What is the gift that children want and cannot give themselves? My third graders are ready with the answer. Silence. This is a secret most children have not yet named for themselves. Silence is a gift revealed in increments of minutes; for adults it is a gift to be recovered as a practice. Silence. When did I first discover it?
I remember silence being louder than the whistling winds in the woods of my childhood. I remember silence as sunlight spilling on puzzle pieces arranged on the floor. I remember finding silence underwater as I dove for pennies and did handstands in the pool. But my first memory of silence is the snow that muffled both our laughter and the trudging sound of our red rubber boots. I remember that we stopped. We listened. And we heard it. We heard silence falling from the sky in lacy flakes and landing without a word.
So when I woke up to snow on Saturday morning, there it was: the silent sound of deep beauty and majesty. Silence has a quality that can’t be found in loneliness, boredom, or insomnia. Snow reminds us what to look for in silence, so we will know it when we find it deep in the woods or at the bottom of a pool… or even in a third grade classroom.
What does true silence in a classroom feel like? True silence is not an imposed silence that feels shrill with exasperation. I am not talking about that kind of silence. I am talking about the silence that blankets and hushes the cognitive dissonance that rumbles in our heads as we work our hardest to learn something new. I am talking about a deep inner and interpersonal peace that is in the listening, the reading, and the writing. True silence feels deep and quiet and communal.
Anything that can’t be measured is on the chopping block when it comes to instruction. Faulty models of high student engagement are pressed into molds of mandated busyness that can be seen and measured. Silence can’t be measured. This endangers pondering and wondering and contemplating and questioning– the very skills required for critical thinking, reflective reading, creative problem solving, and incisive writing.
Children need silence to know what they are feeling, because not being able to identify feelings blocks their ability to learn. With young children, silence often happens with a crayon or a pair of scissors in their hands. With older children it often happens with a book or a blank sheet of paper. In our classroom, stamina for silence is built alongside our stamina for reading and writing.
Silence is also part of my direct instruction. I’ve learned as a teacher to build buffers of silence in between the questions I ask. It should seem obvious to a teacher, but it wasn’t always obvious to me. Children need silence to hear themselves think in order to recall information, vocabulary, or make connections. Silence provides equity for processing speeds, learning styles, and personality traits.
Teaching about silence, like teaching reading and writing, is more effective when it is born out of personal practice. Silence awaits me in the predawn light of my kitchen, in the first sip of coffee, in the blank page of my journal. And once in awhile, I wake up look out the window, and see the great teacher of silence—majestic and beautiful—snow.