The Importance of Quiet

— NOTES FROM NEW MEXICO

By KARY SCHUMPERT

Teaching can be a noisy avocation. Visit the hallways of any middle or high school during the transition between classes. Pop into most elementary classrooms and there will be a steady hum, often wavering on loud. Participate in a field trip, and yeah, volume levels rival dangerous decibels. As an environmental educator going from classroom to classroom, school to school, field trip to field trip, my teaching environment can be even louder. Without knowing it, my voice begins to match the volume levels of an unruly group of excited third graders. I have noticed days when I return to the quiet office that I am still speaking in an “outside” voice, the way that concert goers will still be talking loudly as they reflect on a fun evening outing, their hearing temporarily lost.

All that loudness can be hard on the voice, the mind, and the spirit. It can be difficult for appropriate learning and inquiry and discussion. It can be wracking on the nerves. What does all of that do over time to our students and to ourselves?

Recently, I have been thinking of silence. In the last year, I began to use a whisper as a way to get the attention of my students, instead of getting my voice to rise above theirs. I did not scold or ask them to whisper, I just lowered my voice and we all began to quiet down. This wasn’t a new found teaching technique as I have been doing it for years. The difference was that I used silence intentionally and decided that it was my priority. My weekly hikes with elementary students changed dramatically.

I love a group of excited elementary students, I don’t want to quash their enthusiasm or their discovery of rollie pollies or shadows or porcupines or mud tracks or whatever they see. I hate being on a field trip with a teacher who repeatedly scolds the students, asking them to be quiet, when the scolding is more disruptive and jarring than the little outbursts from an eight-year old who has never been on a hike. Sometimes, the insistence on absolute quiet with repeated rebukes does not lead to more silence, but instead more disruption and upheaval and chaos within a group. I much prefer a class of students who are happily talking to each other about what they have learned than a strictly enforced silent line of unhappy third graders. Perhaps, my parameters as an environmental educator are quite different than those of some classroom teachers.

The beauty of silence, though, when we discover it together can be the most beautiful thing. This spring, I led a group of kindergarten students on a hike through the bosque (the cottonwood forest along the Rio Grande) and we decided we wanted to try part of the hike with no words at all. At the urging of the students, we came up with a few hand signals to use so that we could get each other’s attention to show what we discovered. We touched our ears when we heard a cool bird. We tapped our heads when we wanted to look up at activity in the tree branches above us. We pointed to the ground when the busy activity of ants and other insects occupied our attention. We used a “high five” sign when we wanted to stop and just look and listen. Then, I called a break to our silence when it was time to turn around to head back for lunch. Surprisingly, the group wanted to keep up the quiet and we tiptoed back, relishing in the magic of our morning. When it was time to stop and eat lunch, the silence remained, not at my direction or the teacher’s enforcement.

I was amazed by that group of wise and winsome five and six-year-olds. They climbed back on the bus and gave me quiet grins and waves goodbye, and still, they were mostly silent. The teacher told me that a week later, her kindergarten group was much quieter in the classroom and they were incorporating our quiet game into their everyday actions.

I thought of those kindergartners a couple mornings ago. I rose early and packed my small backpack with water, binoculars, a birding book, and a couple of juicy peaches wrapped in two bandanas to prevent bruising. I laced up my hiking boots and headed for a steep hike into the Sandias, the mountains that rise to Albuquerque’s east. All alone, I huffed and puffed a bit; when I saw other hikers on the trail, I smiled hello, but didn’t say a word. I kept walking and listened for footsteps, for bird calls, for the wind, for cracks of branches from animals underfoot.

It’s easy to admire the beauty of silence on a mountain hike, but in our noisy lives, the hum of highway traffic, the buzz of electricity, the roar of airplanes flying overhead are constant. While I cannot control the traffic, I can relish my own silence and quiet. I can take that break of resting my voice and finding respite for my ears and spirit and those of my students.

In silence you can hear much, but mostly you can hear your heart beating and your breaths, the essentials that keep us alive. Our hearts and souls renew in the retreat, even if just for a few moments. We can incorporate that silence in our teaching, in our classrooms, during our field trips. When we quiet our voices, we can also quiet our busy minds. We can find magic in our silence together with our students.

Kary Schumpert is an environmental educator, a writer, and a student in Albuquerque. She finds her greatest sense of place and inspiration in New Mexico. Kary loves composting with worms, running, hiking, swimming, writing, teaching, and learning, among many things. Kary is a contributing editor to The Community Works Journal and her writing has also appeared in Green Teacher, Elephant Journal, New Leaf Meditation Project, and The Upper Room. She keeps a personal blog at runningintolife.wordpress.com.

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