April 21, 2017

Day of Silence

Today is the National Day of Silence. Since 1996 when students from the University of Virginia held the first event, students (and educators!) have spent a day in silence to bring awareness to the silencing effects of anti-LGBTQ name-calling, bullying and harassment in schools. Now hundreds of thousand of students (and educators!) participate each year in middle schools, high schools and colleges. I am on vacation this week so we decided to observe the Day of Silence on our last day before break.

Thursday, April 13, 2017
I arrive at school in my "Keep your lips locked!" t-shirt that the GSA (originally Gay Straight Alliance, now the more inclusive Gender and Sexuality Alliance) sold in 2009. I didn't start teaching (or advising) at this school until 2010 but one of the benefits of being GSA advisor is storing extra shirts and therefore snagging the best ones for myself! I began my vow of silence upon entering the building (though many people wait until the bell rings) so I respond to the steady flow of students arriving and asking to participate by smiling, waving, handing them a pen to sign the pledge on the door and pointing them toward the stickers. I quickly realize there are too many students to make this efficient and remember my solution in years past - multiple pledge sheets on a desk in the hall right outside my classroom and a pile of stickers. Moving the sign up process outside my room also minimizes interruptions throughout the day, though many students will still enter, ask and struggle to understand me pointing toward the hallway. Before school begins I realize my GSA students hadn't printed enough stickers, and also hadn't emailed me the template so I am thankful for the millionth time for my student teacher so I can remake the template and print as she starts class.

Our first period is honors precalculus. There has been a slide on the board all morning explaining why we are being silent today and my student teacher writes "READ" on the board before changing to the SET of the day - we aren't being silent to be annoying, we're being silent to make an impact. That only works if people know what impact we're trying to make. I gave a speech to each of my classes yesterday on why people might participate, what the goal is and how important it is to be respectful (yesterday was all ninth graders, they don't always think before taunting someone with "you can't answer!"). I also shared why fighting for LGBTQ rights is still important in 2017 by briefly mentioning the news of concentration camps for gay men in Chechnya. Due to block scheduling today's students don't get that speech but they get to experience the silence instead.
There are only ten students in the class (scheduling precalc during wind ensemble creates imbalances- the other honors precalc teacher has 30) so the class is normally quiet. But with both teachers and several students participating in the day of silence the room is completely silent other than pencils scratching and calculators tapping. The other students may not have signed a pledge or grabbed a sticker but they all go up to the board to write or hold up fingers to sign an answer anyway.

Fifteen minutes into the day the principal stops by to get a rainbow ribbon to show his support. I appreciated the gesture and responded with what I hope was a gracious smile, I often feel like an overly emoting mime on this day!

I've really been missing teaching so when my student teacher asked yesterday if I would help answer questions since she was nervous about not talking I leaped at the opportunity. We both grabbed dry erase markers and wrote notes to kids on the desks as we circulated. Writing everything I want to say forces me to think carefully about exactly how to phrase things. This is the point - some people participate in the Day of Silence by not communicating at all, it's a huge challenge and I applaud those who do - for us, communicating without speaking means that I stop and think about each thing I want to share, just like someone who fears harassment has to stop and think before sharing (even something as simple as weekend plans can require careful consideration of pronouns).

Having a written record of every question my student teacher asked the whole class is also a unique artifact. Sadly we haven't gotten a chance to debrief since we've been on vacation but in addition to being an important day of advocacy, I always find the Day of Silence a fascinating study of my teaching. During our second period class all of our most active participators had pledged silence. This opened up space for some new voices. It was great to hear from some of the less confident students frequently throughout the period and watch them gain confidence from the repetition. I already knew we needed to work on creating space for more students to participate but hearing so many different voices really opened up my eyes to the possibilities of what could happen if we worked on it.

The problem with doing this write up a week after is my note says "learn about being an ally" and I have no idea what I meant by that line. It comes right after my note about being frustrated students were using text to speech on their phones so perhaps I meant the opportunity to discuss the spirit of the silence rather than the actuality of their voice being silence. It comes right before my note about independent study so perhaps I meant the story one independent study student told (via writing) that he was asking his teacher questions about his assignment and the teacher said "you could cheat and talk, I won't tell" but he held strong and continued to communicate nonverbally. Perhaps I meant some other moment that I have since forgotten. But since NCTM I've been thinking a lot about how being an ally is an active thing. Between first period and advisory, and then again between advisory and second period there were floods of students who had seen someone else participating and wanted a sticker of their own. I am thrilled to have more people participate but never know how to make sure students are participating with the thought of LGBTQ harassment rather than the intention of avoiding being called on in class. I always fall on the side of "more participants is better" mostly for the message it sends that we as a school will not tolerate harassment, but also because while students may be trying to avoid something, they are still experiencing what it is liked to be silenced. My one small step this year was to highlight the text of the pledge where people signed up to make it just a bit more likely that they would read what they were signing.

Our independent study class is always great, it's two students who have been friends for years couldn't sign up for honors precalc because all the sections conflicted with their music class. Today it was spectacular. We started with the story of persevering in the day of silence and gave silent high fives. Then we stood at the smart board and debated whether or not to go over an idea we had worked on last class. The debate took the form of all of us grabbing markers and the eraser and writing simultaneously (which creates very strange results - the smart board can't have multiple inputs at once so it uses the most recently selected writing device and averages all the pressure points). After a good ab workout of silent giggles one of them convinced me that they understood the reasoning behind log rules and we moved on to the exponential project. It was awesome to see all of our conversations and their calculations written out across the white boards. So much math!

Part of the exponential project is to write a story including all relevant information to build your exponential model. When I pointed to that step the student who was studying vampires suddenly began flapping his arms and moving toward the other student to pretend to bite him. That student was very confused so I pointed to the title - vampires - and he immediately got into character as a rat (that model is rats who find a dump site and the population grows exponentially). At one point they are both standing on desks and I write a note to my student teacher "I'm waiting for admin to walk by." We eventually team up and manage to kill the vampire by drawing a cross, writing the word garlic and drawing splashes of holy water (student, student teacher and teacher, respectively). It's the last day before break. And did you see all that math they already did? Cut us some slack.

Our last class is contained algebra 1 - most of the students in the class have a language based learning disability on top of math based challenges on top of other challenges. Several of them were worried about us not talking or assuming that they wouldn't have to do anything if we couldn't talk, but it ended up working out great! It forced them to read, which is good, they need more practice not someone to read for them all the time if it's an area of weakness. They also wrote things more clearly and I got to play the job of runner as students wrote an answer to a question down and I delivered it to the student teacher so she could add it to the board and share with the whole class.

We wrote notes on the desk in dry erase marker and left them there when we walked away to help the next student. This was amazing for three reasons -
1) if a student forgot what they were supposed to be doing, the note was right there
2) if I forgot what I'd last told a student, the note was right there
3) if my student teacher or co-teacher walked up to help a student after me (or vice versa), the note was right there.

We (the teachers) talked about it after school when we were speaking again and we want to implement something like this on a regular basis.

Again, communicating nonverbally got me thinking about effective questions. One student was solving an equation and I wrote in front of him: "Where is your variable? What can you move?" I was able to point to these two questions alternately and prompt him through the entire multi-step equation. We have them use notes condensed into a few helpful prompts already, but maybe copying them big onto a white board would be easier than flipping back to a note card every time. Definitely something to think about!

Overall I had a great day. I am proud of all the students who participated for even just a part of the day. Some experienced how difficult it is to be silent. Some were creative about their alternate forms of communication (one even drew a speech bubble every time he wanted to share). But most of all I hope that the whole school took some time out of their day to think about the voices they were not hearing, and to consider what to do next so that all students feel safe and welcome in our building.

(Side note- this is also my April Day in the Life post. I've still been recording my year but since the intended audience has little overlap with the people who read this blog I've stopped publishing them. As we near the end of the year I'm thinking more and more about what happens with all these notes, if you would like to help with next steps of the project please let me know!)

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