A few years ago, I decided to start every Monday in one of my 7th grade social studies classes with the Transitions Activity. This was not unusual; I had used Transitions in several classes before, and it had always had a profoundly positive impact on the classroom culture.
I had an instinct that this structure would allow these students to feel safe to share their thoughts and experiences in and outside of the classroom. It would give our classroom community the space to witness each others’ important thoughts and life events. As we learned about each other, our community would grow stronger, and our knowledge of each other would enhance my ability to teach my students well and enhance their abilities to see each other as fully human. Our classroom would become a safe space for deep, connected learning to happen. It was going to be powerful. I just knew it.
With no hesitation, on that Monday morning several years ago, I explained Transitions. After fielding several questions, I felt confident my students understood the intent of the protocol. With anticipation in my heart, I announced, “Transitions is now open,” and started my timer for 10 minutes.
I can wait it out, I thought. This is totally normal. The protocol is new, and the students need time to think of what to say.
Still more silence.
I noticed the seconds ticking down on my timer. Just wait a little bit longer, I coached myself. It will only take one student to speak, and then students will be sharing in waves. Be patient.
The silence was becoming unbearable for me. Did I do a really bad job of explaining this? I wondered. Concern tinged with panic started to creep into my consciousness. What if no one said anything at all?
And then, a student cleared his throat. I could feel my tension lessen. This is it, I thought. The magic is about to happen.
“I like pie!” The words danced off my student’s tongue, a broad smile upon his face and an impish twinkle in his eye.
Several students giggled softly, while I felt frustration and disappointment rising in me. Keep calm, I thought. Keep your expression just as it is. Don’t react.
The subsiding giggles were replaced by still more silence.
Maybe they just don’t know what to say, I thought as the silence pressed in around us.
Clearly, I need to set the example, I decided. I’ve forgotten exactly what I shared, probably a story about one of my dogs getting into some kind of mischief. Or maybe I shared a great joy or disappointment from the weekend. Whatever I said, it was honest and it worked. After I was done, several different students shared stories from their weekends. These stories weren’t dramatic or intense, but they were real — real things that happened to my students.
And then the timer rang.
“Transitions is now closed,” I said, somewhat thankful that we got through it and hopeful that students would grow into the protocol over time.
(Since then, when teaching others to use Transitions, I’m always careful to prompt the group “If you think you have something to say, be brave and say it! The longer silence goes on, the harder it is to break, so just get us started if you feel like it!”)
But it didn’t take long for my students to catch on to the protocol and relish in taking part in it each week. We actually had to extend the time because so many students wanted to speak, and as the year went on, they increasingly shared incidents from their lives that required a level of honesty and vulnerability that surprised me.
As the students became more willing to open up about their lives, we periodically found ourselves sitting with the hard-to-bear truth of someone in the room. When students shared about car accidents, bullying, catastrophic illness in their families, or death, heaviness would hang in the room. It was the kind of heaviness that allowed us all to know that we stood together in empathy for the person sharing their story. It was also the kind of heaviness that can be difficult to move on from, the kind of tension that just has to give.
I distinctly recall one of those heavy days. I can visualize the student who shared but no details about what she said. I can also recall how brave I thought she was for being willing to be so honest about her feelings in front of her peers. After she spoke, the heaviness set in. It seemed like there were no words appropriate to follow her words, nothing left to say of greater importance.
As I scanned the room, allowing us time to sit quietly together in community and wondering how long to let that quiet last, I heard a nervous giggle and the familiar words, “I like pie.” Giggles erupted throughout the room. The tension in the room seemed to abate, and Transitions rolled on.
At first, I didn’t know what to do with this event. Was the pie comment disrespectful and insensitive to the girl who had shared so openly? Should I be angry? Or was the student who spoke of pie simply a 12-year-old, uncomfortable with the quiet weight of the room, doing what he knew how to do to help lighten things up and move on? Should I be thankful?
With the knowledge that the latter was most likely the case, but that the former might also have been felt by the student who shared (or others in the room), I decided to speak to our class’s lover of pie after class. We talked about how natural it is to want to release tension in a group, the power of words, when humor works and when it may not, and how to be sensitive to others in the room.
After our conversation, I was fairly certain the student would be a more sensitive member of our classroom community. However, I also knew that I needed to be more responsive to students who struggled to sit in heavy silence and needed something to lighten the moment so they could move on.
“Once the students got the hang of Transitions, they absolutely would not let go of it.”
Once the students got the hang of Transitions, they absolutely would not let go of it. I was not allowed to cancel it. Period. So, when my assistant principal walked in one Monday morning to observe my teaching for 20 minutes, I had no choice. He was going to observe Transitions, which technically had nothing to do with the 7th grade Social Studies curriculum.
He watched. He listened. He left.
A couple of days later, I met him to discuss the observation, and I went in armed with my rationale for taking the time for Transitions. I was ready to defend the value of a safe and caring classroom community and a teacher who knows her students well enough to tailor instruction to their interests and the realities of their daily lives. My defense was unnecessary. My assistant principal immediately picked up on how important Transitions was to the students and appreciated the community he witnessed in my classroom.
So Transitions went on that year. And occasionally, when it was too quiet for too long and the tension needed to be released, that one student would break the silence and give us the gift of giggles by saying, with a kind smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye, “I like pie.”