When I was in grade 3, I attended a school experimenting with what was called an Open Concept Classroom. This was in the 1970s. The purpose of the experiment was to see who would actually learn anything if three classes of third graders were corralled into one large room. Out of 75 students, would anyone remember anything from third grade, or merely that they had lived through the year?
Okay, that probably wasn’t the experiment. I have no idea why they did that to us or to our teachers.
What I remember was each group of 25 children had one teacher. Our little tables were oriented toward our assigned teacher, but the sights and sounds of the other two groups were all part of the mix in the room. Although I think the open concept classroom was meant to facilitate cooperation, each group usually worked on its own activities. The only all-group activity I remember was a group detention. The noise level had gotten so high our teacher went to the middle of the room and yelled that we all had to stay after school. All 75 of us had to put our heads down on our tables for 30 minutes of quiet. It was my first ever experience of shared group silence. Bliss.
One of the teachers in the grade 3 area, not mine, was the loudest. We’ll call her Mrs. Brennan, because that was her name. She was peppy. She was cheerful. She was loud. She wanted to facilitate a group identity within the larger group, a sub-group of those who belonged to Mrs. B’s Group, as she called them. Her tool, very effective, was leading her group in chants. When she wanted their attention, or thought it was time for a little team spirit, or maybe when the scientists conducting the experiment pushed a buzzer, Mrs. Brennan would begin the chant, Hey, hey, hey! Brennan’s got the way! Then the children in her sector would join in, Hey, hey, hey! Brennan’s got the way!The chant would be repeated several times until Mrs. Brennan used hand motions to bring down the volume of the chant and eventually bring the chanting to a halt. Memories of this made it difficult for me to enjoy Taize for some time when I was first introduced to it in the Episcopal Church.
There was nothing any of the rest of us could do but stop and listen. This helplessness extended even to my teacher. We’ll call her Mrs. Hutchings, although her name could have been Hutchins. I never really caught her name over the din from Sector B.
Our teacher, Mrs. H., tried hard. She wasn’t as dynamic as Mrs. Brennan. She had no fancy chants. No harmonies to add. Mrs. Brennan would launch into a rousing call and response chorus of Who’s ready to learn?We are! We are! Who are we? Who are we? We belong to Mrs. B! and Mrs. H. would stop, shake her head slightly, take a deep breath, and wait for the pep rally to stop before picking up her lesson on phonics, or fractions, or whatever we were supposed to learn in grade 3.
My favorite memories of third grade were when, because I did well in school (at what I can’t recall), I was allowed to go with a small group culled from the large group into a small room, a former “traditional” classroom, unused, and emptied of furniture. We were allowed to shut the door and read. We were supposed to report back to the large group after a couple of weeks in the form of a skit about our books. I remember the books. I don’t remember the skit.
I hope the Open Concept Classroom experiment ended quickly. We moved at the end of the year, so I never found out.
Why am I writing about this? Travel is fun and exciting, but travel can be really loud, and when you are dependent on others for information, knowing which voice to listen to, and being able to hear quieter voices can be really helpful. Of course, this applies to our life as disciples too.
A few days ago we were in an airline terminal waiting to board a flight. The gate agent from the gate next door reminded me of Mrs. Brennan, but equipped with a PA system. She was instructing her flight to board, using chipper and very loud instructions. Many of them. Our gate agent couldn’t get a word in edgewise. She would put the intercom to her mouth, push the button, and from the gate next door would come, “Now boarding, Group 2. Everyone holding a boarding pass with Group 2 written on it, please make your way . . . and while I have your attention . . .”
The announcements were so loud, people at our gate thought they were meant for us too. People dutifully followed the directions, but then wondered why nothing happened.
Our gate agent finally caught a lull in the announcements from next door, put the microphone to her mouth, and spoke, but nothing happened. “It’s broken,” she sighed. Then, speaking in a normal voice, she told us what to do, calmly, peacefully. We were all leaning toward her, listening closely, and got her instructions.
“The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouting of a ruler among fools” (Ecclesiastes 9:17).
I read an article that said the Open Concept Classroom experiment pretty much came to an end by the close of the 1970’s. People didn’t like the noise; it wasn’t conducive to learning. The cooperation amongst teachers that was supposed to just happen within the large shared space didn’t. Some schools are still stuck with the architecture and teachers there do their best, hanging things from the ceilings to create, well, walls.
Where do you go to get quiet? When it’s noisy, and when there are competing voices, rulers shouting and drowning out the quiet words of the wise, what do you do to get quiet so you can listen to what you really need to hear?
A prayer that helps me is For Quiet Confidence, found in theBook of Common Prayer:
O God of peace, who has taught us that in returning and rest we will be saved, in quietness and confidence will be our strength: By the might of your Spirit lift us, we pray, to your presence, where we may be still and know that you are God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Sometimes we use the phrase “listening intently.” Intently comes from a Latin word that means “to stretch out, lean toward, strain.” The cacophony around us may mean we need to work on our flexibility, our ability to stretch farther, lean toward voices that speak truth, voices speaking to us with life-giving messages, saying words we need to hear.
And when you are offered the chance, go to a quiet room, shut the door, and enjoy a good book, or get a group of friends, put your heads down on your desks and enjoy some group silence.
Thank you to Connie Saeger-Proctor for sharing her beautiful photo of the frog.