On the Topic of Silence

I’ve been talking about silence with my students in the 10th grade English section I am teaching this year. The topic came up in two ways.

We’re doing Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice right now, in which a couple characters are ribbed by others for talking too much. Later there’s a painful speech about having a loved one nearby at one’s death, which speech ends, “…and then I care not.” This provoked a class discussion about how something so succinct could be so powerful, in contrast to the characters who ramble on comically.

The second reason we focused on silence ties into our practice of starting each class period with shared silence – a practice I learned teaching for eight years in Quaker (or Society of Friends) schools (think Sidwell Friends, where Chelsea Clinton went and the Obama girls now go, as an example of a renowned Quaker school). Quakers believe one looks for the inner light of the divine by sitting in silence, but even without such theological reasons, silent reflection can be meaningful. I had therefore at the beginning of the semester invited my class to start each period with shared silence, explaining we would review the practice periodically, and if they preferred to stop doing it, I would respect that.

We first had tried 30 seconds, and after a few weeks had grown to about two minutes. Last week, however, all my students were at our table five minutes before the period was scheduled to start, so I asked if they would like to use the time in silence, to which they readily agreed. After five minutes I broke the silence, and commended them, asking why they liked our start-of-class habit. Here are a few of the things they told me:

  • Our lives are too hectic, and it feels good to have a break.
  • Silence helps to clear our heads before class.
  • I get to think about what we read before we discuss it.
  • It relaxes me.

So while we don’t focus on the Quaker theology of using silence to tap into the  inner voice of God, these thoughtful reasons clearly show that our sophomores have a sophisticated appreciation for this counter-cultural discipline. They like to add some reflection to an otherwise hectic day. Even Shakespeare would be impressed…I certainly was!

Warm regards,
James S. Berkman
Head of School