One Minute of Solitude

Two of my three classes this term have been, so far, focused yet energetic, respectful yet lively. The third has been a bit of a pain in the ass.

This class meets from 4-6 in the afternoon – the worst possible time. They’re tired. I’m tired. Their brains are buzzing from a day’s worth of Red Bull and adolescent drama. They’re so done with learning.

What’s more, there’s a little gang of boys who seem to find a lot of stuff funny. I’m not sure, but from a couple of murmured, oblique exchanges that I’ve caught in passing, I’m beginning to think this has something to do with physical attributes of mine that they like.

Also: this is a remedial English class, and so far the work we’ve been doing has foundational (read: pretty easy.) Some of them are bored.

All this makes for a frenetic, nervous and silly atmosphere. After our second meeting, it became clear that this was going to be a continual problem if I didn’t do something to nip it in the bud.

What? I wondered. I stewed about it for a while. Should I throw people out? Should I give a speech? (Past experience suggests that speeches don’t work.) Should I separate the silly boys to the four corners of the room? Should I barrel through material that some students need to focus on so that other students won’t be bored?

And then I remembered something that my friend Lorri mentioned a while ago – I think she wrote it in a comment to a specific post, but I’ve searched and can’t find it. (Lorri, if you’re reading, and you remember, maybe you can point me to it…) Lorri said that begins her classes by allowing the students to shuffle around, chatter, etc. for about five minutes. Then she asks them to sit for one minute in complete silence before they take a deep breath and begin.

This, I thought, seems like a way to, if not eradicate the squirms and giggles, at least keep them more or less in check – to start on a calmer ground, so that escalation will be minimal.

So yesterday afternoon, when I was writing the class agenda on the board, I called the first item “One Minute of Solitude.” I then asked the students to make sure their desks were separated into rows and their cell phones were turned off and put out of sight.

“Last class,” I explained, “I was observing you. I noticed that there was a lot of very nervous energy in the room. It’s late in the day, people are tired , it’s hard to focus, people can’t stop laughing. So I want to do an exercise with you that I sometimes do with late classes. I want you to close your eyes. You can put your head down on your desk if you want. I’m going to turn out the light. And I want you to sit silently for 60 seconds. I’m going to time it, and if there are any distractions – if anyone speaks, if anyone’s cell phone goes off, if someone knocks on the door because they’re late – we’re going to start again.”

“Are we do this for a reason?” Khawar asked.

“Yes,” I said. “A nervous, agitated mind is not a good learning mind. Energy and enthusiasm are good; agitation is not. You’ve all been very busy all day, and your minds are busy too. This is a way to settle our minds so we can learn better.”

I turned out the light. I flicked my iPod stopwatch and said, “Go.”

60 seconds of silence is long. At about the 40 second mark, a couple of students shifted impatiently and looked around, but no one made any noise. And when the minute was up, I quietly said, “That’s it,” and turned the lights back on. They lifted their heads blurrily.

“How did that feel?” I asked.

“Calm,” Khawar said.

“Long,” Philippe said.

“We’re going to do this every class,” I said. “For some of you, it might be the only 60 seconds of calm you have all day. I hope maybe you’ll come to enjoy it.”

Did it help? I think it did, a bit. The major failing was that two of the boys who most needed this exercise came late, and so didn’t do it; as soon as they walked in, the energy in the room ramped up again. However, it never quite reached the height of foolishness that it had the class before, and overall, the work got done and the wasted time was minimal.

I’m a bit nervous about starting every class this way, but I’m hoping that, instead of becoming tedious, it really will be a tiny oasis of peace for some of them. And perhaps some of them will learn that if they can’t sit still and quiet for 60 seconds, it’s probably causing them some problems that they should really address…

Image by barunpatro


17 thoughts on “One Minute of Solitude

    1. I think it’s a great idea, too, and I’m sure Lorri won’t mind if you also steal it. And I think you’re right – I almost wish I could put the timer away and just sit with them with my eyes closed. (Maybe I will eventually.) One way or another, I think it’s good for me because doing something about the problems, instead of ignoring them, is always good for me, whether or not the solutions are effective!


  1. I have been reading your blog for quite some time but I don’t think I have ever commented before. Hi! I am a high school teacher and your blog has really given me inspiration. I had to comment today because I LOVE this idea! I have a class of 40 during the last period of the day. They’re tired, I’m tired, it gets hot from so many sweaty 15 year olds in the room… Last class I made them take several long deep breaths- in through the nose, out through the mouth- and it helped a little. I think this might help even more. Especially since many of them have lunch the period before and have been running around for 40 minutes. Thanks for the great idea!


    1. Camile:
      Thanks so much for commenting! Yes, I think Lorri’s idea is genius, and I’ll give updates throughout the term on whether it’s been effective – I hope it’s helpful in your class.


  2. Hi Siobhan — Welcome back to the school year! I’m on sabbatical this term, so the only chaos and noise I’m having to work around is a full house of family, which is often enough. It’s wonderful to be able to catch up on your blog.

    Thanks for the kind words about my practice of having silence before beginning a class. I use that for a lot of gatherings–workshops, especially in writing, and for all ages, actually, right up to seniors. I did a keynote for teachers in Montreal once and asked the audience to do that–mind you, it was part of the point, as the talk was about creating classroom climate. Although I started the practice when I was still teaching secondary school, I think it’s needed even more today. I’m very eager to hear how it works out for your class and your readers’. I recall your post about cell phones in class, and I think of ipods and beeps and texts and the general meme infestation we have to deal with, and I’m surprised we’re not all bonkers. (I couldn’t find my original post on silence either — perhaps we had an exchange on facebook?)….

    What may have started me on that practice could have been my frustration with all the ‘channel-switching’ (see? even the metaphors have roots in our techno age) that students in high schools have to do. Add to that the expectation that they develop a range of literacies and intelligences and it all can add up to a lot of noise in the head and over-stimulation of the body. Likely part of my motive was sheer selfishness, too. Left to my own devices, I choose silence and can happily spend hours on end not speaking a word. It soothes me, clears my mind. And as much as I love people, parties, and events, I’m drained, not energized by them, as some people are. I’m certain many of my students are like that. If, after a frenetic, over-booked day I feel as though I’ve been picked to death by crows, I imagine they do as well.

    Next semester I’m back to teaching the graduate writing class, and I’ll likely do more in-class writing, which I often do. That has the same effect. There is a lovely moment after people have been writing for 10 minutes or so, when the room is quiet, no one is squirming or shaking her foot, when those who are still writing are intent and those who have finished have put down their pens but have that thousand-mile stare…whenever that happens, I let the class ‘wake up’ on its own, even if time is up, because we are all so much more ‘present’ when we come back to the table. (The luxury here is having two hour classes, so there is time).

    Yesterday I went for a walk in the ravine west of here, and I began to hear nuts or bark crashing to the ground under a tree. The place is usually so quiet –only the sounds of birds and water.
    A boy- maybe eight or nine years old -with his school backpack ran along the path toward the school, but stopped when he heard the same noises I did. We both stood there for a moment or two looking up at the tree, trying to see the woodpecker, waiting for something else to drop. Just then, the school bell rang in the distance, his face changed, and he turned on his heels and made a run for it. What a missed opportunity.


    1. Lorri:
      I agree with you about the “channel-switching,” and I think that our era of cell phones and constant online distraction has intensified this problem. I find myself constantly distracted by all the things I could be doing, reading, listening to, watching (and I don’t own a cell; I imagine that having one makes the level of distraction and constant “engagement” that much higher.)

      Some students are quite resistant to this exercise, and I may take steps to address that, and write about them later.

      Our classes are also two hours long, and they usually finish up by doing some writing. It does seem to focus and calm them, but it’s not really practical to do it at the beginning, so I hope that bookending the class this way will be the most effective solution.

      I’m also an introvert who is easily exhausted by others, so I identify most with students who are also that way. But I hope that even the gregarious extrovert types (and the insecure class-clown types) will give themselves the chance to discover the benefits of having 60 quiet seconds in their day…

      Thanks so much for your juicy comment! And thanks for this exercise; if nothing else, I expect I’ll learn from it.


  3. It sounds like it’s working for you. My strategy in that situation is to start writing a lot of important things on the board and start speaking about important things that the students will immediately be quiet as they get busy copying and listening, afraid they’ll miss something really important.



  4. This is my first time visiting your blog and I have to say this is a great post to start on. I completely agree that people need quite periods within their day. I can see this as being particularly useful near the end of the day when, as you said, the students minds are full of agitation from everything that has happened during the day. I think this may be something I try at some point during my practicum.


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