From Silence to Stillness

Silence has many negative connotations today. “To be silenced” is to be cut off from communication and the community. Silence can suggest collusion with harmful behaviors such as bullying. In school, silence can be used to punish or correct. As far as I can tell, my students experience no regular periods of silence during their day; they associate quiet with negative experiences at school, such as testing or being in trouble. However, in our noisy world, silence is also a powerful tool that can be used positively in the classroom to increase learning and mental health. This kind of silence might be better described as mental stillness. I hope that my students will learn the skills of mental stillness to experience a refreshing break, one that is linked with increased creativity and the opportunity for inspiration. As teachers, we need to reclaim silence from its punitive associations and use it to promote student wellness and focus in our classrooms.

Considerable research has been conducted in the field of the mind-body connection that suggests a positive link between meditation and increased abilities to focus. In an experiment that studied adult meditators, “magnetic resonance imaging showed that regular practice of meditation is associated with increased thickness in a subset of cortical regions … [that are] essential for sustaining attention.” Findings from another study, lead by Harvard Medical School psychologist Sara Lazar, suggest that “meditation practice can promote cortical plasticity in adults in areas important for cognitive and emotional processing and well-being.” While these findings are important, few classroom teachers will find that they have the inclination, training, or permission to lead students in meditation.

As teachers, we may find that the simple use of silence can help us reach lead us towards similar goals of wellness. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn is well-known for his decades of work at UMass Medical School on stress reduction. He advocates the use of meditation and other techniques, which he calls mental stillness, to lead us towards some of these same benefits. In his book, Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting, he writes: "Learning at a young age to touch silence and stillness within oneself; especially if it is taught in school in an open and non-manipulative or coercive way, can be valuable in balancing out and dealing with the stimulation and outward orientation of the school day. Among other things, children can discover how to tap into their innate ability to go into deep states of concentration, and use it to focus on the task at hand." 

Pervasive communication technology also plays a role in our need for teaching stillness. Although silence has long been considered the opposite of speaking, my students are fine with the kind of silence that limits speech, as long as they can text. When I ask them to be silent, they are not concerned until I clarify that they need to be silent and unplugged, and some are then quite challenged. Providing training for this kind of mental stillness in the classroom thus becomes very important since they do not have a model for it elsewhere in their lives. Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT and an expert on the impact mobile technology and social networking has have on relationships, is concerned that technology is diminishing our ability to listen and comprehend lengthy, complicated ideas. In an interview with the PBS program FrontLine, she said, “To hear someone else out, you need to be able to be still for a while and pay attention to something other than your immediate needs. … I think that part of K through 12 education now should be to give students a place for this kind of stillness.” 

How can we begin to move beyond imposing silence punitively, to actively teaching silence as wellness? First, we should consider how we use silence in the classroom. The most common use occurs when it silence is imposed by the teacher during assessments or individual work time. In this use, silence can unify the class, bringing everyone in the room to the same task at the same time. When my students ask why they must be silent, my most basic answer is that they must practice this, must learn how to focus and think in an atmosphere of silence to prepare them for examinations. Although they like to do homework with music blasting, they can learn to work without it. The ability to do silent work does not come naturally to my kidsstudents, but is a learned skill they that can improve with regular practice. 

Another simple use of silence that we are all familiar with is the short, silent break to calm the temperament of the class. This kind of silence differs from test-taking silence in that it is not primarily intended to help what we are doing at the moment, but is used to prepare us for what happens next. It serves to clearly demarcate this time from that which precedes and follows it. This is a great life skill to develop since we all need to be able to disengage from stressful situations, calm our nerves and reengage with increased clarity of purpose. There are many techniques for helping students of all ages practice self-calming, such as focusing awareness on the breath. 

Careful listening is another method that can be used to develop mindful silence. For this exercise, students are instructed to pay close attention to ambient noise outside the classroom. If you are fortunate enough to be able to hear the rain pattering, or noise from a distant playground, use that as a focal point. I’ve even used the less bucolic sound of the air conditioner from the portable next door as a listening tool. The source of ambient noise is unimportant; it is the experience of sensing oneself as a quiet observer of the world around that is instructive.
 
Teachers who work in schools that are religiously affiliated have an additional opportunity in chapel to allow students to be exposed to group silence that is designed to open their perception to spirit. Having attended many school services, I realize that developing spiritual perception in this setting is a tall order. The overpowering urge for students to communicate with each other, through words, notes, and gestures, is in no way reduced just because chapel has started. Then, of course, teachers are pulled into their role of disciplinarians instead of participants. However, everyone is missing out if we do not find ways to let the community know that during the service silence itself is deliberately used as a powerful tool for a specific end. Communal stillness provides a moment to reinforce the normalcy and healthiness of contemplation. It allows us to witness each other as having important internal experiences, without needing to express our private thoughts. Students are relieved to know that they do not have to believe or assent to the religious content of the service to benefit from the silence, and through their quiet they bring benefit to the rest of the community as well.
 
Students feel less awkward and self-conscious when they have an activity that allows them to express their physical energy while experimenting with quiet. To explore this method we can uncouple mental stillness from physical stillness. A silent walk on the edge of campus works well. I sweeten the pot by allowing my kids to talk on the way back if they can be silent on the way out. Artwork, folding paper cranes, or building models can also be done silently. Although listening to music during art time is one of my students’ favorite activities, changing the routine from time to time, and using silence during a creative activity (clearly not as a punitive measure), can bring positive results and link silence with fun. Lessons such as these may also allow us to detangle silence from mental struggle. It allows us to teach students to rest in silence. Learning how to rest in silence is like learning how to float in water; it involves trust and relaxation.

Not all of my students are interested in silence and at their age, few choose to cultivate it outside the classroom. However, some students are intrigued enough to give it a shot and share their impressions with me. An experience of silence is difficult to describe, given its personal, interior nature. The comments my students make to me indicate they have had a surprise, a happy discovery in their moments of quiet. What impressed one boy was that he was able to do his homework more efficiently without his usual aural input. Another student was caught off guard by her own reluctance to re-enter the world of noise following her quiet time. They have found something they did not know existed, and which they will have access to forever. Of course we teach best what we know and appreciate ourselves. To what degree do we cultivate mental stillness in our own lives? By exploring and deepening our own relationship with silence and stillness, we will be better equipped to engage our students in this activity. 

References

Yale University. "Meditation Associated With Increased Grey Matter In The Brain." ScienceDaily, (Nov. 11, 2005).

William Cromie. "Meditation Found to Increase Brain Size." Harvard Gazette (February 2, 2006). 

Myla Kabat-Zinn, Myla, and Jon Kabat-Zinn. Everyday Blessings: the Inner Work of Mindful Parenting. (New York: Hyperion, 2008).

"Interview: Sherry Turkle." February 2, 2010. PBS.org. “Frontline: Ddigital Nnation,” (PBS) 2 Accessed October 10, 2011

For additional ideas, see: Greenland, Susan Kaiser. The Mindful Child: How to Help Your Kid Manage Stress and Become Happier, Kinder, and More Compassionate by Susan Kaiser Greenland. (New York: Free Press, 2010).

Amanda McClure

Amanda McClure has taught history and religion for many years in both private and public schools.