The Gift of Quiet in the Classroom

Early mornings on the weekend, before the rest of my house is awake, I sit with a mug of coffee and write, read or just think.  The quiet space allows my mind to breathe, to wander freely in my notebook, or to get completely lost in the world of my book. Some of my best ideas for my classroom bubble to the surface during this time; I clear out old problems - even if by just dumping them on to a page; or I escape off into the world of Mary Oliver's poems or a Kate Morton novel.  These quiet spaces in my life rejuvenate like nothing else.  It's just me and my thoughts.

This week my students and I read Billy Collins' poem, "The Trouble with Poetry".  Before we began I asked them, "What happens to your mind when you're just walking somewhere quiet by yourself?" My students looked at me kind of funny, so I waited.  Still nothing.  They looked like they were thinking, but no one responded.  Suddenly, someone's phone dinged.  A thought scrambled to the surface in my brain:  Do my students ever have times when they are just quiet, alone walking, or just thinking?  Or is their phone always there for company?  

This question has led me to think a lot about our reading time in my classroom.  I believe strongly in choice - students can choose any book they like, and they can sit anywhere in the room they're comfortable.  But my extension of student preference ends when it comes to quiet.  I don't let them listen to music; I don't let them talk; and we're all sticklers for phones on silence.  I've wondered about this choice off and on for my two and a half years teaching high school.  I've wondered about music; I've wondered about the harm in just quickly checking a message; I've wondered about that urge to share a thought RIGHT NOW because you just read something so amazing.  

But more and more, I wonder about silence.

When and where else do my kids have a span of absolute silence and single-tasking but my class? When else do they get to be totally absorbed in a book, or have a stretch of silent writing time where thoughts can tumble around in their heads?  How many of my students have homes with constant noise - from electronics, music, TV, people?  How many of my students know what it feels like to daydream, to get lost in thought, to think deep and long about something important to them?  Or is our rush-rush, always on the go, always doing something world robbing them of these gifts?
In her book The Call of Solitude Dr. Ester Buchholz wrote, "Now, more than ever, we need our solitude. Being alone gives us the power to regulate and adjust our lives. It can teach us fortitude and the ability to satisfy our own needs. A restorer of energy, the stillness of alone experiences provides us with much-needed rest. It brings forth our longing to explore, our curiosity about the unknown, our will to be an individual, our hopes for freedom. Alone time is fuel for life."

I'm protective of quiet reading and writing time in my classroom.  I've always said the best way to become stronger in these skills is to practice often.  But lately, as I observed my room during quiet, independent reading and writing time, I think there's more to it than just the practice.  I think these times offer students peace and rejuvenation, a break from the demands of the world outside, of always being available, always communicating with others.  I think periods of silence enrich the conversations when they do come - everyone has had time to gather their own thoughts and opinions, and now they're more ready to talk and share ideas.  And, likewise, after group work or a conversation, personal reflection offers time to process one's own thoughts, to toss around what has just been heard, to see what new ideas now emerge.  To me, the skills of quiet contemplation, of deep pondering, must also be nurtured in our classrooms.  

So, if the world is too noisy in your neck of the woods, come join us.  There will be time for quiet reading and writing and thinking in my classroom.



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