Volume VII - 2002-03

Using Silence to Make a Point
     by John M. Knight

     John M. Knight began his teaching and cross-cultural experiences in Ethiopia as a Peace Corps volunteer. He worked with the Papago Indians in Tucson, Arizona, and taught English for six years in Saudi Arabia. Since 1980 he has taught ESL, composition, and cross-cultural communication at Saint Mary 's College of California. His interests include using drama in teaching language, simulation/ gaming, and training tutors to work with international students. John is co-author with L. Robert Kohls of Developing Intercultural Awareness: A Cross-Cultural Training Handbook 2nd edition (Intercultural Press, 1994).

Observing the National Day of Silence

     Silence! April 7th. How do I run a class without talking? Can the students talk? Will they last sixty minutes? Will I? Such were the thoughts that caromed through my brain as I prepared to teach my classes on April 7, 1999. This was the National Day of Silence, and I wanted to pay my respects to friends, living and dead, who were not heterosexual, by teaching all my classes in silence. Importantly, I wanted my Intensive English Program (IEP)students to learn about a part of our population that is usually ignored, a group that is often forcefully silenced. Thus, my idea was to provoke the students ' emotions and thoughts by conducting a class in which none of us could talk before we tackled writing about a new topic —homophobia.

The Plan

      The main challenge was to prepare for an entirely new method of teaching. As an assignment, I had given the students the article “Appearances ” by Carmen Vazquez (503-511). In this article, Vazquez describes in vivid detail how ordinary people going about their daily lives riding busses, walking through neighborhoods or going dancing can become the targets of gay bashing. Vazquez offers some possible causes for this antigay violence, reminding us that homophobia is an affront to the dignity of all, and challenging us to actively confront homophobia and the “rigidity of gender roles ”. Since discussion would be done in silence, I intended to use an overhead projector, the usual blackboard, and the classroom computer which displayed the screen image on the wall. I also had a large supply of blank paper and 4x6 note-cards. My plan was to remain silent as the students entered the classroom, handing them instead the following notice about the National Day of Silence from the Saint Mary 's College Gay and Lesbian Association (GALA): “Please understand my reasons for not speaking today. I support lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. People who are silent today believe that laws and attitudes should be inclusive of people of all sexual orientations. The Day of Silence is to draw attention to those who have been silenced by hatred, oppression, and prejudice. Think about the voices you are not hearing. What can you do to end the silence? ”

     I would let the students get settled, then give them instructions on the blackboard to make groups of three or four and write down ideas learned from the reading and a question for discussion. The entire class would be conducted nonverbally with my alternating instructions on the computer, overhead, and blackboard to illustrate different ways we could communicate. After forty-five minutes of such silent class discussion, the students would spend the final ten minutes of class answering the following questions: a. How do you feel about the way we conducted class today? b. What is one thing you have learned? Finally, I would write the journal assignment for the next class on the blackboard and silently say goodbye.

A Silenced Class

     Thus ensued a class punctuated by scratching chalk, moving hands, clicking computer keys, and intently listening faces as we discussed the reading. Initially, there was a certain amount of confusion. Some students were still talking, while a few asked what they were supposed to do. Others started taking out paper and turned to the student next to them. Slowly, the talking diminished to a buzz and then, except for one student, to silence. I typed “Start Discussion ” on the computer and waited. . After a few awkward moments, the young man who had initially kept talking came up to the computer and began to type. I was amazed —100%silence!—Not only was he the first to participate, he was the only one who openly admitted his discomfort with homosexuals. After a second student replied on the blackboard, participation died, so I supplied a comment on the overhead. Another student timidly joined the conversation on the blackboard by asking for clarification of a word in the article. Eventually, after some more prodding by my invitations to come up and use one of our discussion tools or to write a comment to their partners on paper, clusters began to form. Some stayed at their desks looking around or writing comments on paper, others gathered around the overhead, while others wrote on the blackboard. Only one more student used the computer. During our conversation, one student tried to get us to focus on a comment on the blackboard and its relation to another comment on the overhead, but then people retreated back to their seats.

     Earlier than anticipated, I handed out the 4x6 cards. As they were completing the cards, I wrote the journal assignment on the board. They were to reflect on the experience of a silent class as well as their reaction to the text and write at least two pages in their journals. Assured that we would continue discussion verbally the next day, we left the room having not spoken for an hour.

The Students ' Reactions

       The next day we spent the entire ninety minutes discussing the article, the class dynamics, and their journal entries. 1 First, as I had expected, just the simple act of remaining silent for sixty minutes was a challenge, especially when the students had things they wanted to say. “J ” remarked, , “It was really weird to be quite 1 . I felt the necessity to speak. I felt uncomfortable. ” “T ” wrote, , “I had very hard time during writing class. I did not speak at that time. It was very difficult to communicate with somebody. ”

     Since all of my students save one had been in the U. S. for at least one year, I was interested that none had heard of the National Day of Silence. In her journal “M ” said, , “National Day of Silence is new to me. I have never heard this before. For me it is strange. I know by doing this activity, we try to listen some'invisible ' voice or people that we always reject in our daily life. They should have the same right, but why don 't we support this activity by speaking out? ”

A second revelation revolved around the mechanics of how we conducted class.

     Although we had been practicing typing as part of the writing class for more than two months, most students felt intimidated using the computer. “H ” wrote, , “Discussion with typing was difficult for me though. I felt that I had to be sure my opinion and grammar when I type. I know I shouldn 't think, but I couldn 't stop caring about it. Not talking is pretty difficult thing to do. It 's interesting expression of respect homosexual people who can 't talk in society. They might feel frustration that we felt today. Moreover we could realize their hardship when we shut up. ” More than one student connected the feeling of typing incompetence to how homosexuals might feel with society silencing them. “T ” remarked, , “I 'm not good at computer so that I couldn 't go to type, I couldn 't go there even though I wanted to say many things. This feeling was very hard and mortifying. They also have these feelings, too, perhaps. Of course I can 't understand their all feelings, unfortunately. I 'm not lesbian and bisexual; however, at least I understand their one small part of feelings from today 's experience. This is very important experience for me. ”

      Despite some students feeling less than ready to take an active typing role, many found this medium of discussion useful. For “C ”, “The class was funny. Especially computer discussion was the best part. I can get what volunteer write because sometimes, I don 't get what my classmates said. That was good. I like it. If the teacher combines talking and computer discussion, it 's going to be awesome. ” “M2 ” also felt it helped her understanding: “While my friends were typing, I could read their opinion. I could read again and again, that 's why I understood them very well. ”And “J ” wrote, , “The interesting part was when we had a computer discussion. I am very bad at typing, so I decided not to right. I was surprised with “X 's ” opinion, he was against. I think he was really brave to show his opinion. ”

      For some other students, both the class dynamics and the article brought up concerns they had not faced before. “H ” commented, , “In my country, gay people has less rights than here. They can 't even say they are gays or lesbians. I haven 't met any gay people in my country so I have never thought about their right or their difficulties in the society …I agree to the article. I thought I wanted not to talk as much as I could today if being silent was to express the respect for homosexual people. But I did only two periods. That was really hard. I think these were good opportunities because if I haven 't had these classes, I couldn 't do it. ” Another student took the discussion a little further when she responded to Vazquez 's attempt to explain “…how homophobia works and why it threatens all that we value as humane ” (506). The student wrote, “When I read this story, I felt sad because I hadn 't thought about that [homophobia ]. I thought I had no relation to homosexuals. ” “J ” was also moved by the article and the silent discussion. ””I liked the part which “Y ” wrote about showing affections. I think this is very important. I like to hug my friends (girlfriends)but here I don 't feel comfortable to do it. Am I wrong? I feel that people want more distance here. I think that showing affection is really important. ”

     Our discussion of the article continued with “M ” responding to Vazquez 's plea for “[t ]hose of us with a vision of tomorrow that goes beyond tolerance to a genuine celebration of humanity 's diversity ” to join the fight against homophobia (509). “M ” wrote, , “But I think, if we can speak out bravely what 's in our minds maybe will be a better way to support them. The right won't come by itself, we have to gain them. To gain them needs our voice. If we just sit there quietly, nothing 's gonna change!” “T” agreed with both the article and “M 's ” comments that all of us need to join the fight. “People who are not gay have to help gay people who don 't have enough power to fight against society. I think they need our help. We need to help them to change our stereotype about them and their right in society. We need to know their real treatment in society. ”

Silence as a Way of Learning

     The initial surprise and discomfort of having to interact in an unfamiliar, and for some, odd way unquestionably provoked students' emotions and stimulated new thoughts. The students tapped into feelings of empathy and awareness for people and situations of which they had little previous knowledge. Taking away speech, considered vital by both teachers and students, heightened sensitivity to the usual process of communication. This experiment was similar to the “trust walk ” often done in introductory psychology classes. One partner is blindfolded and allows the other to be the guide or helper. A degree of trust must be established almost immediately since the sense of sight is now missing for one of the pair. Moreoever, the other senses must be awakened. Likewise, in our class we discovered that silence enhanced our understanding. Although to date no formal survey has been conducted, students from this class have remarked to me and to students just entering our program about how powerful the class in silence was. “Wait till you can 't talk in class!” was one comment. . A friend summarized the experience saying that I had “kicked them into using language by taking it away from them. ” I prefer to call it teaching by using opposites —silence stimulates emotions that can then be translated into spoken and written words. It is the silence which is important, for in the words of the Sufi poet, Rumi, “Now let silence speak, and as that/gift begins, we'll start out ” (123).


Barnard, Ian. (1994): “Anti-Homophobic Pedagogy: Some Suggestions for Teachers ” in Radical Teacher. Vol. 45. 26-28.

Kappra, Rick. (1999)“Who Gets Excluded From Your Lesson? ” in CATESOL News Vol. . 30. 4: 3-4.

-----. (1998/1999)“Addressing heterosexism in the IEP classroom. ” In TESOL Matters Vol. 8. 6: 19.

Rumi, . (1994). Say I Am You. Trans. John Moyne and Coleman Barks. Athens, GA: Maypop.

Vazquez, Carmen. (1998). “Appearances. ” in Rereading America: : Cultural Contexts for Critical Thinking and Writing . Ed.

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