Silent shekels: rethinking class “participation”

Walking into a Jewish high school, you’d never guess that Judaism values silence.

And yet, the beauty of silence is extolled throughout Jewish literature. Most famous, perhaps, is the mishnah from Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel in Pirkei Avot:

Kol yamai gadalti bein hachachamim, v’lo matzati laguf tov ela shtikah. V’lo hamidrash hu ha’ikar ela hama’aseh. V’chol hamarbeh dvarim mevi chet.

Throughout my life, I was raised among the scholars, and I discovered that there is nothing more becoming a person than silence; not study, but doing mitzvot (actions) is the essence of virtue; excess in speech leads to sin. (1:17)

I know, I know. Wasn’t I JUST saying how important it is to speak up for justice? That was last week. This week, I’m thinking a lot about how it’s not ALWAYS important to speak up.  The ability to be silent is a pretty amazing trait (a tough one for me!). So then we have to ask ourselves: why do we push so many of our students to “participate more in class?”

This week, during Parent-Student-Teacher conferences, I was reminded again of how many students continue to get the message that they have to talk in class.

“So, do you have any questions for me?” I asked at the end of one meeting. “Yes,” said one student. “Do I need to participate more?”
“Not sure,” I responded. “Do you WANT to participate more?”

Some students wish they spoke more in class. Maybe they are nervous to say the wrong thing, or they feel like other students intimidate them. Those are students I want to help find their own voices. But I don’t believe that every student needs to “PARTICIPATE,” in the way that teachers so often say. Every year, parents tear up when I say it’s okay if their child doesn’t speak in class. “For 12 years, teachers have told us that he needs to speak more in class. This is the first time anyone has ever told us that it’s okay for him to be himself.”

Why does everyone have to speak in class? I’m grateful to Susan Cain for the TED talk “The Power of Introverts” for teaching me that not everyone processes things by speaking about them.

One student’s mother was so relieved to hear that her son could sit and listen or write his thoughts down instead of speaking them. An Asian immigrant, she said that she thinks the expectation for students to speak in class is cultural.  “In Taiwan, we were taught that silence is golden. Show humility, don’t speak too much. In America,” she said, “everyone has to self-promote.”

So I had to ask myself, what is silence worth in Jewish culture? According to the Talmud (Megilah 18a), Rav Dimi came to Babylonia with a lesson from the West (Palestine): “Milah b’sela, mashtokei b’trein.” “A word is worth one coin; silence is worth two.”

Think about Moses, our greatest prophet– decidedly not a big talker. “Lo Ish Dvarim Anochi,” he tells God in chapter 4 of Exodus. “I am not a man of words,” says our lisp-laden leader. (He does eventually learn to say what he needs to say, as Bible teacher Dorothy Weiss reflects. “He doesn’t shut up through the whole book of Deuteronomy!”)

Our greatest prophet was most likely–surprise–an INTROVERT. Most of the other prophets were, as well. And when one prophet, Elijah, is outspoken, mocking the people, making demands on God, screaming and shouting, what sign does God send him? Not a storm or an earthquake, but a kol d’mama dakah. A still small voice. “Stop yelling,” God seems to be saying. “Be quiet for once!” It is in the quiet where the Divine can be found.

It’s time we leave our introverted students alone on this “class participation” thing. We don’t need to shame them into talking more in class. My creative colleagues at Schechter have taught me well; let students write their ideas down on a class blog or share them privately with us. Not every student has to have the same personality. The rest of us (my talkative self included) have a lot to learn from these quiet learners.  If we stop talking for a moment, the silence may speak for itself.

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4 thoughts on “Silent shekels: rethinking class “participation”

  1. I think that there’s a lot of value in your blog post, and I do think about the value of not speaking (and especially not shooting off your mouth) in Judaism, which I found an issue in contentious seminars in grad school.

    But I also think that there’s a difference between quiet students and silent students, and that there are students who don’t speak in class not because they hate to speak but because they are not sure that their ideas are important enough for them to claim the time and airspace, so I try to create opportunities for those students to participate. I like to make a list of the people with hands up and then add another student who has not raised her hand, saying something like “And then I’ll check in with ___ and see if you want to add anything–I know from your blog post that you have good thoughts about this.” I have alerted the students in advance that I do this, and that they can decline to speak without penalty, but I think that all too often silent students are not silent because they prefer to be silent but because they need to have ways opened for them.

    I also like to go around the table at the beginning of a seminar meeting and ask students to note the issues they want to make sure we cover that day. They can just refer to their commonplace book entries (posted on the blog) but this round of agenda-setting means that everyone has spoken once in the first ten minutes of class, which takes the pressure off for the students who sit looking for an opening because they feel that they are supposed to speak.

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    • I love this idea, Lisa. And I just like knowing that professors are thinking about this at Barnard as well! I think you’re right… we need to make opportunities to get everyone to participate while at the same time honoring all learning styles. Thanks so much for adding your thoughts.

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  2. But I often think introverted and extroverted mental processes are too often associated with quiet and talkative. Someone who is quite talkative can be an introvert (maybe Abby Sosland) and someone who is quiet can be an extrovert.

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