Who can speak?:
Silence, voice and pedagogy
Jonathan G. Silin
Over the past two decades I have been an advocate for building curriculum out of children's lived experiences – whether the small seemingly inconsequential events that take place in the playground or singular, incomprehensible moments such as occurred on September 11, 2001. My work has been concerned with identifying and supporting voices not found in most classrooms, for example, people with HIV/AIDS, Gay and Lesbian families and students, the homeless, and other disenfranchised groups.
While a concern for voice continues to be a central theme of my work, my observations in an economically depressed urban school district, where I am director of research for a major reform initiative, have caused me to question my assumptions about voice and silence (Silin and Lippman, 2003). Here the children continuously record, document, and share every experience. Journal writing is the required first activity in all K-6 classrooms and when the children go on a field trip, it is always written about before the day is over. In an era of intensified accountability feedback is individual, immediate, and carefully worded. It seems as if every moment must be pedagogically meaningful. In these, as in so many classrooms around the country, literacy appears to take precedence over life.
To be honest, my interest in the unspoken, knowing in and through the body, has also been prompted by caring for my elderly and extremely fragile parents. Where once I heard silence only as an indication of oppression and constraint in the classroom, I have now begun to hear other meanings as well – silence as a communicative act, an essential component of human development, a moment to be savored rather than papered over. But let me explain.
We live in a noisy world. The impatient sounds of fax and answering machines; the continuous clicking of laptop computers; cell phone beepers going off at the most inopportune moments punctuate our daily lives. There is little opportunity for silence to speak, and, when it does, we are often too busy to listen. In the summer that I rode the bus between my home on Eastern Long Island and the hospital in New York City where my father lay voiceless, the