Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Teacher on Mute


  I sang fully and long and for two days to open our new one-woman musical—Shakespeare's *itches: The Women Talk Back.  On Friday morning, I woke up without a voice.  This had never happened to me before. Honestly, I was panicky—with two big shows coming up within twelve days. I had to rest. I love my classes too much to cancel unless it’s absolutely necessary. I knew that I would have to teach my morning Writing Poetry class without talking: whispering is even worse for the voice. I pushed my Mute button.
     Of course, I had the white board, might even have pulled down the screen and opened up the class PC. Or thrown the students (as it were) into groups for the whole time. But we had an opportunity. What would happen for almost three hours if I didn't phonate?
     Many of us come to this class before the official start time—to beat traffic, to munch Mary Ellen's goodies, to enjoy some chat time.  This is a media-freeze class, so there's nothing much to do but actually connect.  I wrote "Can't use my voice today" on the board. 
     And in my distraction, I had forgotten my book.  OK. Official start of class. I motioned for them to open their books (Mentor and Muse)—hands in prayer position, then open.  I motioned to Megan to begin responding.  She interpreted this as "start reading aloud."  OK. We usually do that for poems, but not for essays. Since I didn't have the book in front of me, that works. At the bottom of the page (I knew because of how her head bent as she read) I made my hands into goose feet landing on a lake. Someone noticed and told her to stop . I wrote on the board: "What did you learn for your own writing from this?"  All I had to do for the next half hour, was to record—point to the question I wrote in the middle of board, and record. I took to including quote marks and students’ names. Some fascinating dynamics!   A collaborative spirit arose, as students interpreted and reinterpreted for each other what I might meant with hand and body gestures—“say more," "stop apologizing" (we're retraining Generra), “that’s plodding,” “ho-hum,” “halleluia.”        
     I noticed that as the students shifted from interpreting my speaking to interpreting my body language, as they relied more on reading the board, their contributions became more visual and kinetic. Adam, who is an artist, read and interpreted my body language the most quickly and accurately to my intent.  He started to offer streams of images for the writing process, such as this for (yep) finding your voice—“it’s like tuning a radio.”  Deanna, too, sitting close to me, became an astute translator of my cues to the class. Students started to talk more softly and with more expression in their voices.  We became much more aware of all the sounds around us.  We retuned!
     When I asked the students what their experience was, they universally Liked (and Shared).  Not, ha-ha, because they would rather not listen to me, but because of how, like water, they were able to flow into the gap I left. These were some of their responses:  “we got to teach each other,” “it was fun,” “we took care of each other.”  I’ll ask again next week, to see how their week was affected by this experiment.

© 2014 Susanna Rich


  1. I agree with this blog post. My comments were that I could not express myself, and now I can express myself very well. I also learned how to make original titles to poems, and now I can make titles as well.

  2. I also learned how to make original titles to poems, and now I can make titles as well.