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.

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  3. Dr. Rich,
    I am not going to lie; I giggled a bit reading this post. Only because I see the date is from April 29, 2014, and you have finally completed writing Shakespeare’s *itches. Which is absolutely amazing! You are really a one of a kind teacher, and you can see it especially through the experience you mentioned in this post. I think it’s hilarious and very courageous that you held a class without a voice. A lot of professors wouldn’t be able to pull it off, but this goes along with another post I read on your blog (Knowing By Heart~The Dynamics of Memorization). In that post you talk about how when presenting something you should be using eye contact and body movements. I believe that body language is just as important as talking if not more. Even without a voice the way I present myself really shows through my body composure. I think a lot of teaching comes from not what you say, but what you do. As a future educator I’m learning that a lot through my classroom experiences. Like you’ve mentioned in class before, if I stand in front of a group of students with my arms cross or shoulders shrugged, they may thing less of me and feed into my lack of confidence. However, if I stand tall and strong (not with my arms in the air specifically like you mentioned in class) I am showing them I am confident and ready to teach. If it ever so happens that I’m left without a voice or end up being the “Teacher on Mute” I’ll be sure to remember this blog post and how body language is everything!
    -Alessandra Finis

  4. Dr. Rich,

    Your experiment is genius! I'd like to share an experience with you which I had very similarly:

    At Middlesex County College I decided to enroll in a American Sign Language class. I figured the teacher must have had a parent who was Deaf and learned sign language as a result. To my surprise, on the first day of class, I walked in to find two teachers. One standing in the center of the room, and the other a little to the left and behind. The board had note cards with our names on them and the order we should sit (in a semi-circle, same as your class). We (all of the students) started looking at one another, but we rightfully took our seats. Once we were all sitting, we waited. FOR A LONG TIME, for the class to start. The two teachers in the front of the room were signing to one another. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my life--two people communicating with hands, facial expressions, and gestures. As the class truly began, one teacher started to sign. The other started to speak and sign. I was informed that my professor is Deaf, and that for the first class ONLY we would have an interpreter to help us understand the syllabus and then she would be leaving. I COMPLETELY panicked. How the HELL was I supposed to learn without hearing my professor, without being able to use my own voice? I soon realized how easy and smoothly interactions without words can be. I became well acquainted with my professor to the point where I was able to visit her outside of the classroom. We would meet outside occasional, sign about the weather, and whenever I'd get stuck, I'd gesture, finger spell, write down on paper, and then the conversation would flow again, back to normal. This was a huge learning experience for me, so I can understand how this muted class did wonders for your class.

    One of the results of a student, “we took care of each other," spoke to me. These students were able to fill in the missing links. This is the same as my professor was able to fill in the missing links without using her voice and without making me feel uncomfortable to sign with her.

    - Paige Bollman

  5. Dr Rich,

    This was actually one of the first problems I had encountered in your class (besides actually writing the paper). When we did our workshop and you looked at my title, you told me it was too broad. Which I know agree, it was. Good thing I got out of that habit. When you told me that I needed to land my helicopter and get a title that explained the entire paper just in case any one happen to come across mines and wanted to use it for research, I couldn't agree more. The hard part was finding a title that explained the whole paper. But let's be real, titles have to be good. They have to be a little impactful too. But you have helped me with that. I use to save my titles for the last type before I print, now I do it first, and I center my entire paper around it.

  6. Dr. Rich,
    You sure are one dedicated professor. To be able to improvise, and come up with another way to teach really is amazing. There are so many teachers out there that would give up, and not want to come to class due to losing their voice, or other forms of sickness. But knowing that you still came to class for 3 hrs without being able to talk, you deserve an award for that. I like the idea that the class was able to teach themselves, to learn from each other, and to also study your body language. Who knows when we will be faced with this, and can use your way of being able to still teach if there ever comes a time in which "the show must go on". Your students came together like a family, especially when one of the students says, "We took care of each other". It is really amazing of how students will stay dedicated and adapt to change no matter what the situation may be.
    -Valentina Quesada

  7. Dr. Rich, I completely agree with this post. So often, professor forget that is also great to sit back and observe how good of a professor you are to your students. In my country (Haiti), Professors don't sometimes show up for class without alerting their students of their absence. Not the same scenario, I know, but I had first hand experience on how we used to take over and have class learning from each other, while having fun doing it. The saying that sometimes, "Teachers become the students" is quite true because it allow the professor sit back and observe the change in learning from their students. You get to know if your teaching approach is working for them. Now believe me Dr. Rich, you have been an awesome professor, truly one of the best.

  8. This post was so much fun to read! I couldn’t help but laugh to myself, picturing this exact scenario happening in our class. Except I envisioned my actual classmates and how we would react if you came to class without a voice, instead of the students you mentioned. It’s impressive that you even held class with no voice. I had a professor this semester who cancelled so many classes, I think we didn’t have more class more than we did because he was always sick or put other things before class. What a waste. I also appreciate that you mentioned Shakespeare’s *tches! I’m so happy that three years later, you have finally completed it and it became something bigger and better than you originally imagined.
    The fact that you were able to teach a Poetry class without speaking, shows how great of a teacher you are. Even though you lost the class a little bit every now and then, you were still able to bring them back in and turn it into a whole experiment. I think that’s such a special gift, and something I hope to one day master as future teacher. I think this should be something you do in future classes even if you have a voice, just to switch things up and teach your students in a different, yet fun, way.

  9. First of all you are a true BADASS for holding class when you did not have a voice. Most professors who could really care less would simply cancel class and not even blink twice. You on the other hand decided to create a scenario in which not only did your class learn something but so did you. Teachers talk too much, I’ve heard this somewhere but I can’t remember where and boy is it true! Maybe teachers start to think of themselves as all knowing, I don’t want to be that teacher. I PRAY that whenever I am not letting my students learn through each other that this post comes to mind.
    Body language and watching students just know what you want of them shows that they need just enough of that from you to keep the class going by themselves. And the students hold the class down shows that they actually are integrated in their own learning and enjoy the process of that. I would be very excited to see what would happen if you did this on the first day of class, just wrote on the board what you wanted of them without giving away too much and letting students just run with it. What do you think would happen?

  10. Hi Dr. Rich,

    It's interesting to recognize how your inability-for-the-day lead to such an interesting class. Of course, your class is always interesting, but this happening proves that your approach works. The media freeze pushes us students to enjoy one another and your mute teacher forced this class to teach each other as well. I would love to see how this would work as a teaching approach to our Wednesday night class.

  11. As a student under your guidance, I can see how this can be successful in your classroom, however I feel as though with freshman or a less mature class it could have gone completely left. BUT in advanced poetry writing, that silence definitely could be amazing, it gives time for energy to flow between both students and self as well as poetry. I wish more professors would have class days where students were able to just teach themselves in a sense and workshop without guidance. It seems more independent that more though evoking

  12. Dr. Rich,

    Although I was not in this class, I think it would have been really interesting to be present in a course in which the professor did not say a single word, but instead communicated with gestures, almost as if it were a sign language course. Reading about this experiment actually reminded me a lot of the Rude Student experiment that you conducted the very first day of class. As you walked in, you did not a say a single word, which I believed was very odd. You wore a baseball cap, along with shades, and your earbuds were tucked in as you listened to music. You took out some food to eat, and you were also on your phone. What I found interesting about that experiment is that you never once communicated with anything else besides the use of gestures. In a sense, you were modeling the negative behavior and it was up to us to figure out how to react. I remember hearing one student whisper to another, “Hey, she’s trying to tell us to put our phones away.” Another student said to a classmate, “Take your food off your desk. She wants us to put our food away.” Slowly, we as a class, began putting the puzzle pieces together and communicating with each other so that we could interpret the message that was being conveyed through gestures.

    These two experiments, while they were completely different and done for different purposes, had evoked a similar reaction from the students. I would love it, Dr. Rich, if before the end of the semester, we could have one of these silent classes in which you simply point to the questions on the board and leave it up to us to interpret your gestures. This would serve as a great learning experience where we could teach each other.

    Nada Amer

  13. Dr. Rich,

    I love your passion for teaching. Many professors would have cancelled class but you didn't. This is what teaching is all about... using what you have to teach! The use of body language which include facial expression, gestures, eye movement and body postures, this was certainly an interesting class. The students seemed to have enjoyed it. They learned from one another and they were able to understand you even if you were mute. This is amazing what you did, you improvised when you had no voice and no book. Student were also able to connect with those people that are unable to speak, and what they have to go through everyday. It's like sign language in a way. Thanks for sharing Dr. Rich.

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  15. Dr. Rich,
    I hope to be as passionate as you are when I become a teacher. You are beyond dedicated to your students and it is truly inspiring. Normally, if a teacher can't use their voice they'll just cancel class or not show up for work that day. I find it incredible that you were able to improvise for your entire class and still be able to have that big of an impact on your students.
    I thought it was really interesting that you sat back and gave the students the opportunity to learn from each other. It is surprising how much we actually know when were forced to do the work on our own.
    When we were getting ready to do our presentations for Shakespeare Survey, I remember thinking to myself there is no way I'm going to be able to to teach a play without summarizing it. But to my surprise, when I opened the book, I had no trouble at all using the techniques we had learned in class. I didn't think I would be able to do it without the your guidance and suggestions.

  16. This reminds me of the time I had to work a 12 hour shift with no voice. Mind you, I work in food service, as a cashier. And I couldn't call out so I had to find a way to get through it. My manager told me not to do register but I still found myself at the register.

    Just like you, I didn't whisper. I used my body movements and slowly worded out specific orders for the customers to interpret so we could both get a clear understanding of what would be made. It wasn't hard at all actually. And I was thankful that a lot of customers were empathetic about the situation and worked with me. No one got mad. We all did our best to make the best of the situation.

    When I got my voice back a couple of days after, the regular customers were like "you got your voice back!" and it made me happy because they cared and we had a fun time mouthing and interpreting orders. I don't want to lose my voice again of course, but, at least I know how to go about the situation.

  17. Well i'm glad you're feeling better, sometimes we are at our worsts (physically, emotionally, and mentally) and we want to push through sometimes but sometimes taking a break isn't too bad. Though I did not have this experience with in, I like how our last class we went into our groups and it was more conversation between us in our group. The media free environment, though I do miss my phone for a few, does force use to communicate with out peers in our class. But as the semester went on, I cared less about being on my phone because this is one of the only classes where I know my classmates' names. I know that everyone is always up for a conversation and when we were in our groups just the opportunity to be social was a good feeling. And personally, my group was so wrapped in our conversations, I firmly believe we could have talked about the endless opportunities within out scenes if we had the time. We got to learn different things from one another and I really enjoy that experience.

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  19. Dr. Rich,

    I understand the success of this experiment. I enrolled in an American Sign Language class while I was at Middlesex County College. I assumed that the instructor must have been very interested in sign language and maybe took to the language because it was interesting. However, when I walked in and said hello, she pressed her pointer finger to her lips, signaling that I should not speak. Throughout the rest of that first day, I discovered that nobody was to ever talk in her class. The instructor was deaf and did not like the idea of students being able to talk when she could not. I'll be honest, I was considering dropping the course after that day. I couldn't see how I was going to pass if there was no vocal instruction. Because I had never dropped a class, I wasn't going to start then. I stayed in that class and completed the semester with an A+. The students were able to learn from each other and help each other practice and acquire the necessary skills and understanding. My professor was able to teach us without using her voice. It was something I never thought could happen, let alone something I would have the pleasure of experiencing.

  20. I agree with what you have written in this blog post. I believe giving students freedom in the classroom allows them to have confidence in their own voice. In the classroom, rules and structure are pushed down your throat from the beginning. We have to complete this much in this amount of time causing restrictions. What you did with your class I believe could have been shocking for some because when was the last time they were in a classroom and the teacher sat back and let their students teach the material. I feel the reason for that is because trust is lost in the classroom. You were able to prove though if the students were given the chance they would prove many people wrong on what they know and how they can apply it to their lives. Allowing them to teach also shows that they were able to understand the material and if they did not they were able to work together and help each other to grasp the content.