On Wednesday, I didn't say a word. For three classes, from 8 to 4, my mouth stayed absolutely shut. And it was positively enlightening.
I'm not one of those loud, yelling teachers. I do, however, like to talk. But when one of my favorite, brilliant students asked if I would be willing to participate in a day of silence to support gays and lesbians, how could I say no?
I melt whenever Miguel opens his mouth. His thoughts are relevant, insightful, and far beyond his years. He treats everyone kindly, knows when to lead and when to step back, and values his cultural and spiritual communities. He volunteers, marches on the capital, and takes tap dance lessons in his spare time. In short, Miguel seems like one of those kids for whom a teacher could fill out a college recommendation and check the little box that says to rate the student as realistically as you can in comparison with your college preparatory students during the entire course of your career, and the teacher, without hesitation, could check the box marked "Exceptional: within the top 1% of all students."
If it seems like I am gushing, it's because I am. I've been known to actually teeter off my perch on my table in the front of the class when Miguel contributes to the discussion. I just hope that I can, like, teach him something this semester.
Anyway, so Miguel asked me to participate in the day of silence and I agreed. The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) describes the day as follows:
The Day of Silence, a project of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) in collaboration with the United States Student Association (USSA), is a student-led day of action where those who support making anti-LGBT bias unacceptable in schools take a day-long vow of silence to recognize and protest the discrimination and harassment -- in effect, the silencing -- experienced by LGBT students and their allies.
I think this project is excellent. While my school has an active gay population, there is still a lot of intolerance (frankly, revulsion in many cases) present, particularly within the African American community. As with almost all other issues, we are split down the middle. Half of my kids wore the silence stickers and the other half looked on askance or worse.
I was one of the only teachers who participated along with the kids. Because, of course, how could I teach if I couldn't talk? About 10 minutes before the morning bell rang, I really started to regret my decision to participate. I proudly wore my sticker as I tromped through the halls, ignoring the nasty comments when they came. But give up my voice, my power, in the classroom. What a fool I was!
The bell rang, and my first class filed into the room. The kids had heard I was participating and tried to trip me up and get me talking for a couple minutes, but then everyone settled in for, get this, a completely silent class. Silent! For the whole period! We watched a couple clips of Romeo and Juliet and then started a mask project. Glitter. Feathers. Glue and scissors. And silence!
Second period. My wild class. They took awhile longer to quiet down. I asked one girl to read the explanatory statement about why I was silent and the Emily Dickinson webquest we were gonna do in the computer lab. Not hard, right? Once she got in front of the classroom, however, she glared at everyone, and when they didn't quiet down immediately, she told them to shut up. Then, she just glared at them. I motioned for another student to take over the reading. It was strange.
Here's where my enlightenment comes in. Once we got down to the lab I wrote about four things down on one sheet of paper: the URL of the webquest, "go to the library" (in case logins did not work), and two statements that restated the directions on the webquest. Do you know that one piece of paper was all I really needed to run that class for the whole period? There were, like always, 50 million questions, but, what I didn't realize until then, they are the same questions, over and over again.
I just walked around the lab, flipping my piece of paper and pointing. And they were good. They even got some work done.
Third period went well also. They did the same thing as first period, just a little talking during the mask activity. That class is so brilliant and creative, but they are often hard to keep on track, but on this day they got as much done as first period.
Here is what I discovered. They don't need me to learn, and that is awesome. I realized that sometimes I even, gasp, get in the way or create distractions on my own. I chat with students when they should be working, and then I get pissy with them when they aren't on task. I'm not a yelling teacher, but if I can deal with conflicts very successfully while silent, maybe I should try being a bit more quiet in my classroom management as well. Get quiet instead of loud.
When I was an undergraduate taking a special needs course, I learned about teaching the blind by spending an entire day blindfolded. It was incredibly hard, but I learned so much about how it feels to be blind and more about what I would need to do to effectively teach a blind student. So, in addition to wanting to support Miguel, I wanted to support a program that might give that same insight to those who wore the sticker. I don't know if my school community learned to be tolerant of gays and lesbians. I don't know if those who wore the sticker felt a tiny modicum of what it is like to be silenced. But I learned a lot, even if it wasn't what was on the lesson.