Entering week two of the Health Activist Writer’s Month Challenge, and I’m pressing on, fueled by the creativity and the unflagging spirit that leaps from the writings of my Army of Women comrades, AnneMarie at chemo-brain.blogspot.com Jan Hasak at Mourning has Broken and my country-woman Marie Ennis-O’Connor at Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer. Today, I get a bit of a reprieve. I can write about whatever I want. I’m supposed to “think big, broad, or challenging,” and write the post I’ve always wanted to but haven’t had the time. Time. I was talking to my mother on the phone this morning about how there’s simply never enough of it. Initially she wasn’t in the best of form because today in Northern Ireland, where she lives, “it’s not taking time to rain.” I love the dialect of homeand find that colloquialisms such as this function for me a little like grace notes in conversations with my parents. Every once in a while, they’ll surprise me with a new one, and today was no exception. And it was, pun intended, about time. Something I said to my mother today prompted her to ask my father to re-tell a story from years ago, the point of which lay in the response to his impatience from an old woman who lived out in the country: “Are you trying to tell me,” she retorted “that ‘the man above’ short-timed you more than me?” Duly chastised, my father was forced to wait.
On silence, T.S.Eliot wrote, “And they write innumerable books; being too vain and distracted for silence: seeking every one after his own elevation, and dodging his emptiness “
Bob Dylan, several decades later, said that ‘experience teaches us that silence terrifies people the most.’ Were the song and dance man to spend some time observing teachers in classrooms, I think he may find some proof of that. You might find disconcerting, at best, some of the research which states that the average teacher spends somewhere around a second waiting for students to respond after asking a question. One second. Perhaps 1.5 seconds on a good day. 1.5 seconds for students to reflect on what was asked, perhaps even translate from their native language what was asked, and then come up with an answer that only feels comfortable if it is correct. In some classrooms, a not-so-casual observer might notice what appear to be “professional classroom participants” whose hands immediately shoot up signaling that they have the answer the teacher is looking for. Sometimes their responses carry them with ease as they gloss over number one in order to get to number two. Other times, when the topic at hand fails to captivate them, they offer instead the red herring, hoping to kill time as they wait for the bell to ring. When the silence is too hard to take, the teacher will often answer her own question and move on.
In the trade, in our glossary of what I once heard dismissed as ‘edubabble,’ this period of time between the asking of a question and the delivery of a response is simply referred to as ‘wait time.’ Apparently, it’s not so simple. In fact, within the realm of formative assessment, of eliciting evidence of learning, questioning is a craft, a critical strategy. As Shirley Clarke asserts, and those of us who have spent a couple of decades observing instruction know, increasing wait time, allowing students to jot down their responses first, and asking for hands to remain down are all strategies that can help teachers effectively “elicit evidence” of learning. Nothing new here. We have known this for decades, yet all too frequently, it seems, there are teachers who find themselves in classrooms wholly unprepared to play the waiting game.
When I was a little girl, about 10, I remember participating in a variety of fund-raisers, one of which was a sponsored silence. Indeed. A sponsored silence for students, many of whom were already too scared to answer questions posed by their teachers in case they were wrong, or who who never got to answer the question because the teacher moved on to someone else at the very moment when they had formulated the answer and rehearsed it silently before daring to raise a hand. Here’s a thought … how about a sponsored silence fundraiser for teachers? Imagine the ‘sage on the stage’ silent, perhaps a little terrified at first, while students grapple with content. Silence. No teacher-talk.
After close to thirty years in education, most of these in Arizona – not a silent state – I have fallen in love with the Phoenix canals, the legacy of the Hohokam Indians. It is on the canals that I love to run, without playlist, podcast, or companion. In the silence, especially before the sun rises, I do some of my most productive thinking. It is clear and uncluttered. Covering the same trek, over and over, I have written countless books it seems. I have solved budget and scheduling problems. I have made hiring decisions. I have taken on national issues concerning health, gun control, and immigration. I have planned imaginary weddings and pondered the divorces of others I know only from celebrity magazines. I have put together outfits and accessories for a variety of occasions and audiences, and I have cast actors and actresses in the movie of my life with a soundtrack that would compare to something compiled by a collaboration with Martin Scorsese and Robbie Robertson. My imagination knows no bounds, especially when it roams freely without any sonic interference.
Students, young and old, need time to to think, to ponder, to wonder, to answer a question with a question. It would be no small thing if we could guarantee for every student a daily opportunity to offer a considered, thoughtful response to a question posed in a classroom by someone willing to wait.