Silence as a Teaching Tool: Meditation in the Classroom
Teachers fill their classes with sound. A lecture or assignment that excites a lively class discussion is deemed successful. It is also productive to fill them occasionally with silence. There is no exercise that my students enjoy more than silent meditation. They say they are under a lot of pressure, and a few minutes of quiet with the lights low is refreshing, calming, and settles their minds.
My pedagogic specialty is the application of the principles of linguistics to the writing classroom, and one area of linguistics concerns how ideas are created before they are voiced or written down. Ideas come as plentifully from silence as they do from discussion.
The three meditation-based exercises below give students a creative tool which most of them have never used before.
I. Meditation Before Writing.
Meditation is a sophisticated practice which requires a long time to master. The better title for this exercise may be “quiet concentration” or “pure thinking.”
Exercise: Provide an in-class assignment; it could be a simple description (“What would the ideal classroom look like?”), or a more philosophical question (“What is the right way to discipline young children?”). It could also be a memory question (“What is your earliest memory?”). The question can be tailored to current class work.
Turn the lights off, ask them to silence their electronic devices, tell them to get comfortable, and announce that the meditation will last five minutes.
When the five minutes are up, give them time to write a paragraph on the assigned subject. You could then ask them to read the paragraphs aloud, but that is not required. Ask them to share their reactions to the meditation process.
The payoff would be that the process results in a better final paper, but there is no good method to test that.
It’s a simple exercise, but provides a memorable and often empowering experience for the students.
II. Guided Meditation.
One of the pitfalls of learning is the frequent assumption by students that their view of the world is universally held. In my classes recent statements have ranged from “Everyone serves lasagna on Christmas,” to “Everyone loves their parents,” to “There were no abortions before Roe v. Wade.”
Exercise: Ask students to close their eyes. Ask them to breathe comfortably in and out, and then instruct them to relax their feet, ankles, knees, hips, stomach, throat, eyes, etc. Then guide them in a meditation. This has as many permutations as there are people, but I often use this one:
Imagine you are walking along and you come upon a gate in a fence.
You walk through the gate, and across a wide field.
You come to a body of water, where you stay for a while.
Now turn around and come back to where you started.
You can also use this one:
Imagine you stop your car by the side of the road and walk to a lake 100 yards away
What is on the surface of the lake?
Descend lower into the water. What do you see there?
Descend to the bottom of the lake. What do you see there?
Now rise back to the top and walk to your car.
This part of the exercise should take 5-10 minutes. It takes time for images and impressions to develop, so leave plenty of time between each phase of the imagined experience.
After it is over, ask the students to tell the rest of the class what their fence/field/body of water looked like, what they did while they were walking.
Some students are alone, some with others. For some the field is full of flowers, which they pick, others play soccer with their team. Some go swimming in the water; others dip their toe in, and some just look at it. On their return, some lock the gate behind them; others walk through and leave it open. Some have friends awaiting them on the other side of the gate; others are alone. The imagined experiences are utterly different from one another, and students are amused, amazed, and delighted at the variety.
(As an aside, Thanksgiving provides an opportunity to demonstrate similar diversity on a more practical level. In the first class after the break, I ask each student write down what they ate on Thanksgiving. I have done this three years in a row and there is no single food that “everyone” has served, not even turkey and pumpkin pie. One such real-life example of natural diversity is worth any number of lectures on the subject.)
This is a counter-linguistic exercise in that it involves no language at all until the class reviews what they have imagined – the experience takes place on another level. It is a good opportunity to question where ideas come from, how creativity works, and what our “minds” are.
The dazzling array of different experiences speaks for itself in demonstrating that no two minds think alike. The point can be underlined by noting that their imaginings proceeded from different experiences and expectations, and that this diversity should be assumed in every area of the human experience.
III. Talking Stick:
This exercise is based on tribal ceremonies to resolve differences and hash through issues. It can be used in any discipline to dig deep into a specific area of inquiry. It is nonthreatening, egalitarian, and always interesting. I participate too when the Talking Stick comes into my hand.
Example: In my writing class this semester, the essays are based on the Ages of Man, beginning with “before birth, childbirth, and early childhood.” We are reading poetry, essays, and fictional works which portray or discuss this period in life, and inspiration can be gleaned from these readings, but it is still a daunting challenge to narrow the focus to a specific claim. This semi-meditative exercise provides a rich lode of issues and experiences to enrich the thinking of all members of the class.
Exercise: The teacher must find a “talking stick” of some sort, which is simply an interesting stick. You can tie a ribbon around an ordinary stick from your yard, or use, as I have, a colorful carved walking cane. Some stick-like object decorated by your imagination suffices.
The role of the teacher is to guide the discussion and regulate the timing. The students should understand clearly the issue they are to address. Instruct them to give complete attention to the person holding the Talking Stick – no laughter, no commentary, no questions. Students self-regulate the length of their comments so each participant has time to speak, but the teacher should be ready to cut off a time-hog. The teacher will also judge how long the sharing should go on, giving each student a chance to speak the same number of times. In a class of 18 students, two times around with the Talking Stick took 40 minutes.
The class sits in a circle and the Talking Stick is placed in the middle. The group sits in silence until someone is moved to pick up the stick and share a thought about the subject at hand. He or she speaks for as long as necessary to express his or her thought and then passes the stick to the left. The next person speaks, and passes it to the left, and so on. Students who can’t think of anything to say can pass it without speaking, but the teacher should come back to them later.
The Talking Stick is powerful. As each participant sees it coming closer and closer, a sense of excitement grows, and often the thoughts expressed when the Talking Stick arrives are freighted with deep commitment. It is a cathartic and informative experience for everyone involved.
This exercise works for both introverted and extroverted students. There is plenty of time to compose a thought, and a flexible amount of time to present it.
Ann Evans is an Adjunct Professor in the award-winning First Year Writing Program at Montclair State University. She has an M.A. in Applied Linguistics from Montclair State, and an M.A. in English from New York University. She writes a monthly column, Language Bits, in The Sussex Newspaper and her blog, “Linguistics in the Writing Classroom” (http://www.linguisticsintheclassroom.com) is read around the world. An article, “Beyond Grammar: Linguistics in the Writing Classroom” was published in the Spring 2011 issue of the Duke University journal, Pedagogy.