The scene is familiar to anyone who has spent time in a classroom: students are given time to work in groups after the teacher reminds them that group work is only possible if everyone speaks in low-to-moderate voices. Everything starts out fine: students quietly organize themselves, and disparate discussions meld into a collective class hum. But the hum slowly breaks into a murmur and, as individuals in one group unknowingly raise their voice to compete with the rising voices of their neighbours, the room suddenly sounds more like a cafeteria than a classroom. The teacher, who has been occupied helping one particularly needy group, turns to the class and, in his superior court judge voice, proclaims, “SILENCE!”
Student conversations stop dead mid-sentence and everyone looks up cautiously at the teacher. His hands are on his hips and he’s slightly but noticeably irritated.
“It’s far too loud,” he says, now even-toned. “Let’s remember to keep it down. I hope I don’t have to remind the class again.”
Most teachers embrace silence as a necessary component of their practice. Before beginning a lesson, we customarily stand before the class, waiting for our students’ collective attention as indicated by their collective silence. Recreational reading is usually done in silence – some of us even call it ‘silent reading.’ And exams, tests and quizzes are times of total, almost uncomfortable silence.
But silence can be much more than a means for classroom management.
In a world that is becoming increasingly noisy – constant internet access, smartphones that incessantly beep as we pray (it’s that new prayer-reminder app), music played ubiquitously as background noise, and then those humans and animals who make noise too – moments of silence and stillness become ever-important. It’s interesting that however present silence is in our classrooms, it is hardly considered for its value in and of itself. “Things are known by their opposites” (tuʿraf ul-ashyā’ bi ḍiddihā) reads a famous Arabic proverb. In pre-Islamic Arabia, the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, would retreat for meditation, seeking respite from the preoccupations of Meccan society. We should consider facilitating moments of respite for our students: purposeful, focused, and guided silence becoming part of regular classroom practice will aid students increased sensory awareness and attention spans. More importantly, however, it will allow them to engage themselves, connect with their intentions, and help them learn to focus for silent devotional practices, such as prayer.
Silence might be quarantined to discussions about classroom-management, and learning to navigate the fast-paced, sense-exhilarating world may not be highlighted in most state or province-mandated curricula. Nevertheless, this year, as I plan for fun-filled activities that I hope will captivate, motivate, and enthrall, and as I preview the edu-tainment industry’s latest release, I’ll consider the number of opportunities I’ve facilitated for my students to engage in meaningful silence.
I need it just as much as my students.