Saturday, April 16, 2011

Silence in the library

I have not been doing much writing lately, not because I have not had things I wanted to write about, but mostly because I have not had (or made) the time for reflection; writing, for me, is often how I bring clarity to and organize my thoughts. And while I have a lot of ideas bouncing around my brain (and it does sometimes quite literally feels like they're bouncing around), spring is also the busy season in the library, so between that and several other side projects going on, there's very little time to sit and reflect and write.

One of the projects I've been occupied with is helping students organize our Day of Silence, which we held on Thursday (the national Day of Silence was Friday, but we had parent-teacher conferences). I had five classes that day, so staying completely silent myself was not a realistic option, but I instead chose to stay silent during the optional speaking portions of my day--between classes, lunch, etc. (though I was not perfect on that count, I did try. Talking is a hard habit to break).

When working with students who were staying silent, I usually stayed silent myself. And while I don't think this is usually the best way to work with students all the time, just staying quiet while working with a student definitely has its advantages.

There is value in pausing both before asking a question, and before answering one. If a silent student had a question, they would usually take more time on their own to figure out what to do next, rather than asking right away. I work with a lot of students who, at the first hint of uncertainty, ask for help. And while I'm glad they ask for help rather than give up, it's also gratifying to see them take the few moments of extra time and figure out the answer for themselves. The silence seemed to create a permission to pause.

I also ended up taking more time to answer, and by staying silent there was less temptation to just give the answer--I really needed to guide (and point and gesture) students to where they were going. I know we all know the importance of giving time for students to answer questions, but I hadn't thought as much about giving myself time to answer questions. Taking time and how we use and organize our time has been on my mind lately as I read and think about executive functioning (more on that later as I wrap my head around some ideas).

My library can be a noisy, active place (particularly when there are multiple classes in here doing research), but with so many students staying silent on Thursday, it was a much quieter space--even though it was quite crowded. And while I love the activity and bustle of students working and being noisy, the relative quiet created an environment where it was possible for students to immerse themselves in what they were doing with little interruption. I have always thought of school libraries as a place for both collaboration and contemplation; unfortunately the physical layout of my space makes it difficult for both types of spaces to exist at the same time, and it was nice to have a day where the focus was more on contemplation.

Many students talked about how hard it was to be quiet all day, and even though I wasn't silent all day, I understood what they were talking about. I have, as I mentioned above, been feeling kind of disjointed lately, with no time to be quiet and reflect. Finally having that time (even in short bursts) was kind of unsettling. When I had a new thought or idea I had to just. . . sit with it, rather than sharing it immediately. And while it was challenging--and sometimes frustrating--it was also a nice change of pace.

I also thought about the ways we communicate without talking. By staying silent we do lose out on the opportunity to share our ideas and develop new ideas collaboratively, but I believe we also gain a lot by focusing so much on what others are communicating non-verbally. The words students took the time and effort to write carried more weight. I also had to tune in more carefully to hints like posture and facial expression to let me know how a student was doing. There are a lot of things our students tell us without words, things that matter as much if not more than the words they use.

And outside of the implications for teaching and learning, there was a lot I got out of the day. Forty-one students participated, almost a quarter of the student body, and many more showed their support in different ways. My first year here (which was not that long ago), one student participated. It's hard for me to put into words how powerful that was, and to listen to students reflect on the experience.

It has me thinking a lot about how, on an ongoing basis, we can create that silent space, the space to listen, and the space to have your voice heard.

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