The Sound of Silence

Brian JohnsonSo we recently had a seminar in class for the tail end of my “Reading 9/11” unit, which has been a pretty solid unit in the past and has been a great way to introduce and explore the idea that there are multiple ways of looking at a single event, and that different sources of information have their advantages and disadvantages.  It’s a little bit of media studies mixed in with literary analysis (bonus: introduction of the idea that literary analysis can be applied to non-fiction) and history.  The seminar is your basic “everyone sits in a circle and we have a discussion” format, with me serving as moderator; furthermore, since it’s usually the first such discussion of the year, I don’t even grade it.  I just figure we’ll talk, you know?

If it’s going well, all I’m doing is making sure that everyone is being heard and nobody is talking over one another.  Ideas are shared, insights are gained, and we have a pretty good time.  When these don’t go well, it’s long, awkward silences punctuated by the occasional comment, one that’s usually obvious, that shows that not only did the class not do the assigned reading but that they can’t even fake their way through it.  It is the very definition of the oxymoron “deafening silence.”

Having set the expectation that I’m simply going to ask a few questions to get the ball rolling and that most of the discussion should be my students, I ask the question or questions and when nobody answers, I just sit back in my chair and look around the room, watching them look at each other as if they’re trying to figure out who actually did the work and is going to jump in and save them from the awkwardness that is taking place.  Then, I’m quiet for some more, letting them feel how brutal such long, awkward silences can be.   After enough time has passed, I’ll repeat the question or rephrase it or follow it up a little and see if that helps.  That’s usually when I get the “I’m not prepared but I’ll say something really obvious to save face” answer from someone, to which I reply, “Well, we know that … can you be more specific/can you go deeper/can you explain why?” or any other question that basically calls that particular bluff.

At the end of the class period, I usually comment on how the rest of the seminars for the year are student run, really don’t involve me talking (I literally sit in the back of the room and say nothing for most of the class, chiming in only toward the end with questions I thought of during the discussion), are for a grade, and while I’m used to long periods of awkward silence in class their classmates who will be running those seminars are not.  I probably sound a little disappointed, but I don’t get angry or make some grand speech about expecting more from honors students or the value of academics–those speeches never work anyway.  Then I do my usual personal debrief.

After this latest one, I started doing my usual debriefing and kept thinking about what I had done wrong and began making a mental list of all of my inadequacies as an educator.  I shouldn’t have forced students to read and talk about what they read.  I should have let them write the lesson plans.  I shouldn’t have expected they would be interested in the topic or the pieces we read just because I was.  The activity was not authentic enough.  I should have brought in an expert (which I’m obviously not).  I shouldn’t have asked questions I already knew the answers to. I  should have used technology.  I should have had them tweet instead of talk.

I went outside and talked to a couple of colleagues between classes.  Then, I had an epiphany:  I need to stop thinking like an Educator and start thinking like a teacher.

So, planning rolled around and before I moved on to making copies and grading papers, I gave the seminar another thought and instead of launching into an internal blog post about the nature of the educational system in the 21st Century and my role as an Educator, I thought about what might need adjusting.  I wrote a few notes on my lesson plans and then stowed them away for when I cover these concepts again and for when I plan next year’s classes.  It was easy, it was quick, and I walked away feeling less stressed than before.

Why such a mental shift?  Well, thinking like an Educator, I have found, is more detrimental than I’d originally thought because thinking like an Educator is a “none of the credit, all of the blame” mentality.  To think like an educator, you have to buy into the idea that the lack of excitement in the class during a failed seminar is all your fault and has nothing to do, say, with anyone else being unprepared.   It is a complete and utter shredding of your self-confidence.

When I think like a teacher, the solutions come quicker and easier.  I am not “blameless” in any regard and I do not consider myself infallible or to have a monopoly on knowledge and information; I can simply look at the situation more objectively and can adjust and readjust more quickly, even in the moment.  I remember that it’s okay to be sure of myself, it’s okay to consider myself an expert on a topic, and it’s okay that I have knowledge and that I know the answers to some of the questions I am asking.

And I also remember that it’s okay to have some silence every once in a while.

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