Silence was the thing I used to fear most as an English teacher: the discussion falls flat, none of the students do the reading, or it’s simply the 8am or after-lunch lull. My tools to combat silence have been formed over the years: spontaneous group work, an on-topic YouTube video, or rearranging desks into a circle. I’ve always been an advocate for the importance of meeting in a physical classroom to have open discussions. I myself am a hand-raiser. But that makes silence my enemy and my weakness, and it prevents me from understanding the experience of the introverted student.
The Classroom Circle
Everything was going well in my composition class. My students had chosen the text to read, so it must be interesting to them, right? They picked The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, and I decided to change things up on the first day and arrange desks into a circle. We had so much to talk about, the new novel brought with it a new energy. But on the second day of the circle everyone stared at each other or at the floor. What happened?
One of my students emailed me afterwards and taught me this: forming desks into a circle for discussion may seem empowering, but it turns participation into more of a performance. Too often, the circle emboldens extroverted students to speak more, and it makes it more difficult for introverted students to speak up. After all, it’s really hard to speak when everyone in a room is staring at you.
I responded: Yes! Let’s do away with the circle! But what now? What does the class need? The student (perhaps a teacher in the making) had an answer ready.
Headlining with “This idea may help diversify participation,” this student drew from what I had already put in place (students tweet discussion questions in the first 5 minutes of class) and added something new: students should be given an extra 3-4 minutes to reply to one of their peer’s tweets. Then I could see which questions were most interesting to them, and in class discussion any student could talk about what was happening on Twitter that was of interest. This idea not only increased participation by getting every student to ask and respond to a question, but it also built on well-established habits of the class, making Twitter an even more generative platform for discussion.
I agreed to try it out, and it stuck. It breaks the 8am ice, gives us all more to talk about, and, most importantly, it gives introverted students a safe space for sharing their thoughts with their peers and with me. I am ever grateful to my student for sharing these reflections and ideas with me.
Silent Collaborative Brainstorming
If silence is your enemy, too, let me give you an idea of the kinds of creative things that can happen in a silent room. Look at the four different color cursors in this image. These represent four students developing writing prompts (thesis questions) for their Oscar Wao papers in the same Google Doc at once. As they come to the end of their drafting, I add another cursor, grouping their questions into categories like “About Immigration/Identity” and “About Sex/Sexuality.”
Perhaps the room is silent, but, as John Cage has shown us, is there such a thing as silence? The room is active, filled with rapid-firing neural networks and the occasional verbal exchange to clarify, revise, and finalize. Their self-confidence in composing a list of writing prompts showed, so perhaps digital pedagogy has brought me closer to a truly student-driven practice. After all, it’s our job as educators to make our students self-sufficient.
Empowered, introverts and extroverts alike, they wrote their own prompts collaboratively in the safe space of “silence,” but with me there to help talk out what makes a good question (answer: a clear task), so it was never truly “silent.” They work in Google Docs for collaborative note-taking, too.
My students taught me that critical pedagogy can work “silently” in the physical space of the classroom, and for that I am grateful and a much stronger teacher.