Silent Teacher Day

How would your class function without you? On Tuesday, I did not speak. My teaching partner didn’t either. We were in class (for safety/legal reasons), but we ignored our students and subtly took notes about what was happening and what was said. This learning engagement was jointly inspired by Paul Solarz and Tania Lattanzio.

In his book, Learn Like a PIRATE, Paul outlines ideas and strategies for creating and developing a student-led classroom. Students can earn the opportunity of a Silent Day if they demonstrate leadership qualities and independence throughout the year. On this day, Paul does not speak and instead allows the students to take charge of their classroom, decisions and conflicts. To help the day run smoothly, Paul suggests preparing work for them to do, such as tests. I believe that my Year Four class would be capable of this, but we didn’t want things to run too smoothly. We had another reason for Silent Teacher Day.

The second part of the inspiration came from Tania Lattanzio. I was lucky enough to be part of her PD around concept-driven planning. As an alternative to simply defining concepts, Tania suggested giving students an experience of them. Our next unit is under the How We Organise Ourselves theme.

Central Idea: People are impacted through the decision-making processes within governance systems.

Even as adults, governance is a tricky concept to define. To help students with their understanding of governance, we removed it from the classroom. Our hope was that this provocation would deepen students’ understanding and appreciation of governance by providing a strong experience of what the classroom (in this example) would be like without it. Unlike Paul Solarz, we didn’t even provide any tasks for them to do!

As we planned it, we considered the best possible scenario: some initial chaos (so that the students could appreciate the impact of governance) leading to some impressive student leadership and independence (so that we could be proud of our students). This best-of-both scenario is exactly what we got! I honestly don’t think that we could have scripted it any better!

As the students started to come in at the beginning of the day, they realised that we were ignoring them and immediately started to make plans. It was suggested very quickly that some students should take the role of teachers (two teachers per lesson). Students were invited to express their interest by writing their name on the board. The rest of the students were handed post-it notes to vote for their teachers. Since so many students were interested, the winners received fewer than half of the votes. This prompted some students to declare that they didn’t deserve to win because they hadn’t won the majority vote. This caused a huge argument! Without any prompting, the students had given us an authentic way into future learning engagements. We planned to discuss voting systems and democracies at a later date.

We were impressed with their initial organisation, but the arguments escalated and the students were clearly struggling with the lack of leadership in class. The student teachers tried their best but most of the others were not listening. Some students even got upset because they were overwhelmed by the chaos. At this early stage in the morning, students were unable to make decisions, compromise or follow instructions.

By the time we got to morning recess, it had all changed. They made us proud by overcoming the difficulties. For the rest of Silent Teacher Day, they demonstrated leadership, independence and respect towards one another. We were hoping for some initial madness to tune into the unit, but we were very pleased that students were able to overcome it without any teacher intervention. Apart from legal reasons, we didn’t need to be there from this point on. We barely took any more notes because there was nothing interesting to take note of! The class was functioning like a well-oiled machine. The student teachers motivated the others by offering a choice of tasks and rewards for completion. Very impressive leadership and teamwork!

If my students can achieve this without any guidance whatsoever, imagine what they could achieve with a few set tasks. If students were more informed and better prepared before Silent Teacher Day, I am confident that they would have made a total success out of it, without the initial tears, tantrums and confusion. We will provide another opportunity before the end of the year.

In a later lesson, we discussed what had happened when we removed governance from the class. Our notes and photos were useful discussion prompts. From their experience of having no governance, these are key words that they identified:

  • Leadership
  • In charge
  • Decisions
  • Rules
  • Responsibility
  • Respect

The important next step in concept-driven learning is for students to identify relationships between concepts and to craft their own generalisations. From the ideas above, here is a selection of student-written generalisations:

Leaders make responsible, fair decisions.

In order to be a team, you need to respect the person in charge.

Being a leader means to respect others and take responsibility.

Leaders have to respect the people who you are making decisions for.

Leaders have control and are fair.

Controlled decisions are made fairly with more people involved.

People in charge need to make fair decisions.

Teams need governance to function well.

The concept of fairness came up repeatedly. Also, some students are moving beyond the idea that governance is just one person in charge. At this early stage of our inquiry, students have demonstrated a good foundational understanding. These generalisations prompted teacher questions and the next steps in our inquiry have become clear:

  • Explore different governance systems and structures
  • Explore the concept of fairness
  • How are decisions made within governance systems?
  • What makes a good decision?

Have you ever tried a Silent Teacher Day? Do you have any experience of teaching a similar unit? Please leave your thoughts and ideas in the comments section. Also, please check out my previous post if you missed it. It is a guest post about cyber threats, written by some Year Five students as part of their PYP Exhibition. They would very much appreciate your comments, questions and feedback. Click here to read it.

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34 comments

  1. I am very tempted to just try this next Monday, and debrief on Tuesday. My 6th graders have been together since 4th grade, and they are very capable. I would say they have a sense of where we’re going in science, social studies, and math, so they could fill the day. I don’t have a curricular connection that is strong—we do Ancient Greece but that’s not for a while—but I’m itching to try this. I know I have admin support because it was my principal who tweeted the link to this article. I might just write on the board, “It’s Silent Teacher Day” rather than ignore them. Or maybe it’s more exciting to just sit and smile? Thanks for a great idea!

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    1. Hi Heather,

      It’s great that we had a curricular connection but I think it can be justified without one. We want our students to collaborate, communicate and generally hold a strong community spirit. A Silent Teacher Day is the ultimate test of that. Good luck and let me know how it goes! Also, please thank your principal for sharing this!

      Best,

      Adam

      Like

  2. I tried a silent teacher lesson and it was hilarious to see how confused my students were. There was chaos then some students took the lead. The conversation and reflection we had after was great and they were chatting away about it afterwards. Thanks so much for sharing!

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    1. Hi Reem,

      That’s great to hear! I’m pleased to hear that it was such a worthwhile, memorable experience. Did you ever consider doing it longer than one lesson? What do you think would have happened?

      Best,

      Adam

      Like

  3. I work in a very difficult school/area. Students lack drive and self-motivation and have to constantly be redirected. I spent this entire past year putting out fires and trying to engage my students. How do you recommend I go about this? It seems like a great life lesson for my students and I would love to try it.

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    1. Hi Ashley,

      Your kids might surprise you. It was my more challenging students who took lead and impressed me most! I guess you won’t know until you try.

      Like I said, we wanted an element of chaos for the purpose of our unit. However, Paul Solarz (in the book) recommends doing this towards the end of the year, after the independence, leadership and ‘togetherness’ have already been established. The book has fantastic ideas for building the team spirit in your class. If you can’t get hold of the book, try the Learn Like a PIRATE website for ideas.

      Let me know how you get on.

      Best,

      Adam

      Like

  4. That was quite a calculated risk in not informing your students what was going on. Sounds like it paid off and you have set the stage for future silent days. Although next time they will know what’s happening and are likely already making plans for the next time this happens. I wouldn’t be surprised if some approach you to schedule the next silent day.

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    1. Hi Gregory,

      Thanks for your comment. I agree. If students were informed and prepared, they would have been able to organise themselves successfully. I’m sure of it. The chaos was because of how unprepared and how confused they were. I told them that we will hold another one (more organised) and they are very much looking forward to that.

      Best,

      Adam

      Like

  5. Wow! I’m utterly impressed and in awe. Silent Day peaked my interest when I read about it, but could not figure out how to make it work. I love, not just what you did, but what your students did too.

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    1. Hi Tima,

      Thanks for your feedback. I encourage you to give it a try! Your students will surprise you. It’s great that I had an authentic link to our unit, but I don’t think you need one to justify it.

      Best,

      Adam

      Like

  6. I would love to try this! However, I have concerns about behavioural issues. I have students who could potentially play on the freedom and do nothing all day or engage in an independent activity (reading/drawing). Did this occur for you? Did all students eventually become engaged in the student lead teachings?

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    1. Hi Jess,

      Thank you for your questions. Try it! Students might surprise you. It was my more challenging students who took the lead and organised everyone else! It was fantastic to see! Yes, some students got on with their own independent choices. In most cases, it was the students who were overwhelmed by the situation. It calmed them down and kept the classroom relatively calm. However, by morning recess, I’d say 95% of students were on task and following the instructions from the student teachers. There were a few who were messing around, but we had removed the governance. That was the point for us. When we do another Silent Teacher Day (focusing more on student leadership than the unit), we will make our expectations clear beforehand. For this, we needed a bit of crazy!

      Best,

      Adam

      Like

  7. This is a fab idea, I’ve just started a unit on school democracy, leading into local government. The older kids in my multi composite are also doing a young leaders course. I’m going to try it next week. How did you debrief or give feedback to the class afterwards?

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    1. Hi Vickie,

      This learning engagement sounds perfect for what you’re doing. It sounds like we’re teaching similar units.

      With some guiding questions, we asked the students to reflect on what went wrong, what went well, etc. We also used our teacher notes from the day to revisit what happened and what was said. These notes were a great discussion prompt! From their reflections, we identified some key words and the students wrote their generalisations.

      We praised the students who showed strong leadership (some really surprised us in a great way). We didn’t really punish those who were messing around. There was no governance, so who’s to say that they were doing the wrong thing? That was the whole point. Next time, however, if we focus more on student leadership than the unit, we will make our expectations clear beforehand.

      Let me know how your unit goes.

      Best,

      Adam

      Like

  8. Did you discuss it in advance with the school’s leadership? Have you prepared the parents in any way? Have you prepared for parents commenting in any way? Do you have students with special needs in your class? What did you do for them? I am asking because I can already hear some of my parents scream that they kid was “bullied” and I did not do anything. I also have one classroom with a child that shows symptoms of Aspergers and this could completely derail him. So what were the considerations and precautions you took in advance?

    Like

    1. Hi Katharina,

      Thank you for your important questions. It is extremely important that you are in the room and observant. The students might think that you are ignoring them, but definitely don’t. If it got out of hand, or if someone really was bullied, I would have been aware and would have intervened. The deputy principal was involved with the unit planning, so we knew it would be ok. Again, as long as we supervise carefully! We don’t have any special needs in class that would affect this learning engagement. If you’re worried about particular students, it might not be appropriate for you to do it. Or, you might be able to adapt it.

      Thanks again for your questions.

      Best,

      Adam

      Like

  9. This is great. I had a different kind of ‘silent teacher day’ last term, because I lost my voice, so only gave very short instructions through the whiteboard. Made for a very calm day. I’m interesting in finding out more, because I’m going to do a week of learning about the elections after half term. Am planning to have them create political parties, consider voting systems (e.g. proportional representation), campaign and vote on the 8th. I’m happy to let them take control of Class Dojo, seating plans, etc on the first day back and see what happens, but then I have PPA in the afternoon, so that might not impact well on the other members of staff. Perhaps we should do some learning about democracy first on the Monday without telling them what will happen on Tuesday…

    Like

    1. Hi Kate,

      Great idea! Your kids will love it. Our unit is about governance systems and how decisions are made. We want them to understand that decisions are not always ‘black and white’. We also want them to realise that leaders such as Trump are accountable and unable to make decisions on their own. Eventually, they will hopefully become better decision-makers because they will be able to evaluate the impact. Hopefully! On the journey, we’ll discuss governance systems within school, teams, etc., leading to governments, democracies and elections. Should be a good unit!

      Let me know how you get on with yours.

      Best,

      Adam

      Like

      1. Hi Adam,
        Just wanted to thank you for the blog post and inspiration for a great week last week. My class spent Monday morning planning lessons that they ended up teaching over the following day and a half. Their reflections included comments about how chaotic it was when no-one was in charge, how stressful it was when people didn’t listen to them, how they realised that they needed to be better organised and know more about their subject matter.,, and rather wonderfully, some of them discovered that they wanted to be teachers and/or discovered a more assertive side of their personalities. I would say that the children it had the greatest impact on were those ‘middle ground’ sometimes invisible children. Not G&T, not needing a lot of support… but discovered that they had fantastic leadership skills! I also got to allow the behaviourist in me to let go, sit back and observe, something I think I found a lot easier than my wonderful TA! On the Thursday, we analysed child friendly copies of all of the party manifestos, learnt about the history of voting and suffragettes, and finally had our own elections with a polling booth. I would say that my class were probably better informed than some of their parents on election day! It was fantastic, and opened up elections from beyond the usual ‘vote for me’ to a deeper understanding of why we have governments and democracy.

        Thanks again,
        Kate

        Like

        1. Hi Kate,

          I am thrilled to read this comment. What a fantastic week of learning, both academically and personally. It is wonderful to hear that your students have learnt so much about themselves.

          I am a big believer that middle kids are often ignored (in fact, I’m pretty sure research proves it). There’s a wonderful poem called ‘The Average Child’ – heartbreaking! Check it out. http://holyjoe.org/poetry/buscemi.htm

          I am honoured to be part of the inspiration for such a wonderful week in your class. It means a lot to me. However, you are the magical teacher that made it happen. Well done to you!

          Thank you for your lovely comment. It has made my day.

          Best,

          Adam

          Like

  10. This sounds really interesting! Did the students know what they were to ‘learn’ that day subject wise, as in how did the student teachers know what to teach?

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  11. That sounds like an amazing opportunity for the kids. I’m impressed they handled it so well! There are some really exciting and original ideas in that book … thanks for introducing it to me.

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    1. Hi Kerys,

      Thanks for your comment. I love the book and I’m very happy to share it. There are several other PIRATE books that are also fantastic. I have just finished ‘Lead like a PIRATE’, so you can look forward to me implementing those ideas next year!

      This learning engagement worked very well for what we wanted to achieve, but I would like to give them another chance and better prepare them for it (like it says in the book). This time was more about the unit than student leadership, so I think we should give them another opportunity to shine.

      See you tomorrow!

      Adam

      Like

  12. Sounds really interesting.

    Did the kids know a silent day might happen one day or was it totally new to them?
    How old are your class?

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    1. Hi Liz,

      We told them that it was going to happen the day before (the last minute of that day). We did not respond to any of their questions. I think we just wanted them to be excited and curious for the next day, but in hindsight, it would have been better to go in blind! They are Y4 (9/10 year-olds).

      Best,

      Adam

      Like

  13. Interesting idea! I wonder if this will lead students to question the idea of teachers as the leaders of their classroom ‘government’, and instead advocate for the students themselves to be leaders, decision-makers, the holders of power, etc.  

    Like

    1. Hi brenchan,

      Interesting point. I hope so! I hope that they can be more independent and make decisions for themselves based on compromises, respect and empathy for one another. I want them to be less dependent on teachers.

      Best,

      Adam

      Like

  14. This is really cool. I would’ve loved to see it happening. I bet doing nothing as a teacher, especially at that peak of chaos, must’ve been tough. I think that the children would’ve learnt a lot about themselves, organising themselves, responsibility and socialising.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Like

    1. Hi Brett,

      Yes, it was very tough to stay out of it. When students are crying and arguing, ignoring it goes against everything we do as educators! I’ll let you know when we have our next one.

      Thanks for the comment!

      Adam

      Like

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