What goes unsaid is just as important as what is said.
This is something I am leaning into in my life and my classroom.
I’m in a class of teachers, mostly from my district, called SEED that meets one Thursday evening each month. For our last session, we read excerpts from the book Everyday Anti-Racism – a collection of essays edited by Mica Pollock.
For this particular post, I am going to focus on Essay 40: “Interrogating Students’ Silences” by Katherine Schultz. She offers that “Although teachers often focus on students’ talk, silences can provide as much information about students’ learning and understanding.”
I have never been a “quiet” kid. In fact, I am quick to fill the empty spaces in dialogue out of my own discomfort. I admit I don’t often think before I speak, and I regularly verbally process my thoughts and ideas to whoever is in the room at the time. I like what I have to say, but I am becoming more and more aware of how my constant need to speak up dominates the conversation and leaves me little room to learn about what others are pondering.
What does silence someone’s silence reflect about their experiences?
Boredom? Contempt? Fatigue? Embarrassment? Rejection? Or is it by choice?
Shultz challenges teachers when she suggests, “The assumption that we understand a student’s silence keeps us from asking difficult questions about students both as individuals and as group members and, especially about classroom dynamics.”
It’s important to acknowledge the tendency to read silence through a racialized lens. I admit my own biases and stereotyping of my students: black girls are loud, Asian Americans are quiet. But my white students get individual treatment. Instead of, “She never participates”, I tell myself “she is naturally quiet.” Or instead of “He is nervous or shy”, I say, “He is an independent thinker.” I’m just being honest here- I am actively trying to interrupt some of these patterns in my own thinking toward my students.
I think about this outside the classroom too. There are humans in my life who are carrying heavy baggage around with them. I am quick to assume that someone’s behavior is a symptom rather than being curious about the root of their pain. I think about the #MeToo movement. What keeps us silent? Who keeps us silent? Silence has a lot of negative power.
My next door neighbor, Emily, has become a great friend who also works for my district as an Equity Coach. One of the habits she has formed that I am learning to appreciate is that when someone shares something personal, raw, or that required courage, she will respond with “Let’s just sit with that for a bit before we move on.”
Whatever discomfort I feel about pauses in dialogue and my impulse to fill them with the sound of my own voice is probably getting in the way of the positive power that silence can have.
What would it look like to honor silence and model silence in my school? How can I “redefine participation in the classrooms to include silence”? Two ideas I took from this class were these:
- Quiet Conversations: Students write a few sentences or a paragraph on paper, then look up and make eye contact with a classmate, then switch papers and continue to respond.
- Seminar Tip: When students are dialoguing in a large circle, students can’t talk again until both classmates sitting next to them have had the opportunity to share if they want.
And what would it look like to honor silence and model silence in my life?
- Scan my surroundings and let myself be curious without judgment. Practice thinking.
- Notice what goes unsaid with the people I am in relationship with- the “fine”, “yep”, “okay” responses, and consider when it might be kind to gently press then listen.
Silence, like anything, can be positive or negative. I’m hoping to be more mindful and aware of its presence in the spaces I occupy.