Maybe We Should Stop Telling Kids to Be Quiet

Jan 31, 2018 12:00:00 AM

by Tom Rademacher

A week ago, I sat with a group of students and asked them what the number one rule of the school was. Without hesitation, they said, “be quiet.” It’s a distressing answer for a bunch of reasons, least of all that I bet it’s pretty common. Our students, all over, are being told to be quiet, and it sucks. Sure, we aren’t telling kids not to talk anywhere, or ever, but the fact that my students answered, instantly and unanimously, that “quiet” was the number one rule means it is the rule that they most often bump against. It’s the reason they’re most often called out or get a call home. It’s the reason they don’t like school, or don’t like school as much as they could. Quiet in the hallways, please, and not too loud at lunch, even. Quiet on the bus and on the way into school. Quiet when class starts, when the teacher is talking, when another student is talking, when it’s work time, when the bell is going to ring. We enforce quiet all day long for a bunch of reasons, and some of them are good.

The Quiet Police

Let’s just talk about the last week. I’m teaching an all-class novel right now, a practice I’ve never felt overly successful at. I’ve been giving the kids reading time in class because they need it and it works, but stuff like reading time turns me into the quiet police. I just can’t imagine a way that talking to the people around you is going to help you read a book, specifically when you’re talking about what would happen if you accidentally injected yourself with orange juice, a critical topic when you have D.A.R.E. (somehow still a thing) right after breakfast. I can’t think of a great way around it. Sometimes, quiet is good. Other times it’s just that when a lot of kids are loud, it’s really loud, and we don’t like it. Our insistence on quiet, [pullquote]our discomfort with loud, has a lot to do with schools being built by people who really liked school the first time around.[/pullquote] Students who need to move, who learn by talking or drawing or doing, or who struggle to memorize a list of facts but excel at explaining why they matter, these are often the students who need a bit of loud. Our need for quiet asks them to struggle too often, in too many places.

Sometimes Loud Is Good, Too

But loud is good too. And we don’t give it nearly enough space. In class, and on the same day that I talked to the group about school rules, students were supposed to be working together to create some form of media that centered on a marginalized group (check out this video that was created by one fantastic student). I walked by a group of students who were sitting in a loose circle talking and laughing loudly. No pen, no paper in sight, looking, for all the world, like kids doing nothing. On my way over to “blahblahblah” at them though, I stopped myself, and only because of that other conversation, and decided to listen instead. You know what? They were working on exactly the thing they were supposed to be working on, talking through a story they would film together, workshopping and expanding ideas. Their loud was super-good loud. Just for good measure, I walked by the quiet group, the kids with laptops and notebooks out, scribbling furiously and whispering seriously to one another. I snuck past them long enough to find out they were arguing about which color lightsabers were canon. This was quiet, but it was not-great quiet. I asked my kids if lunch was the only time during the day that felt they had to be quiet, and they said it felt like “another class, but with food.” [pullquote position="left"]They’re constantly told to quiet down. At lunch.[/pullquote] That’s bad, but not as bad as hearing from a parent of a student in another state who mentioned that her son’s school has them do “silent lunches” as a consequence for whatever it is that grade school kids do wrong. Probably being loud during lunch. Silent lunch? Quiet is sometimes an awful thing to do to kids.

Quiet Isn’t the Only Sign Things Are Going Well

Quiet is an important part of a balanced classroom, but it is not the only sign that things are going well, is not always a sign that things students are learning or doing anything, is not the model state for students at all times. When my students were watching a video about redlining, while comparing them to our local history and in group discussion afterwards were asking each other what we can do now to undo our past, and students were hopping off each other’s ideas and expanding and questioning, their loud was wonderful. When my teacher neighbor some years back insisted on forcing a discussion that encouraged transphobia, and I heard the rebellion of the students with both doors closed, their loud was necessary. And when I walk down the hall and see students in an engineering class building and failing and experimenting and laughing, their loud is energizing. And yes, even when my principal called an early end to a Friday so the students could gather in the cafeteria and join in a schoolwide chant for the Minnesota Vikings, the loud was ridiculous, and disruptive, and perfect. In fact, [pullquote position="right"]all the best moments of learning in my classroom have been loud.[/pullquote] All the best moments of learning in my life have been loud. All this quiet is telling us that there is something wrong, if only we could hear it.

Tom Rademacher

Tom Rademacher (Mr. Rad to his students) is an English teacher in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 2014 he was named Minnesota Teacher of the Year. He teaches writing and writes about teaching on his blog. His book, published by University of Minnesota Press, is called "IT WON’T BE EASY: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching."

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