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Published in Print: November 1, 2001, as Liberty Bell

Liberty Bell

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You want quiet in the classroom? Try giving your students a ring.

Until two years ago, here's how my classes began. During the three minutes between periods, I would rush to the bathroom, gulp a glass of water, and, returning to my classroom, find the appropriate section of my planning book for the next class. Students would enter and bunch around my desk, asking for bathroom passes, explaining why homework wasn't done, requesting work missed while they were absent. Before I'd dealt with all their needs, the bell would ring. So I'd hurry through the conversations, distracted by the urgency of what I wanted to cover that day, race to my seat in the circle, and shout for attention over the noise of adolescents chafing under their own regimented schedules. I would then chase after time the entire period, only to finish breathless and, a few minutes later, begin another class the same way.

Then, one summer, during an annual weekend of yoga and meditation, I noticed what happened to my body after an instructor sounded a bell to begin yoga practice. I sighed deeply, my breathing slowed, and the feeling of running after life dropped away. Later, I said to a friend, "I wish I could begin my classes that way." Then I thought, Why not?

In September, on the first day of school, I brought with me a Tibetan monk's bell I'd inherited from my Great Aunt Clara's bell collection. It has a lovely tone that resonates long after the bell has been struck with a mallet. My first class, creative writing, a heterogeneous group of seniors, arrived and found seats in the circle. Since few classrooms in my school are arranged this way, the students appeared to find the setup a little strange. Accustomed to this initial awkwardness, I knew they'd soon feel comfortable; they'd even get to like the circle.

The unusual seating arrangement was one thing, but ringing a bell for silence? I felt certain they'd never go along with something so bizarre. But I've learned that you can go a long way in teaching, indeed in life, by acting "as if." As if you know what you're doing when you don't. As if you're not nervous when you are. These are time-honored tricks of the teaching trade and other forms of con artistry.

After introducing myself, I explained to the students how we would begin each class. I ignored the voice inside my head saying: They'll think you're a nut. They'll never go along with it. There'll be open rebellion. "I'll sound the bell three times," I told them, as if this were common practice, "and by the third ring, you should stop your conversations and sit silently. When I ring the bell again, we'll begin class. We'll start with 30 seconds of silence and build up to a couple of minutes." I showed them Aunt Clara's bell, rang it once, and said, "Isn't that a lovely sound?"

I've learned that you can go a long way in teaching, indeed in life, by acting ‘as if.’ As if you know what you're doing when you don't.

They politely nodded while sizing up the lunatic who would be their teacher for the next year and sneaking puzzled looks at each other. I explained that I felt our school days were too noisy and fast-paced, that silence could help all of us leave behind the previous classes and prepare for this one, that it was a time to clear our heads. Feel free to close your eyes, I added; and if that feels too odd, just gaze at the floor. I also suggested not looking around at friends, as that would distract them and perhaps induce giggling. And I told them not to read, write, or put their heads on the desks.

"Let's practice," I said. "Go ahead. Begin talking." They looked at me as if I were speaking Swahili. "Go ahead," I urged, "blah, blah, blah. Wait for the third ring, and then be quiet." Released, they began to speak animatedly to their friends, saying, I was sure, that they would transfer out of class as soon as possible. I rang the bell three times. On the third ring, miraculously, they were silent. After 30 seconds, I rang the bell again, waited for the resonance to die out, and said, "Good morning." "Good morning," they responded, and we began class. I felt calm, unhurried, and focused.

Gradually, over time, we built up the silence to four minutes. I explained how they could relax by paying attention to their breathing. I asked them to notice the difference between silence and stillness. We were aiming for both internal and external stillness. At one point, I suggested we need a mandala—a Buddhist circular design symbolizing the universe—as a point of focus in the center of the circle. They'd never heard of mandalas, but after I explained, a girl made one in an art class.

I loved the silence. Each hour, I got to slow down, pay attention to my breathing, and make myself present for a new class. Sometimes, of course, I wasn't inwardly still; my mind raced with what we'd do next. I knew from meditation classes that this was simply "monkey mind." Sometimes, I could let the speeding thoughts go, sometimes not. Regardless, there was always silence, blissful silence in days otherwise cluttered with noise. When class began, it always did so from a calm place. This, I soon realized, was the single most transforming discovery of my 30-year teaching career.

I loved the silence. Each hour, I got to slow down, pay attention to my breathing, and make myself present for a new class.

The students appreciated the silence, too. Just how much it meant to them became apparent one day after I announced to a group of sophomores—who came in after lunch, speeding on sugar and 20 minutes of relative freedom—that I'd be absent the following day. Oh no, they said, the subs don't get the bell. They don't do it right. Can one of us ring it? Sure, I answered. The most vocal boy volunteered. I wrote a note to the substitute, saying the students wanted to begin class with silence and that they'd explain and Jason would ring the bell.

I imagined the farce this scene would become without my authoritative presence, but when I returned and ran into the woman who'd been my substitute, she told me: "That silence at the beginning of class was wonderful. I didn't have to yell for their attention. They calmed right down."

"Isn't it terrific?" I said, acting as if I weren't surprised.

Soon, after listening to me rave about the bell and silence, other teacher friends and my student teachers in their first years on the job decided, with some trepidation, to try it. They found bells of various sorts and introduced them to their classes, students of all types and ages. And they reported the same miracle.

So here's the best secret I know for a saner classroom: silence. Pass it on.


Vol. 13, Issue 3, Pages 42-43

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