If you had walked into my classroom on the morning of Sunday, February 11, you might have been surprised by what you’d seen. It was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Fifteen hands moved their pens on pieces of paper, focused on the material in front of them. No one whispered to their neighbor; no one absent-mindedly ripped loose pieces of paper. For ten amazing minutes in my classroom on that Sunday morning, we enjoyed near-perfect silence.
Many people assume that middle schoolers are not capable of spending ten minutes in silence, let alone productive silence. The practice of silent reflection during our class time is something I have been developing all year with my students, and my experience proves that middle schoolers are capable of much more than we often expect of them. These ten minutes have become some of my favorite moments as a teacher and often the highlight of my week.
As a second-year fellow at Isaac M. Wise Temple, I teach two elective classes to seventh and eighth graders each Sunday morning. We meet for an hour and fifteen minutes each week. At Wise Temple, the model of electives allows students to choose which classes they want to a part of. This buy-in from the students offers a unique chance to connect with them about a subject they are interested in and gives them agency to be partners in our learning process.
Regardless of the class topic, I have found silent reflection opportunities to be meaningful and valuable to students, madrichim, and myself. The idea for silent written reflection came from my own experiences as a teen. I had a high school English teacher who built silent, written reflection time into every week. He encouraged us to see this time as an opportunity to create something both collectively and individually. The activity was individual because we worked independently, but the process was also collective because we produced our writing within the same ten-minute timeframe. The goal was to not only engage in the formative process of reflection, but also to produce a piece of writing that we were proud of and could look back on. As a high schooler, I appreciated this time for reflection. This activity was a sign of his trust in us as students and writers. He held us to a high standard of silence during this time as a show of respect for ourselves and our fellow students. “Keep your pen moving,” he would say, “even if you don’t know what to write, write something.” I find myself following his example when I teach my own students.
Not quite teenagers, but definitely not children, seventh and eighth graders are inquisitive, thoughtful, sometimes awkward, alternatively quiet and extremely loud. They can be an enigma, and I love sharing what I find meaningful and relevant about Judaism and Jewish life with them and crafting a curriculum that meets their needs as learners and as Jews. Seventh and eighth graders are in a different developmental stage than I was as a high schooler who enjoyed written reflections, so I spent some time thinking about how I could best bring my passion for reflection to them. One thing I’ve found is that in order for reflections to be successful in my classroom, middle schoolers need several directed questions to answer.
On weeks that I want to build in reflection time, I set aside time in my lesson planning to create a reflection worksheet. I look over my lesson plan and the materials I’ve put together and brainstorm five to eight big-picture questions like “Do you admire Abraham? Why or why not?” and “Whose responsibility is it to take care of the environment? Why?” At the end of class, I leave ten to twelve minutes for our reflective work. We begin with seven minutes of silent work. My expectation is that they keep their pen moving, but they can answer the questions in any order they like, and they are free to use the back of the sheet to continue writing on the directed topic or write about something else that inspires them. The madrichim and I also participate in the silent reflection. After seven minutes, I give them thirty seconds to finish their final thought. I then ask for volunteers to share something they’ve written. I explain that we share what we’ve written without caveat (you are not allowed to say “what I meant to write…” or “what I wrote about was…”). I ask this because I want to encourage students to share the work they’ve created just as they created it. Although it usually takes another thirty to sixty seconds of silence before someone shares, students do share what they’ve written, and I will often share a line or two of my own reflection as well.
At the very end of class, I collect their reflections and read over them. They offer me a window into how the students are thinking—what resonates with them, what questions they are grappling with, what they are hearing in discussion groups I am not a part of. Their reflections always confirm what I know about middle schoolers: they are thoughtful, intelligent, deeply inquisitive young people who learn a lot each time they come to religious school. I hold my students to high standards during our Sunday mornings together, and each reflection that we complete together reminds me how much middle schoolers are capable of learning and creating. I look forward to using reflection as a tool in future classrooms. I believe students learn from meaningful content, engaging discussion, and the process of silent reflective writing. Insight, wisdom, and understanding emerge from the silence.
Deborah Goldberg is a second-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is currently serving as a Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow at Isaac M. Wise Temple.