More than words

3rd July 2015 at 01:00

One school morning many years ago, I awoke to find my voice reduced to a whisper. I could have chosen to stay at home, but I was physically well and obligated to my students. So I went to class.

"I have lost my voice but I feel fine," I wrote on the whiteboard. "My silence is not an invitation to chat."

For the next 80 minutes I led the class by writing ideas on the board, raising questions, responding and, at times, injecting humour.

Suddenly the classroom became a tiny island of achievement where the only sounds were the turning of pages, the squeak of my marker on the whiteboard and the students writing considered, independent answers. It was a golden time.

Without the customary dominance of my speaking voice, the students were free from the traditional pattern of deference to an "expert's" ideas. Instead they had to explore and articulate their own. Some who had been disinclined to speak now opened up; everyone was courteously attentive.

Coincidentally, that day we were examining the scene in King Lear where he asks each of his three daughters to offer a declaration of their love for him.

After listening to the litany of flattering words from her two villainously impertinent sisters, the good Cordelia, the youngest, says: "Nothing, my lord."

The elder daughters had concealed the truth; Cordelia revealed it. Her love was beyond words. What is not said often speaks more forcefully than the words themselves.

As we worked through the scene, I pared my communication back to what was essential. My "lecture" became interactive, a mix of written questions, directives to specific passages and responses from students who were developing insights as we went along.

Most importantly, the loss of my voice enabled me to avoid the trap we all fall into at times: asking a question and then immediately answering it ourselves, without giving students the time to digest it and formulate a response.

Faced with silence that day, my students could have had any number of responses: resentment that I was being paid while they did my job, a yearning for it to end, a desire for more interesting sounds to listen to, agitation over what could be asked of them in this unplanned situation. They could easily have been disengaged, baffled, doubtful, bored or sleepy.

But my concerns were unfounded. Instead, they were attentive, philosophical, pensive - and active. I was struck by how quickly they settled into the rhythm of the class, almost as if they were reclaiming what Emily Dickinson called an "appetite for silence".

If I were to state any moral precept from this experience, it might be this: silence can be a great teacher.

There are many ways to get our students to speak in class. But to get them to confront silence, away from the many potential distractions flickering at the edges of their minds, and to offer mature, meaningful insight - this is the challenge and the reward of holding back our impulse to fill a class with talking. As the song says, the sound of silence can be powerful indeed.

Dale Salwak teaches English at Citrus College in California, US

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