Series: First Days of School: It's Always Awkward in the Beginning

Teaching Through Silence
Lesson Objective: Encourage participation in a variety of ways
All Grades / All Subjects / Participation

Thought starters

  1. What are the different ways Ms. Wessling deals with silence?
  2. How does Ms. Wessling use empathy to relate to her students?
  3. Why might this strategy be particularly helpful at the beginning of the year?

I have many shy students in my class and many students that aren't intrinsically motivated to participate in whole group discussion. Giving the students advance notice that you will be calling on them is a great motivator for students to at least form an opinion or reflect on the material. Even if they aren't called on, they have at least been encouraged to reflect.

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I find that letting the silence sit can be effective. What I've come to realize though is that the amount of time that you let that silence sit should be carefully decided. Wait too ling and the students won't even remember the question. Waiting for too short a time might cut off a student working up the courage to speak or simply shapinga thought that they'd like to share.

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I certainly noticed how relaxed Sarah was.  Sometimes I feel anxious in the role of facilitating discussion and find it difficult to sit with the silence.  I think students could pick up on this and it feeds their own uncertainty about contributing.  I do a countdown in my head to help me consciously stay with the silence and that can be useful in helping me remain present and observe what is happening in front of me.

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Thank you Sarah for this valuable peace of work. I 've learned more about how to handle my students silence and respond to their needs especially when it comes with motivation. 

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You can definitely tell SBW has teaching down because she really knows how to respond to the students and their needs. Many new teachers wouldn't know how to handle student silence and may even interpret it as indifference or defiance and react accordingly. But I like how you really think about their perspectives and offer alternatives such as turn and talk and then we'll share out after they've had a chance to really bounce ideas off another student and know it's OK. And many students are completely afraid of being put on the spot, being "wrong'', being judged by peers, etc. The snaps & "no judgement'' as a part of praising is amazing and what ALL kids, regardless of age, need! Another awesome video! Kudos! 

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Thanks so much for the kind words, Robert! You've said all the things I think about so often. Especially the importance of saying "no judgment" out loud and the way everyone (even adults) need that same kind of safe space. So glad the video worked for you!


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  • Transcript

    Speaker 1:            Who's got something to share?

    Speaker 1:            Who's got something to share?

                                        What did you mark and why did you mark it?

                                        What else do you think about that quote? No? Nobody else has an idea?

                                        We've all been there where we're leading a discussion and we're asking meaningful questions and there's complete silence.

                                        I know you're all looking down like, "Don't call on me. Don't call on me."

                                        When that happens to me, my first move is to put myself in their shoes and to really figure out what is going on underneath the silence. Is it because they don't understand the content? Is it because they're nervous about other people in the room? Is it because of something that I hadn't even accounted for?

                                        Who marked something down? I heard you talking.

                                        A lot of what's going on in terms of quiet in a classroom, especially early on in a course before kids get to know each other, has a lot more to do with wanting to be sure they're going to be accepted by their peers. And I have to be the lead learner in that scenario.

                                        What did you mark? What do you think is important?

                                        There're some different ways that I can handle that. Sometimes, I just let the silence sit. Let it be quiet for a while.

                                        I'm really good at waiting, and I'm super patient.

                                        Sometimes I just tell them that I'm really patient, which I truly am. Other times, I will maybe start to tell them in advance.

                                        Turn and talk.

                                        And so, they have some time to think and to talk to each other before I ask them to share.

                                        I asked you guys to kind of think about what you could share. Do you want too start?

                                        So they still have some choice, but at the same time, they're also kind of getting permission to talk out loud.

    Speaker 2:            They really have no idea what's behind them or what's going on. The only thing that they can see is the shadows.

    Speaker 1:            Exactly. It's kind of like, we don't know what we don't know. Yeah, you're right. We're snapping.

                                        Sometimes, I will take what they've said, and I'll paraphrase it. Sometimes, I will try to build on it, because I'm trying to model what discussion and conversation can look like for us in this classroom.

                                        Tell me something that you talked about, that you remember from the essay yesterday.

    Speaker 2:            Sometimes to find out the truth, you have to put forth effort or want to find out the truth, and some people may not want to do that.

    Speaker 1:            Absolutely. You've got it. What else?

    Speaker 2:            I want to say something, but I don't want to say it wrong.

                                        No judgment in this class.

    Speaker 1:            There's no judgment. Besides, even if it's not quite right, I'll help you out.

    Speaker 2:            Okay.

    Speaker 1:            There are always quiet moments everybody is worried that they might be wrong or might be judged, so as a teacher in that moment, I need to not get uncomfortable about the silence, and I have to remember to put myself in their shoes.

    Speaker 2:            You don't know it's wrong until someone proves that it's wrong. You know what I mean?

                                        You don't know what you don't know.

                                        That's what I was trying to-

    Speaker 1:            You've got it. You don't know what you don't know.


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School Details

Johnston Senior High School
6501 Nw 62nd Ave
Johnston IA 50131
Population: 1541

Data Provided By:



Sarah Brown Wessling
English Language Arts / 10 11 12 / Teacher


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