Teaching Opinion

Day of Silence Sends a Message Worth Hearing

By David B. Cohen — April 21, 2017 3 min read
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Over the years I’ve tried a number of exercises, as a participant and as a teacher, involving some kind of simulation intended to foster empathy for people in challenging circumstances. I once tried being blind(folded) for a few hours, and I’ve attempted to serve and eat meals with only one hand. I’ve asked students to adopt individual roles and simulate families weighing the potential risks and benefits of migration. I have never tried going an entire school day without speaking, but I’ve seen students choose to do so over the years.

The annual Day of Silence, observed this year on April 21, isn’t a simulation or a role play, but it still helps foster empathy by raising awareness of the silence many students endure as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgenedered, queer, intersexual, or asexual people. For too many of our students who are not part of the cisgendered and heterosexual majority, silence about some aspect of their identity is not a simulation or a choice, but rather a necessity in order to avoid discrimination, bullying, or ostracism. Some students feel the need to stay silent regarding members of their family. But choosing complete silence for an entire school day helps students make a statement regarding the problems that require selective silence the rest of the time.

Participation in the Day of Silence is also an option for allies of these students, a way to show solidarity and also to decrease the risk for students who want to participate without fully “outing” themselves if they’re not ready to do so. Those who choose silence for the duration of the day may make their silence particularly visible by wearing something indicative of their choice, and they often carry some kind of card or paper that they can share with anyone who doesn’t understand why their classmate or student isn’t speaking.

The wonderful irony of the exercise is that the silence is an attention-grabber. Not talking all day is an effective statement, especially when there are enough participants to ensure everyone in a school comes in contact with at least one silent peer. And we do have work to do to make schools and communities safer and more inclusive. It’s not just a matter of respect: it’s a matter of life and death. For those in need of additional information and resources, I recommend taking a look at what’s available from GLAD and GLSEN.

In the years that I’ve been aware of Day of Silence, I’ve seen an increase in the overall rate of participation, and increased willingness for many students to discuss the issues and their own identity. That’s progress. There has also been progress on the national front, with growing visibility and acceptance for people who identify as LGBTQIA, expanded legal rights in marriage, and most recently, a federal court ruling that extends protection against discrimination. This progress is vital to the health and wellbeing of individual students and teachers, our families, and our communities. However, advances on those fronts have led Republican lawmakers to introduce a variety of bills that expand discrimination on other fronts, trying to deny people access to the restrooms suitable for their gender, and aiming to protect the “right” to withhold equal treatment for LGBTQIA individuals or couples.

There’s every indication that Republican leadership in state and national government will try to undo progress in aspects of public life that they can control. All the more reason for action and advocacy on the local level by those of us who support the rights of all individuals to be who they are, and love who they love. So if you hear some unusual silence on your school campus on April 21, listen closely, and then speak up.

Photo: poster supporting LGBTQ students and staff; by the author.

The opinions expressed in Capturing the Spark: Energizing Teaching and Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.