The topic of silence has come up a few times in discussions with my seventh graders, and every time it does, the young people make it obvious by their facial expressions and comments that the idea of silence isn’t one they embrace. That’s not surprising, given the fact that they get so few opportunities to practice silence in our contemporary world. But I know that silence can lead to beautiful moments of prayer and can open our hearts to God, so I look for ways to encourage silence with my students.
1. Challenge the young people to be silent.
In our pre-Ash Wednesday class, I mentioned the value of silence as a way to observe the Lenten practice of prayer. The young people looked dubious, so I challenged them to spend 40 seconds (one second for each day of Lent) in absolute silence, to see what it would feel like. I was obvious about looking at my watch and observed the young people to see how they responded. While some of the kids looked every which way, unsure what to do in the moments of quiet, by the end of the 40 seconds, most of them at least looked like they were engaging the silence. I challenged the young people to spend at least 40 seconds in silence each day this Lent. Hopefully at least a few will take me up on the challenge.
2. Invite the young people to listen.
One way to invite young people to silence is to reframe it as an invitation to listen. I challenge my kids to be quiet for a few moments and listen to whatever sounds they might notice. Then we as a group make a list of everything we heard when we were quiet. It’s a lesson in the things we miss when we are surrounded by noise. While the sounds we notice may only be cars driving by, a loud voice from the class across the hall, or a dog barking, this exercise gives us practice in listening for God’s voice, which is the goal of silence.
3. Embed silence in times of group prayer.
Silence doesn’t always have to be isolated to be meaningful; in fact, it is often most meaningful in the context of a more formal prayer time. For instance, we often pray with our Finding God curriculum’s guided reflections, which set the scene for prayerful reflection and incorporate moments of silence for the young people to talk to Jesus about what they are learning or experiencing. The young people usually respond well to this type of prayer, and it exposes them to quiet prayer without introducing what they perceive as the “threat” of silence.
4. Foster an environment of silence.
Find ways to make the classroom environment encourage silence. When praying, for instance, if the classroom setup allows, move away from the space where you might do noisier activities such as games, group discussions, or learning stations. Gather around a prayer table or on a prayer rug. If physical movement into a prayer space isn’t possible, separate the prayer times by announcing that you will now be moving into prayer time and invite the young people to close their eyes and take a few deep breaths before beginning a formal prayer experience. Playing soft music can lead young people into the silence of their hearts by filtering out the ambient noises that can distract a prayerful environment.
When young people are exposed to silence and invited to practice silent prayer, they often embrace the silence they don’t realize they crave in our fast-paced, noisy world. That’s a wonderful doorway for letting in the Holy Spirit to open the ears of our hearts to God’s voice.
How do you encourage silence in your classroom? Do you have a story to share of a time when practicing moments of silence in a session bore visible fruit?