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.


  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