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Bring the (Lack of) Noise: Effectively Using Silence with Your Students

Environment

Silence is a powerful tool for an environmental educator.  It helps nature be less impacted by the volume level of the field group, inviting teachable moments to occur around your students.  Using silence allows your students to practice a powerful part of communication – when unable to speak over everybody, how can we still communicate our ideas?  When a fellow student is unable to speak, how can we make sure their ideas are respected?  These are just possible objectives, but you need to make sure that you are not trying to ram a square peg through a round hole just because you really like square pegs.

How do you use silence? One important thing to consider about silence is framing.  Rather than merely demanding “silence” or even inviting “quiet,” it’s important to help the students understand that they are in control of what they say and do.  In practice, this could look like a roll-out of silence being, “we are going to practice controlling our volume,” or “this is an opportunity for us to spend time hearing what nature has to say.”  The possibilities are endless, but the importance is in the students’ perception of the expectation – they need to feel like it’s to their benefit, and not merely a way to make them quiet.  Calling activities “silent activities” is perfectly acceptable, however, as it will help reinforce that this is at least a time for them to make as little noise as possible.  Their volume usually is rarely an issue, however, as the noises of nature combined with the hope of amazing wilderness experiences can create a glorious suspense in your students that you can capitalize on.

Carry a white board, several different colors of markers, and an eraser.  Use it to communicate your lesson with your students.  Script it out if you at all can, and try and keep it short.  The less you write, the better.  If the students can see you writing, they will often try and predict how you are going to finish.  Along with the engagement assessment that this feedback provides, it helps train the students to focus their attention on you when you ask for it, which can be half the battle for any educator.  If the activity involves a student being silent, give them that communication tool and be vigilant about students respecting their silent companions.

Recognize when silence is hurting your cause.  If you encounter a teachable moment and instruction could be time consuming, invite them into “one minute of whispering” so you can utilize the power of that moment and then continue on your silent activity without a hitch.  If they are having a difficult time being silent, remember that they are “practicing controlling their volume” and invite them to try to go a little lower.  For many kids (and this is especially important in an environmental education setting) talking and noise is a way of releasing pressure from the build-up of nervous energy.  So long as it’s on-topic, if they are whispering, you are winning. 

Finally, you should not be completely silent.  Always communicate with your students in some way and allow them some non-vocal way to communicate with one another.  Set up quick cues so that you can immediately get the students attention if necessary – a whistle could mean “look at me” and a tap “stop moving.”  Utilize non-verbal cues that they can use, such as thumbometers, and integrate emotional and physical safeties for them, such as “safety freeze.”  These cues can be continuously used throughout the week.

Silence is a means to an end.  It is a way to help students create space for their neighbors and their environment.  It is a way for them to practice communicating without being able to speak.  It is a way for you to help them be engaged by not having to focus on one very large aspect of their lives.  It is a way to help train them with quick, simple cues, and to focus their attention on you when you ask for it. Silence is a tool, and the ways you can use it are endless.

Silence is a powerful tool for an environmental educator.  It helps nature be less impacted by the volume level of the field group, inviting teachable moments to occur around your students.  Using silence allows your students to practice a powerful part of communication – when unable to speak over everybody, how can we still communicate our ideas?  When a fellow student is unable to speak, how can we make sure their ideas are respected?  These are just possible objectives, but you need to make sure that you are not trying to ram a square peg through a round hole just because you really like square pegs.

How do you use silence? One important thing to consider about silence is framing.  Rather than merely demanding “silence” or even inviting “quiet,” it’s important to help the students understand that they are in control of what they say and do.  In practice, this could look like a roll-out of silence being, “we are going to practice controlling our volume,” or “this is an opportunity for us to spend time hearing what nature has to say.”  The possibilities are endless, but the importance is in the students’ perception of the expectation – they need to feel like it’s to their benefit, and not merely a way to make them quiet.  Calling activities “silent activities” is perfectly acceptable, however, as it will help reinforce that this is at least a time for them to make as little noise as possible.  Their volume usually is rarely an issue, however, as the noises of nature combined with the hope of amazing wilderness experiences can create a glorious suspense in your students that you can capitalize on.

Carry a white board, several different colors of markers, and an eraser.  Use it to communicate your lesson with your students.  Script it out if you at all can, and try and keep it short.  The less you write, the better.  If the students can see you writing, they will often try and predict how you are going to finish.  Along with the engagement assessment that this feedback provides, it helps train the students to focus their attention on you when you ask for it, which can be half the battle for any educator.  If the activity involves a student being silent, give them that communication tool and be vigilant about students respecting their silent companions.

Recognize when silence is hurting your cause.  If you encounter a teachable moment and instruction could be time consuming, invite them into “one minute of whispering” so you can utilize the power of that moment and then continue on your silent activity without a hitch.  If they are having a difficult time being silent, remember that they are “practicing controlling their volume” and invite them to try to go a little lower.  For many kids (and this is especially important in an environmental education setting) talking and noise is a way of releasing pressure from the build-up of nervous energy.  So long as it’s on-topic, if they are whispering, you are winning. 

Finally, you should not be completely silent.  Always communicate with your students in some way and allow them some non-vocal way to communicate with one another.  Set up quick cues so that you can immediately get the students attention if necessary – a whistle could mean “look at me” and a tap “stop moving.”  Utilize non-verbal cues that they can use, such as thumbometers, and integrate emotional and physical safeties for them, such as “safety freeze.”  These cues can be continuously used throughout the week.

Silence is a means to an end.  It is a way to help students create space for their neighbors and their environment.  It is a way for them to practice communicating without being able to speak.  It is a way for you to help them be engaged by not having to focus on one very large aspect of their lives.  It is a way to help train them with quick, simple cues, and to focus their attention on you when you ask for it. Silence is a tool, and the ways you can use it are endless.

About the Author
Joshua Munsell
Joshua Munsell is a graduate student, earning a Masters of Education through the University of Washington in Seattle, WA, and the IslandWood graduate program of Education for Environment and Community on Bainbridge Island, WA. After earning his graduate degree, he hopes to teach English in Japan. Outside of rock climbing and hiking, he enjoys reading fantasy and science fiction novels, games of all sorts, and trying foods he has never had before.