One Minute of Solitude: Reprise


We are six weeks into the semester, and I’m starting to pinpoint small classroom management issues and think about appropriate responses.  Nothing major has arisen so far (fingers crossed), but whenever I am confronted with hints of passive-aggressiveness, defiance or rudeness, I start evaluating what I need to do: ignore? Confront? Defuse in some other manner?

This always makes me think of past experiences, and one class from the autumn of 2009 has been coming to mind.  Here’s an early attempt I made to curb their inappropriate behaviour.  Take a guess: do you imagine this approach was effective?  Do you think it would be effective in one of your difficult classes?


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 a technique that a friend mentioned a while ago.  She 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


16 thoughts on “One Minute of Solitude: Reprise

  1. Sometimes when I want them to stop talking I stop talking myself and just stand there. It is quite interesting to watch the classroom come to the realization that I am standing perfectly still and silent. Depending on the class, it can take 10 seconds or 3 minutes. Then once I have them all sitting in silence, I stand there for as long as I think I can get them to stay in that mode.

    I was actually inspired by Ryan Gosling’s teacher in Half Nelson. That his character was deeply wounded emotionally and drug-addled is beside the point. It was the Ryan Gosling approach to acting reflected in the character of the teacher that got me thinking. My reflex approach is to be louder than them, to shout them into silence, which is more exhausting and less productive.


  2. Love that this exercise seems to calm the class down, however I personally have difficulty with the 60 seconds of calm. Can’t do it… have tried in the past. My mind just keeps going to other things. During that 60 secs I’m going through a checklist of what I will be taught after the 1 min is up, organizing my schedule for the next day, going over projects due etc. Or else I just fall asleep right away and am thrown right off for the rest of the evening. No help for me I guess.


  3. I, too, stop talking and wait for them to be quiet when the chatter is getting out of hand. This is especially useful in the end of the day class, when everyone is fidgety.
    I like the 60 second idea. Think I may borrow it. Wish me luck!


  4. I teach elementary school ESL and in elementary school the students are routinely asked to put their heads on their arms and have a moment of silence. It does us all a world of good. Can’t see why it shouldn’t work with the teenagers, too. Reminds me of a blogger I read once who had “breathing” at the beginning of her high school English classes. They said a little mantra along the lines of “I am a person of great dignity. I have power and no one is better than me.” I thought that was kind of neat way to start a class. Have a great year!


  5. Wouldn’t surprise me to find out it becomes addictive for the students, and they end up wanting more of it. Leave the world behind for a minute, and thoughts come pouring in. Hope it works out for you.


  6. I think it is a great idea. I would do something like this with the class I had right after lunch. They were wound up and excited so I needed them to calm down. But my special ed students had trouble with complete silence so I would put on some music and ask them to write in their journals for 5 min (I put the timer on). They could write about a topic I had on the board or anything they wanted to write about. Their journals were not graded on punctuation, just that they participated.


  7. You might not need to keep doing it. They may get into the habit of becoming calm when they enter your room because they have been doing something that forces them to become calm.


  8. I just started college although I was a post secondary student as well. I had a professor (english comp 2) that would give us a 10 minute break halfway through our 2 hour class and i feel that that really helped. Within my college experience here i have a dull professor that spices up class when he notices things that shouldn’t be happening (texting, sleeping, both). one day when i was maybe one of about 3 or 4 students awake he decided to scream loud to get our attention and then wrote on the way while he hoped that it would come off. (the marker came off but he only erased half of the line he wrote which is still there to this day about 2 or 3 weeks later, the discussion was over bartleby the scrivener which i find uninteresting and was struggling to focus myself.) it is this caring in the professors that makes the class so much better and essentially reflects on the school. i will definitely request classes by certain professors that made the experience better. i went to a small school because i couldn’t sit through classes of more than about 40-50 students. i think the minute of silence is a great idea to begin class with and maybe would make a great research assignment for other students or professors.


  9. I’m thinking about trying this one with a year 8 class. I have never successfully had them quiet for longer than 10 seconds so I’m concerned that it could merely become a new source of conflict with them. Its definitely an idea I will keep in the back of my mind. Thankyou


  10. Thanks so much for your comments! The truth is, I found it very challenging to keep up this practice. I eventually abandoned it because I was so stressed before every class at the idea of making them be still and quiet for a whole 60 seconds. (It really is amazing how long it feels.) I would have preferred to put my head down and be silent with them, but the one time I did that, I heard the rustle of homework being scribbled, and glanced up to see the blue of cell phone screens. I think this is the sort of exercise that would work very well in elementary schools, where you see students frequently and can reinforce the ritual by doing it every morning and afternoon, for example. This class continued to be a problem – I wrote more about it here:


  11. Nice idea. When I was in the 4th and 5th grades in a Chicago public school in the 1940s, teachers had children do this when the class began to get rowdy. Perhaps if the rather undisciplined young men in your class had been exposed in elementary school to this practice of learning to control one’s mind, they would be more in control of themselves than they are at present. It is really a pity that this informal cultural practice that used to be common in ordinary public schools has been lost. Given the ethnic makeup of Chicago of that era, it must have been common as a child-education practice in central and eastern Europe, i.e., Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, etc.


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