National Writing Project

Listening to the Sounds of Silence in the Classroom

By: Art Peterson
Date: January 29, 2010

Summary: Spring Meeting keynote speaker Katherine Schultz suggests that teachers take a nuanced view toward classroom silence, understanding its complex functions and regarding it as a form of participation.


NWP In Person: Katherine Schultz

Listen to the silence. That instruction may sound as if it comes from a Zen master, but it also happens to be the advice Katherine Schultz will give NWP leaders when she addresses the NWP Spring Meeting in Washington, DC, March 25–26.

Although teachers tend to spend most of their time focused on what's being said in the classroom, most students actually spend most of their time in silence.

Schultz, who directs the Philadelphia Writing Project and is an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education, posits that understanding the role of silence for the individual and the class as a whole is a complex process that requires new ways of conceptualizing listening.

"I hope people will come away with a greater appreciation of the many meanings of silence and become intrigued by the idea that in a classroom silence can count as participation," said Schultz in a recent interview.

Listening is integral to good teaching, after all. Schultz uses the term "listening" to refer to more than just hearing, but as "listening to teach"—an active process that aims to "attend to individuals, the classroom as a group, the broader social context, and, cutting across all of these, to silence and acts of silencing."

"When I listen to teach, I am changed by what I hear," Schultz said.

Learning About Silence

Teachers need to be attuned not only to their students’ silences, but also to their own.

Schultz's attention to silence goes way back. Her first jobs as a teacher and then as a principal were in Quaker schools, where silence was part of the school day.

"I learned a lot about the creativity and potential for problem solving and insight that can come from silence. People were comfortable with silence; they saw silence as generative," explained Schultz.

As an academic, Schultz began thinking seriously about silence after the publication of her book Listening: A Framework for Teaching Across Differences .

"After writing the book and talking about it with teachers and university scholars, I realized that there is little writing and thinking about listening to silence. I began to read widely about silence."

She informed herself on such topics as the importance of the wordless communication in Japanese theatre, American Indian culture, the dramatic works of Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett, and the work of composer John Cage.

For example, Cage's 4'33" instructs a pianist to enter in full concert regalia, sit at a piano, and play nothing for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. Such a musical piece redefines silence as the audience's attention is drawn to the ambient noise, the coughs, and the rustling of programs.

The Many Meanings of Silence

Schultz wants teachers to focus in the same way on the silences in their classrooms and to deconstruct their meanings.

In her book Rethinking Classroom Participation: Listening to Silent Voices , Schultz identifies several functions of silence, not always easy to diagnose, ranging from reticence to reflection. She cites, for instance, working with a teacher in a classroom of primarily African American youth, where a Mexican American student, Luis, remained silent.

"Initially, both his teacher and I had interpreted his stance—slumped deep into his seat in the back of the room, wearing clothing generally labeled by teachers as 'gang related'—to mean Luis was disengaged in school" (34). Or maybe he didn't have the English language to keep up with the rapid-fire discussion.

But one day, after several days of discussion of the impact on American society of former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Luis spoke up, calling the attention of his classmates to Hoover's homophobia.

Now Schultz came to understand Luis's silence as "a form of reflection, a desire to choose his words carefully. Luis's silence ended up being profoundly effective in creating a background in which his peers listened intently to his statement" (34–35).

Schultz wants teachers to recognize the silence-creativity connection—that people engaged in creative acts generally do not talk a lot at the time.

Schultz believes that teachers need to be attuned not only to their students' silences, but also to their own—or lack thereof. "Learning is compromised," she says, "when classrooms are filled with teacher talk and exercises to produce expected answers" (76).

Rethinking Classroom Participation gives us a memorable portrait of a teacher who has learned when to stay quiet. Working with first grade teacher Mattie Davis, a teacher-consultant with the Philadelphia Writing Project, Schultz observes a struggling reader and writer, Terrill, as he takes his place in the author's chair.

Beginning haltingly, Terrill looks to Ms. Davis for assistance with new words. But none comes. The students know about Davis's silence. Some move forward to quietly help Terrill with the difficult words. Others remain silent.

"Her silence allowed students to participate or remain silent and Terrill to read his own story and to have a voice in or control over his learning" (61).

Translating Silences

While Schultz urges teachers to inquire into the meaning of silence, she also understands that teachers need to find strategies to allow silent students to communicate even when the teacher does not fully understand the function of the silence.

She describes her work with fifth grade teacher and Philadelphia Writing Project Teacher-Consultant Amelia Coleman-Brown to develop multimodal story telling. To tell a multimodal story, students draw on a variety of modes—visual and aural—in order to compose a story about themselves. For silent students, "rather than replacing silence, multi-modal story telling gave students a way to translate their silence into stories. . . . sharing their stories without putting themselves front and center in the classroom" (100).

That is, they became participants.

In her own teaching Schultz seeks to help her students move beyond silence when appropriate. She describes how she and a silent student, Allison, developed an email correspondence that eventually had the effect of prodding Allison to communicate more openly with her classmates.

Finally, Schultz does not want to be taken as an advocate for silence. Rather "I suggest that teachers inquire into the meaning of silence and attempt to understand what it indicates about students' response to ongoing classroom interaction" (142).

For Schultz personally, her inquiry into silence has led her to understand the residual and personal benefits a study of silence can have for an educator. "I am someone who tends to speak quickly," she said. "My thinking about silence has led me to slow down a little, modulating my sometimes too-rapid response and thinking about the spaces between statements as well as the statements themselves."

Schultz understands that in life, as in the classroom, silence, like talk, is a key component of the way we interact.

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