Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Sun, 12 Nov 1995 07:57:50 -0500 (EST)
A Random Thought: Silence and the Classroom

Good morning. As I sit here sipping a cup of freshly brewed coffee, I have this strange feeling about me, almost a tingling, as if I am surrounded by an invisible, electrifying aurora of a spiritual St. Elmo's fire. It was an indescribable walk this morning in the brisk, chilly, crystal-clear blackness. It seemed especially dark and quiet, hauntingly quiet. No birds were singing, no bats were flying about. Not an annoying insect was in the air; not a squirrel was scampering about. The shadowy forms of trees and bushes seemed frozen and mute-like porcelain figures. There was no whirs of an engine motor to be heard. The air was still. Except for me, it seemed that as I passed house after house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. There was a time or two I felt like I was walking through a 19th century staged tableau. Even the crunch of fallen pecans under my steps seemed extraordinarily muffled.

The farther I walked, the deeper I got inside myself, the more prayerful my thoughts seemed to get, the more reflective I became on the important things, the more in touch I became with my spirit. It's a form of mobile meditation that I relish, that provdes a way for me to get in touch with my inner self and lets me take myself to another and renewing place. Unfettered and unmuzzled, my soul spoke out with a purity of honesty, and demanded I hear and listen to myself, and I feel impelled to abandon my inner silence.

As I spoke to myself, I admitted how curious it is that I now unhesitatingly welcome the silence and take it during these pre-dawn saunters to my bosom as a dear, confiding friend. It was not until a few years ago that I despised silence, that I found it as chilling as the 39 degree air, especially in the class room. In class, my god, in class I once feared and hated it. I was once controlled by it. It was my most dreaded enemy. I couldn't tolerate it. I once worked hard to avoid it at almost all cost. You see, until I went almost cold turkey in early 1992 because of a crisis in my life, I was a class room talking addict.

Up to that moment, I gorged my habit with my natural, sweet gifts of both the orator and thesbian, for when I talk, I act out. I don't talk with just my voice. I speak with my eyes, face, arms, torso--a raised eyebrow here, a tighened lip there, a sweep of the hand, countless muscles operating to make an outward gesture. Delivery is my strength. I am a master as vocal impromtu. I can vocally dance on my feet at the drop of a hat. I have a great sense of reading people. I can turn a phrase and play with words. I can talk to a group of people and each individual in the audience at the same time; I can feel those in the audience and tune into each of them, alter my presentation in mid-stream if need be. I have a natural sixth sense for timing, to know that, as it says in Ecclesiastes, "there is a time", a time to be enthusiastic and a time to be dispassionate, a time to be serious and a time to inject humor, a time to be resonant and a time to whisper, a time to emphasize and when to downplay, a time to move and a time to be still, a time to and a time to pause, a time to digress and a time to stay on point. But, it was always a time to talk. "Boring", "Dead", "Routine", "Dull", "Monotonous", "Monotone" were not words used to decribe my lectures. To the contrary, unoffically, according to the grapevine, I was voted constantly the professor in whose class you would least likely fall asleep, the most entertaining and the most informative professor. So, I guess it was natural that I was able to believe, to delude myself into believing, that the more dramatic the presentation, the more brilliant the content, the better teacher I was.

I feel like I'm standing up at a meeting of TA--talker's annoymous-- that I'm hovering somewhere between being open and total confession.

No matter. In the classroom, silence for me was not, as it is often to students, a safe haven, a secured hiding place. I secreted my innerself behind loud barriers of sound because I talked with my body, not my soul. Sound fed a deep-seated, unrecognized need to be seen, to be needed, to feel important. I used it to make a statement, a perjured testimony, rather than ask a question. Silence was a threatening experience, for silence is a question, not a statement. The more I spoke, the more I unwittingly silenced my spirit. It was always there. I just drowned it out, mutted it, buried it. Inwardly, silence threatened to expose to myself, my humanity, my frailities, my weakened self-confidence and self-worth. Worse, outwardly, silence was synonomous with being ignored, taken for granted, unwanted, invisiblity, and I had enough of that growing up. Silence made me feel personally self-conscious and awkward, and professionally inept and derelict. Any vacuum of sound hung like a shroud of some kind of deadly inadequacy. No, there was no subtlty about it. Silence for me was a flashing, bright, eye-catching neon sign advertsing "FAILURE", "FAILURE", "FAILURE." It conjured up the demons of inadequacy, insecurity, and fear who tormented my ego, who were always whispering in my ear at the slightest lowering of decibels: "Nothing is going on" or "You're not getting to them" or "They're not learning enough of the subject" or "They can't do it" or "Jump in, they need you" or "They can't be trusted" or "You're screwing up" or "What the hell are you here for?" And I was listening to them, enslaving myself to them.

I measured my teaching by decibel meters and word counts. I felt that teaching was more authoritative pronoucement though I often said otherewise. If the students hesitated for the slightest moment at dealing with a question or if there was the slightest lull during a discussion, I imposed myself. Just as nature doesn't like a vacuum and rushes in to fill the void, I didn't like the silence and rushed in to fill it with sound and authority. As I look back now, I see how the students were pulling my string. Once they got wise, all they had to do was remain silent and they knew I would immediately get them off the hook by talking. What was really going was that my ego, my needs, and my perceptions were squeezing the students--I was allowing them to squeeze themselves--out of the process of education. I knew what was happening, but I couldn't stop it because I wouldn't or couldn't admit to why it was happening or that it was even happening.

Over the last few years, as I successfully fought to overcome my inner need to be needed, to be seen, to be important, I discovered that the more I spoke with my soul the less I had to speak with my body; the more I expressed spontaneously, the less I had to "work" to fee; the more I exhorted my honest feelings, the less I studied and put-on and posed and controlled; the more my spirit was the stock and tool of my craft, the less I needed to be heard. And, I discovered that silence, like sound, can a vital class room learning medium. In the class, I slowly took the risk of not speaking in order to shrink my ego, create more space for the students, and involve them in their own learning. Slowly, I began to make silence an ally in both my teaching and the students' learning. I'll give you just two examples of the many ways I have made silence a warm. educational companion.

I begin my class every day I have a "moment of silence." I ask the students to stop talking to each other, stop thinking, close their eyes, and just let the soft music from the boombox envelop them. I do it, too. It's only about a minute or so, but it gives everyone a chance to settle down and center in, to go inside, to put aside the distractions, to focus, and to get in the rythm of things. When we open our eyes, the spirit of the class is changed.

I also use a simple rule that allows silence to evokes sound. I merely ask that a student not speak more than twice in any class period. I don't want the more outgoing students to overshadow the more reticent others, and I don't want any self-described "listener" to allow him/herself to be overshadowed. The results are interesting. Because of the pauses, the slowed pace, many more students speak than do in the normal free-for-all discussion. The more aggressive and verbal students are reined in. They can't get top billing and achieve stardom; they can't continually show off and push themselves through the crowd and shove others out of the way. They find it more difficult to promote themselves at the expense of others. They are forced to sort through what they have to say, to listen to others, to reflect on what they want to say, to decide if what they have to say is important enough to use one of their two times at bat, and to decide when to say something. The quieter students, who say little if anything in fast paced discussions, suddenly find a place to speak. They find a new responsibility to speak, and often display gifts of reflective insight. The students, who demean themselves as shy or listeners no longer have the luxury of letting the more impetuous ones pull the load; no longer can they easily hide in the shadows of silence. Their silence screams out and makes them noticeable. And if a lull occurs, I keep silent. It can be a but a short pause or long and painful "pregnant silence" that has lasted as long as fifteen minutes! But, I keep silent. Oh, I get nervous and my mouth starts to dry. But, I keep silent. I will not automaticaly jump in with the quick verbal agility and fill the air with authoritative words. I will not do their learning for them. I realize that I can't. Instead, I use my silence to intensify the silence, to draw out the students' understanding of themselves and the subject rather than impose my will. I take the risk of not speaking, of creating tension and embarrassment, and making the class challenging--and maybe at times inhospitable.

From my observations, conversations, and students' journals, I have discovered that such tension is more often than not creative and that things are happening in that silence. At first, the students will stare and glare, curse and grind their teeth, at having to change their habits, to submit to the disciplines and challenges imposed by silence. But, as they get the hang of it, as things grow easier with practice, as they get a sense of talking with each other rather than at or at the expense of each other, as we work on developing the class learning community, they reluctantly start letting their problems and questions deepen within them. The silence almost teaches most students to ask the hard questions: why aren't they as prepared as they should be; why are they afraid to speak up; why do they fear looking stupid or feeling embarassed or being wrong; why do they try to dominate; why, why, why. As the students still themselves, as they clear out the learning space for themselves and others, as they listen to themselves and each other, silence becomes a potent force for learning about themselves and the subject.

One final word, I'm no angel. I'm not reborn free of all burden. I know that I will never be out of the woods. I will never lay to complete rest the dark demons of the past. I will never be cured. Though I have admitted and accepted my problem, and have fought it and taken control of myself, for the rest of my life and my professional career I will be in a daily campaign against the desire to hear myself, with my issues of self-confidence and self- worth. I will always struggle against the need to be needed. I will always be fighting against wanting to be seen. The occasional hidden clenched fist, subtle tightened lip, momentary queasienss in my stomach tell me that I will always be at odds with the urge to feel important at someone's expense. I will always have to face down the desire to jump in and take control. Though it is now far easier for me to lay back, I have to be forever alert not to fall into the clutches of those powerful monsters who lurk in the darness. They're constantly waiting for those slips, those moments of hesitation and weakness when they can pounce on me and drag me back into my old denigrating attitudes and ways. But, I know they are out there, but I've come this far and I won't let them ambush me.

Have a good one.


Louis Schmier  (912-333-5947)
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Valdosta State University          /^\    /   \  /  /~ \     /~\__/\
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