In preparation for the annual study of Elie Wiesel’s Night, freshmen are introduced to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Many are unaware of the document’s existence. When they explore the United Nations’ website, they initially consider the thirty articles common sense. Then, with general awareness of current events and simple research of news headlines, they recognize blatant violations of such rights around the world. After careful consideration, my students identify conflicting messages within and interpretations of the human rights on the list.
My students react with compassion. From a safe distance, a global concern becomes a topic worth exploring—something to address in a research paper or presentation—much like a history lesson. The natural human response to social injustice is sympathy—feelings of pity and sorrow for others’ misfortune. My freshmen acknowledge progress begins with education. Knowledge builds understanding. Understanding creates perspective. The more they learn and process about the world, the more they recognize issues closer to home. The lessons are internalized—the experiences personal. At this point, fifteen-year-olds open their eyes and hearts to their surroundings. The time has come for the adult in the classroom to step aside and proudly observe what evolves.
I have to admit, the lesson in this post has been a neglected draft for three years. Every year, I’m moved by the power of the Silent Tour activity, but words fail when I attempt to share the details. Inspired by the emerging voices of students around the world and in my own classroom, I realize the message is more relevant than ever. Here is my modest contribution to advocate for students everywhere…
After reading and discussing the first four chapters of Night, students break from the text to reflect and write about a past experience in response to the Speak Up Prompt.
Think of a time in your life when you had the chance to use your voice but did not speak up or wish someone would have spoken up (or a situation in which you or someone else did speak up). What were the outcomes, consequences, lessons? Tell your story.
Although the exercise is ungraded, writers experience what Brené Brown identifies as The Power of Vulnerability. In sharing their stories, students invite me into their past allowing themselves to be seen. Only when we find the courage to tell our stories may we “love with our whole hearts.” Brown urges us to embrace vulnerability, adding, “What makes us vulnerable, makes us beautiful.”
Preparation and Front-loading
Writers know I will read their work and possibly respond with a comment about what they shared. However, they have no idea I will copy their most powerful passages, quote their words out of context (to respect their anonymity), and paste their individual Speak Up Quotes on envelopes.
When every voice is represented, I place envelopes and piles of comment cards around the classroom wherever I can find space: tables, counters, ledges, bookshelves.
This year’s preparation was special. My fifth-grade daughter assisted with set up. She helped rearrange the furniture and strategically place lamps, but most importantly, read the words of my students. She connected with each one. Unfortunately, she faces similar friend drama, witnesses everyday bullying, and dreads lunchtime/recess conflicts (while enjoying the rest of the school day). To my daughter, the quotes represent more than the experiences of my freshmen; they verbalize the reality of our universal fears, pain, and insecurities. They are our inner voice expressed in writing. I am grateful my daughter now knows she’s not alone with her feelings. My students will feel similar connections after taking a Silent Tour of the quotes.
The Silent Tour Experience
I email students the night before the silent tour. I want them to know about the experience we will share and build anticipation with a life-changing lesson hook. Students may only enter the classroom with a pen or pencil. No backpacks. No devices. No distractions.
The next morning, they enter room A15 to lamp lighting, instrumental background music, and a message on the screen.
Curiosity is piqued, but anticipation becomes confusion. What do we write?
Then, after closer inspection, students realize these are their words. Oh no. Which quote is mine?
The wave of panic fades as they begin the tour. They can’t help but respond to the words in front of them. They can relate to the voice behind every scenario.
Soothing music. Gentle lighting. Lost in the moment, we forget we’re in school. Pencils scratch words of encouragement and support on scraps of paper. Stuff the envelope. Shuffle to the next open space. Compassion spreads. The uninterrupted flow of one unified pulse shares in silent contemplation and reveals the path to humanity in the form of authentic empathy.
What’s happening? How can freshmen be this absorbed by anything in school? In her animated RSA video on empathy, Brené Brown explains,
“Empathy starts with silence”—the simple act of listening to another person.
In this activity, reading each quote and acknowledging another’s feelings forms genuine bonds. Brown highlights the reasons for our success. We are:
- Perspective taking
- Avoiding judgment
- Recognizing emotion in others
- Feeling WITH people
For authentic empathy, we must be brave enough to express our own fragility. In Brown’s experience, the silent tour activity is powerful because “Empathy is a vulnerable response. What makes something better is connection…Empathy fuels connection.” I expose the tender beauty in my writers’ words. Students respond with wholehearted thought and raw emotion. They connect with peers they normally wouldn’t talk to during class. That’s it. Human connection.
Despite my efforts to respect everyone’s anonymity, when students receive their envelope the next day, peers are eager to share which comments they contributed. Individual handwriting is easily identifiable in most cases. No matter. They want to share their courage and reach out to each other.
Reflection and Student Feedback
Students put closure on the silent tour by submitting written feedback to me (again, anonymous if they so choose). They will also post to their blog site to reflect on the entire experience after they read the comments in their envelopes. Their immediate reflections are unanimously positive and add insight to the experience. Here are some examples.
At a time where we tend to numb emotion, remain silent, and avoid judgment, these kids are bringing powerful voices to the world. Celebrate their visions, respect their voices, and learn from their perspectives. Let them guide us down the path to humanity.