The Value of Silence

Migrated Account
0 0 547

This post originally appeared on April 16, 2014.

Lately, I’ve noticed that my tolerance for wait time—those moments of silence during a classroom discussion– is getting bad.  Really bad.  And perhaps, more importantly, my conviction that class is going horribly if my students aren’t talking nonstop has gotten stronger.  I want my students to be talking, and I want them talking now.

But that doesn’t work. That’s why I’ve been trying to be more conscious of (and patient with) wait time, which is something that has always been part of my struggle in the classroom.  And I’ve recently discovered that giving students time to look for answers before expecting a response has actually done wonders.

Take a class where I taught Naguib Mahfouz’s short story “Zaabalawi.”  The story is a quest narrative where the narrator, in search of fulfillment and a transcendent experience, seeks out a mystic.  Critics argue that below the surface of Mahfouz’s tale lies a great deal of political critique.  To get to that, I wanted students to talk about the various characters that the narrator meets in his search – and particularly how, in the story, different members of Egyptian society treat the seeker along his quest.

I realized that if I wanted students to respond meaningfully to Mahfouz’s story, I needed to pose clear questions and give them a chance to process them. I needed to give my students time to look at the story for the answers and (most importantly) to point to direct quotations that would illustrate and support their answers.  I gave students 5 minutes and 3 questions:

1. Who is the character?

2. What profession is he in?

3. How does her respond to the narrator’s quest?

By doing so, I provided students with a way in to the text and an opportunity for them to process their ideas before responding.

I simply stopped in the middle of class and asked students to look at the text and apply the above questions to the characters they encountered. When we resumed discussion we were able to chart out on the board the various characters – and point to Mahfouz’s criticism of the figures of social authority in the text (for example, the saintly Zaabalawi is mostly like to be found with the drunkard, and not with the lawyer).

It’s so simple, and yet so hard sometimes to remember that in our classrooms, our students need time to process our questions and to re-read literary texts with our questions in mind. They need us to take off the pressure of answering questions immediately. To let this happen, I’ve learned that it’s a good practice to wait out a long silence.

About the Author
Emily Isaacson received her BA from Augustana College (Illinois) and her MA and PhD from the University of Missouri. Previously at Chowan University, where she was the coordinator of the Chowan Critical Thinking Program, Emily is now working as an assistant professor of English at Heidelberg University. She has presented her work on early modern literature and on teaching literature at meetings of the Shakespeare Association of America, the Renaissance Society of America, South Atlantic Modern Language Association, and the College English Association. She also frequently reviews books about teaching literature in the classroom.