Saturday, July 9, 2011

How to quiet a classroom

How does one start a lecture? Usually at Brown I try to arrive a little bit early, and the students slowly gather, chatting merrily as they get out their notebooks and laptops. When I am ready to start, how do I bring about some silence?

As a singer, I refuse to raise my voice and risk hurting my precious vocal chords. As a believer in democracy, I am reluctant to force people to shut up by drowning them out with my microphone. Imposition is not fun. I prefer to make people do what I want because they want to, not because I force them.

Once at Mass I remarked how the priest asked the congregation to sit down. Since it is not one of the rubrics, to avoid disrupting the flow of the liturgy he used a nonverbal cue: he looked at the congregation, extending his arms forward, palms facing down, and moved his hands downward, as if he was pushing on an invisible cushion hanging in the air in front of him. Immediatly people sat down.

At my next class, when I found myself ready to start lecturing, I stood in front of the class, looked at my students, extended my arms, palms facing down, and silently moved my hands downward, as if I was pushing on an invisible cushion hanging in the air. The majority of students stopped talking right away, and the few who had not seen my gesture noticed the change in noise level, looked up, saw me repeat the gesture, and made silence. Complete silence. Magic!

I started teaching my class as though that was the most natural thing in the world and as if I had never expected anything different, but inwardly I was thrilled by the aura of natural authority that had suddenly enveloped me. In later weeks I repeated the gesture occasionally, always with great effectiveness. No stole or chasuble needed!

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