DD 69

“Did you hear it?” the teacher asked.  “When I began the discussion, did you hear what happened?”

“No, I don’t think so,” the student teacher said.  “The students just sat there.”

The teacher and her student teacher sat in desks in a corner of the classroom.  The last bell of the day had rung ten minutes before.

“It was silent,” the teacher said,  “but could you tell the difference between that silence and other silences?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“I mean that there’s a difference between the silence that followed my question that started the discussion and the silence in the classroom when students are taking a test.”

“They sound the same to me.  All silences sound the same.”

“But they’re not.  Not at all.  When students are taking a test, they are so focused on what they’re being asked to do that it is an entirely private experience for them.  It is a private silence, not shared at all, not social or awkward or collaborative.”

“It’s different, you mean, from today when Marsha talked about her faith and the room became silent?”

“Exactly,” the teacher said.  “That’s a good example.  Almost every time, when a student starts talking about faith, the silence in the room become stiff and everyone becomes aware of what everyone else is thinking.  It’s an incredibly social silence.  Today, I asked a difficult question at the beginning of the discussion, and students couldn’t right away connect it to their own experiences or to the text we’re reading; instead, they just sat there, waiting for someone else to talk or for me to change the question.”

“No one tried to answer the question for a couple minutes at least,” the student teacher said.  “It was incredibly awkward.”

“Sometimes the room goes quiet in a discussion because someone has violated a taboo–they’ve crossed a line that everyone is aware of.  When that happens, you have to address it immediately.  But that wasn’t what happened today in the discussion.  That was the silence that happens when I ask a question that can’t be answered easily.  At first its awkward, and it’s a  shared feeling, but then individual students start morphing out of that attitude, and they start thinking.  You can hear that happening:  you can hear that in the silence–the reluctance to think gradually evolves into  curiosity about the idea that they’ve been given, and that’s the kind of sound we are listening for.”

“I couldn’t hear that.  I couldn’t hear that happening.”

“You will.  Your ears will become attuned to the sounds of classroom silences.”

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