Within Silence: The Spirituality of the Classroom

Within Silence
The Spirituality of the Classroom
by Marco Odiaga

John Dewey proclaimed a century ago that every school is first and foremost a social rather than an intellectual enterprise. Every classroom benefits from finding and cultivating an appreciation of the inherent value that permeates all human endeavors, and the result is nothing short of a spiritual life within the classroom.

From such space, together we can achieve a thematic and critical thinking-based approach to education that makes school-based learning truly relevant by connecting it to real life. 

***

In 1999, I was hired to teach Cultural History at something of a laboratory school on Long Island. The founder was enamored with Eastern philosophy, so every morning the faculty was required to do Tai Chi, and a very nice gentleman from North Carolina came to teach us how to lead students through centering exercises.  I recall chuckling at myself as I tried to hold poses and get students to listen for their own heartbeats.

In 2000, having decided the tone and pace of experimentation at the laboratory school didn’t sit well with me, I moved on to George School, a Quaker boarding school outside of Philadelphia. At George, Meeting for Worship (Meeting) took place at least twice a week, and the silence that characterizes Quaker life occupied what Friends would refer to as a “weighty” presence within the community. 

Living and teaching in a genuinely Quaker community conferred upon me a very simple gift that now defines both my life and my work. I did not merely learn how to be silent; I learned how to be within silence

Being silent—much less being within silence—did not, however, start well for me. I recall my first Meeting at George as somewhat torturous. While being silent for almost 40 minutes was fairly straightforward, realizing that I truly had no idea what to do with the silence made the experience feel somewhat intimidating. I went back to the old centering exercises I had learned from the nice man from North Carolina, and I tried to listen to my heartbeat and imagine the ripples fading after a stone was cast onto a glass-still pond. Following that first Meeting, I had a clear sense that others accessed some kind of a shared experience that seemed rejuvenating. I, however, left feeling like someone who was merely cobbling together bits and pieces of a conversation overheard in some exotic foreign tongue. 

As time went on, I watched and listened intently in faculty meetings to adults who embodied the most basic tenet of Quaker learning, namely that all wisdom is arrived at in a corporate manner. Not only did those meetings begin with silence, but a purposeful and silent pause also followed every comment, allowing each person’s thought genuinely to hold the gathering for just a few moments. 

Founding Quaker George Fox advised his contemporaries to “be still and cool in thine own mind and spirit.” These words came to serve me quite well, and Meeting eventually became, for me too, a shared space of safety and reciprocity. The open-hearted silence I contributed to any and every gathering afforded me both license and blessing to add my thoughts—no matter how incomplete or speculative. George was the only school I’ve ever seen genuinely “owned” by its faculty, who thought and acted as a consensus-reverent whole.

Perhaps because every student attended Meeting at least once each week (boarders also being required to attend on Sundays), silence was not part of the regular classroom routine at George. However, inspired by the safety and openness achieved through silence, I chose to make silence part of the daily routine of my classroom, encouraging students to welcome silence as they experienced it at Meeting, creating a pool of quiet contemplation from which any student—if moved to speak—could share with the class any idea or comment s/he deemed worthy of group consideration. Daily school life generates moments, challenges and questions that often have no properly dedicated space for sharing, so I designated five to ten minutes at the start of each class to this practice. Speaking at Meeting in front of up to 250 people was for many of my students somewhat unthinkable. The classroom provided a far more accessible opportunity surrounded by a smaller group of peers who became even more trusted and familiar with each passing day. 

Despite already being familiar with silence, my students at George did not know at first what to make of the silence in the classroom.  We needed to work on the logistics; I stressed the importance of isolation as a pre-requisite to a truly useful silence. During our daily silence, no messages were to be passed, no gesturing was to take place, no Rubix Cubes or headphones were to be shared, no pre-class unpacking was to take place, no homework was to be done, no assigned reading for any course was permitted, and no screens were permitted. Acknowledging that a student’s day was inevitably more prescribed and therefore more frantic than that of any teacher, I even encouraged students to master the fine art of the five-minute nap. It was my way of letting them know that tiredness was a part of real life and, therefore, would no longer be seen as forbidden or marginalized in my classroom. 

I asked my students at George to envision the classroom itself as a key player in the process; we discussed not only what makes a space safe but also what makes it sacred in an almost secular way, if possible.

Finally, I asked my students at George to envision the classroom itself as a key player in the process; we discussed not only what makes a space safe but also what makes it sacred in an almost secular way, if possible. We connected these classroom practices to early-semester lessons on the significance of geography in the unfolding of history, addressing both the physical and human characteristics of place. Accordingly, our daily period of silence would begin at the start of the class period, whether I was there or not. As with the Meetinghouse, the classroom became associated with a respectful silence. 

Interestingly, discussing guidelines for silence almost demanded a discussion of guidelines for speaking to one another. We restructured class discussions so that I offered the first question and called on the first respondent myself, and from there, students would then call on one another, remembering always to call on classmates who had not yet spoken that day before those who already had (in a manner reminiscent of Meeting, where one does not rise to speak more than once). This forced students to resist the almost mechanical impulse to look down or away immediately after concluding their own comments. We practiced always putting our hands down when someone else was speaking so as not to give the impression of enduring that person’s words rather than truly listening to them. Challenging ourselves to establish and maintain eye contact opened up a whole new challenge and area of exploration—what do we make of the body language of others, and how can we be mindful of our own? We watched videos of people being interviewed, and we challenged ourselves to see and decipher what people said with no words. 

As my students developed an awareness of how we communicated collectively, they began to think about such topics as the use and misuse of authority, voice, and power. We considered not only the mechanics of discussion but the ethics of it as well, asking ourselves questions about confidentiality, humor, responsibility, and the emotional impact of our words upon others, whether that impact be intended or not. We brought that same reflective discipline from our discussions to the historical content as well, pondering the ways in which empathy (or the lack thereof) plays a significant role in the unfolding of every historical topic of study and wondering what we don’t know about a historical figure’s life, emotions, beliefs, or accomplishments.

The daily periods of silence became more still. Students fidgeted less.

As the weeks passed, my students at George clearly went from enduring the “rules” to embracing the opportunity. The daily periods of silence became more still. Students fidgeted less. More personal literature and journals appeared. Even at a school with no hard and fast rules about passing time between classes, students admitted to purposely arriving sooner than they did at the start of the year because they wanted to be within the silence. A wonderfully gentle balance evolved between students being moved to speak during our silence while also hesitating to break that silence by doing so—we even had a lively discussion about whether “breaking” was the most appropriate verb to use in this situation!

Class discussions blossomed no less than did our periods of silence—eye contact increased, elocution and delivery improved, and slouching and yawning were replaced by chin-rubbing and brow-furrowing. It became fairly common for 80-85% of the students in every class to raise their hand at least once to be called on by peers, and days where every student volunteered a comment became far less rare. In fact, multi-voiced discussions became so routine that students actually noticed, named, and then pondered why certain topics would be slower to gather momentum. My all-time favorite example of two students being able to name the discomfort surrounding us came when one asked, “Hey Marco, why do you think this ‘building a free country on the backs of slaves’ stuff feels so hard to talk about?” Only to have another chime in with, “Wait. Wait. WAIT! Why ask Marco? What’s the rush? Don’t ask Marco—at least not yet.”

***

My second and final year at George began on Monday, September 10, 2001. 

On that first day, I introduced my expectations regarding silence, discussion, and community to four classes of students. To my very pleasant surprise, several replied with different versions of, “Yeah, I heard this stuff is really cool.” I was just about to enter an already silent classroom on Tuesday, September 11, 2001 when I was called back into the department office by two colleagues who were watching the first tower burn, thinking it had perhaps been accidentally struck by a small plane in distress. I walked in just as the second tower was hit, and I recall thinking it was a hastily prepared digital re-enactment of what might have happened earlier. 

Mere moments after learning of the news ourselves, we had to go to our students, not knowing whether they knew any of what was transpiring. Located less than 100 miles from the towers, we also realized that a good many students might have personal connections to people directly affected and perhaps even killed in the attacks. While I sat in silence with my students, gathering my thoughts about how to inform them, a school-wide Meeting was immediately convened. We spent the next 90 minutes together, receiving the news of the subsequent disasters. A great many rose to speak at that gathering, and for all I know, everyone got a quick and critical lesson on being within silence that awful day.

After a very lengthy silence at the start of my classes on September 12, we began processing how to juxtapose front-page details of the newspapers, which were given to every student at George during his or her first period class each day, with the reality of what we experienced unfolding all around us. From that day forward, we considered the potential impact of the news on our understanding of the tragedy. For example, when the New York Times first published a front-page picture of then-suspected bomber Mohamed Atta, my students quickly moved from admitting their rage to recognizing that, whether Atta was actually guilty or not, by printing his image at that moment, the Times arguably sealed his fate. 

I always have ended the last day of each year by standing at the door and shaking each departing student’s hand, offering sincere thanks and best wishes. June of 2002 was different. Departing students hugged one another and even hugged me. Some tears were shed by both boys and girls. In that moment my mind wandered to a certain mild regret: they almost could not help but automatically thank me for so much of what they had actually created and maintained all on their own.  But then one girl—whose name I remember as well her face and who along with her peers knew I would not return—purposely went to the end of the line, waiting to talk to me. As she approached, she stopped two feet away, shaking her head at me and smiling as she said, “Don’t worry, Marco—we’ll show other kids and teachers how this gets done right.” 

That comment comforted me more than anything else because it not only conveyed a confidence about what was learned, but also about the ability of that learning to exist and thrive within any classroom. Her determination to pollinate this learning further—to take an active role in making what was already a healthy community even healthier—may have been the most powerful validation of my approach to cultivating a spiritual classroom.

***

That was almost 15 years ago. Only by leaving George would I come to realize a far more valuable lesson. Some aspect of Quaker spirituality had to inhabit every class and classroom of mine going forward because it offered tools and practices that would both broaden and dignify any education students might experience under my watch. I have come to realize that, as a life-long educator, I contribute most effectively by helping to form a safe and open space within which any group of students can take responsible ownership over educating themselves. For this, grappling with silence and, therefore, voice is essential.

This kind of spirituality in a classroom, which some might accuse of being religious, is not deadening and dogmatic; rather it is liberating and empowering. It re-humanizes the people and events of the past and teaches students how to access their own humanity. It gives flesh, bones, and sinew to erstwhile concepts such as ethical agency, sustainability, community, legacy, respect, and forgiveness.

Being in silence means searching for opportunities, whether by allowing space to create them or empowering others to do so. It means stepping back and falling (or remaining) silent, because so much of value and potential is unfolding in a space made sacred by the thoughtful practices and caring intentions of those gathered. This kind of spirituality in a classroom, which some might accuse of being religious, is not deadening and dogmatic; rather it is liberating and empowering. It re-humanizes the people and events of the past and teaches students how to access their own humanity. It gives flesh, bones, and sinew to erstwhile concepts such as ethical agency, sustainability, community, legacy, respect, and forgiveness. Most importantly, this kind of spirituality is not hard to ask of students because it helps bridge the canyon between what is real in their own lives and hearts and what often feels forced, faked, antiquated, or just plain stupid in their schools and classrooms. 

This spirituality in the classroom—perhaps best encompassed by the growing body of educational research and perspective known as Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)—can attach itself to any age group and to any field of study. In fact, it should be the reverse. SEL is neither extra-curricular nor even curricular. I believe it is pre-curricular or sub-curricular at every stage of the educational process, and I have come to this belief because of my experiences within silence in my classrooms. §


Marco Odiaga has been teaching students and teachers for the past 25 years at both private and public institutions. His focus as an educator is on understanding adolescent development and cognition, creating healthy communities, and exploring what constitutes good teaching, worthy curriculum, and fair assessment. While pursuing a doctoral degree in educational leadership, Marco now consults on issues of diversity and social justice, mentors student teachers, and co-teaches an online graduate course on Social and Emotional Learning.


Header Image: Dorchester High School classroom, Dorchester, Boston, MA. Photograph by A.H. Folsom. Dorchester High School photographs circa 1901 (Collection # 0420.027), City of Boston Archives.

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