Recently I’ve been thinking about the role of pauses in my classroom and in my own teaching practice. My ENG 236A – British Literature Survey from Beowulf to Jonathan Swift has been reading Othello this week. Last Thursday, we each took a different character and read Scene I in Act IV out loud. After we finished reading, I asked students to freewrite about how reading aloud changed their experience of the play compared to when they read on their own. Students observed that they understood and felt the emotions within the lines more when we read out loud. After the discussion, I showed them a YouTube clip of the same scene we read in class. I then asked how their understanding of the scene changed again when seeing a film version. One perceptive student noticed that Iago’s character used pauses for emphasis in the film. We all agreed that the scene made more sense when characters/actors used silence between lines for effect.
My student’s observation about Iago’s use of pauses in turn gave me pause. It made me reflect on my own use of quiet breaks or silence in the classroom. When I first started teaching as a master’s student in 2004, I was terrified of silence in my classroom. I used to think that silence meant I failed to engage my students. While that might be partly true, strategic silences can also be an effective teaching tool. Many of our students haven’t had the opportunity to think about the questions we ask, much less have an answer in several seconds. I sometimes find myself talking too much or waxing poetic on a specific question they should really answer. Today, I’ll try to remember that my students might benefit from a few silent pauses to ponder the critical questions I raise.