One potential way to have students experience deep listening at school is to take them on a Silent Walk, or Listening Walk. This should not be treated as just a normal walk done silently and slowly. James Endredy, author of Earthwalks for Body and Spirit (2002) writes, “Converting your ears into radar and your whole energetic being into a giant antenna is the goal.” This walk can be done indoors, but is much better outside and preferably in or near the woods or at a park. This activity is particularly effective in natural areas/parks/forests.
As many teachers know, children often find it difficult to stay silent. However, being silent is the main purpose of this particular activity and students must understand this from the outset. I find it useful to present this activity with an opt-in approach so that students make a personal choice to buy in: “Okay everyone, we’re going to be doing an amazing activity today called a Silent Walk. This is a challenge-by-choice activity, so you’re going to have to decide whether you want to participate. If you do, you MUST stay silent.” Although I have never had a student decline, those who opt out can observe or do a separate activity. During the walk, remind any students who make noise that they opted in to this activity and agreed to stay silent.
To help connect this activity to curricular goals, you might also read the picture book The Listening Walk by Paul Showers or The Other Way to Listen by Byrd Baylor ahead of time. Older students can research “Soundwalking” to generate a lively discussion: Have you ever been on a silent walk? What was it like? When have you experienced a prolonged amount of silence? How did you feel?
Afterwards, have students journal about their experiences on the Silent Walk. Participants could compare and contrast their experiences with those from the book or each other. Students could write various narratives from the experience. They could write stories with their own onomatopoeia, or sound words, for example by trying to spell the sound a crunching leaf makes. They could write imaginative fiction personifying things along the walk. They could pick up an object and use it to practice descriptive writing, and so on.
One of my favorite follow-up activities is to have each student pick up a small rock or stick during the walk and have them hold it the rest of the day or even for a few days. During the time they have it, they are supposed to “get to know” their sticks or rocks through the sense of touch. What exactly is the shape? Where are the subtle nooks and bumps? What is the texture and where does it change? Once the students feel ready, have them put all of their rocks or sticks into a pile. Using a blindfold, have each student attempt to find their object in the pile. This is a lot harder than it sounds!
Here are the basic steps for a Silent Walk based on Endredy (2002) and some exercises that I have experienced or taught over the years:
- When you get close to the location where you will do this activity, slow way down. Lower your voice and speak slowly. Get students to slow down as well. I often start with a slow motion exercise. This can be as simple as: “Okay, I want all of you to walk from here to that tree (twenty feet or so), but I want you to try to time your speed so that it takes you exactly two minutes.”
- When you’re ready to begin, remind students of the importance of keeping as silent as possible and that they chose to opt in to the experience.
- Lead the students on a slow walk or, alternatively, have them spread out in a large area to have them slowly meander on their own.
- Everyone must move slowly and step carefully to keep as silent as possible. Participants should avoid stepping on sticks, scuffing their feet, crunching across gravel, or otherwise generate noises of their own. Silence does not just mean no talking to each other!
- Encourage students to silence their minds as well. This can be done in many ways by having students focus on their breathing, their footsteps, paying more attention to the wind, or sounds around, etc. Encourage students to follow sounds to the source by “sending their listening attention in that direction.”
- Listening must become the focused center of everyone’s attention. Students can listen for new and unusual sounds, such as hearing a woodpecker or other bird in the distance or the wind rustling leaves.
- Encourage students to practice the visualization technique “Spherical Listening.” This can be described as picturing your hearing range as a spherical bubble and then consciously trying to expand that sphere in all directions (including underground). Have students start by visualizing a sphere about arms length away before trying to expand it in all directions.
- Stay on the Silent Walk for as long as possible, but a minimum of 15 minutes after the students initially slow down is recommended.
- Debrief the activity with thought-provoking questions: How hard was it to stay silent? Why do you think it was so hard? Did the silence make you uncomfortable? If so, what made it uncomfortable? What was one sound that you heard that surprised you? What made it surprising? What distracted you from listening? What did you do about it? What did this teach you about listening? How is listening directional? What did you notice about your awareness the longer you were on the walk?
In addition, James Endredy (2002) gives guidance in mindful walking which can support this activity:
“Try to step without touching your heels to the ground — minimize the area of ground that your feet actually touch and you will minimize the sound your feet produce. Try to keep your balance and center of gravity on your rear foot. Commit your weight to your front foot only at the exact moment when your back foot leaves the ground. By doing this, your walk will resemble more of a floating motion than a usual walking gait. By “floating” through the natural world in this way you will be amazed at how much more wildlife you can see, how much more silence you will “hear,” how many more new sounds you will discover, and how much greater the level of connection to your surroundings will be” (p. 42).
To make this experience as profound as possible, I strongly recommend first teaching the participants two naturalist techniques, Wide-Angle Vision and Fox Walking. Although these aren’t necessary for this activity, they definitely add to the profundity. It’s probably best to watch both of these live so check them out on YouTube (a great place to start: Fox Walking and Wide Angle Vision Parts 1 & 2 by Paul Scheiter from Hedgehog Leatherworks). Ideally, try both of them out on your own first. Take some time and practice, go for a hike on a trail or at least walk slowly through a park — barefoot or just socks if possible. You might also want to investigate Fox Running, which John Douillard’s video Run Like a Child explains. No, seriously. Go try!
Endredy, J. (2002). Earthwalks for body and spirit: exercises to restore our sacred bond with the earth. Rochester, VT: Bear and Company.
About the Author
Charles Fischer is a middle school teacher by day and an author by night. His fist novel, Beyond Infinity, won a 2014 Independent Publisher Book Award bronze medal (YA fiction). His latest book, The Power of the Socratic Classroom, is the definitive guide to Socratic Seminar for classroom teachers.