drinking tea with friends, and learning to play the hammer dulcimer.

 


Photo Credit: ericwagner via Compfight cc

3 comments on “The Gift of Silence

  1. bbaurain
    August 10, 2016

    Thanks for your thoughtful post! The topic of silence intrigues me as well, from many angles. I wrote about “generative silence” once–in a somewhat philosophical vein–and felt like I just scratched the surface. For those who are interested, that article can be freely downloaded here: https://www.academia.edu/2140719/Teaching_Listening_and_Generative_Silence.

    Like

  2. Julie
    August 11, 2016

    I really appreciate this. It seems like as second language teachers we can become too focused on what can come out of a learner’s mouth (or pen) as ‘spontaneous language’–and then evaluate it as if it is the only real language–that we forget that even native speakers benefit from gathering their thoughts and pondering and being still. Thanks for this post.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Aliel Cunningham
    August 13, 2016

    Thank you both for your comments. I will definitely be interested in reading the article about Teaching, Listening, and Generative Silence. It is a topic that has continued to bear fruit as I have become more interested in seeing the potential of the classroom as a place of connected thinking and reflection integrated with language learning. We live in a fragmented era in which we feel the continual pressure for an external response and there are few sanctuaries of silence left in our culture which cultivate a space for deeper listening, thinking, and reflective understanding of ourselves and the world around us.

    Liked by 1 person

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This entry was posted on August 10, 2016 by in Aliel Cunningham, be still, rest, silence.

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