Connecting in Silence

A long-held tradition among Quakers is silent meeting. During this time, community members come together and settle into a shared silence. During the silence, everyone tries to connect with their innermost best self and enjoys a shared sense of fellowship. If someone is moved to speak to the group, they may do so and the group listens respectfully without comment. The quiet and stillness of silent meeting can be a challenge for young students, but Quaker schools are successful at this all over the world, and in fact students and adults alike come to cherish the practice.

Chicago Friends School holds “meeting for community” on the first day of school of every week. During this time, parents, staff, and children gather together. Because of the age of our students, Chicago Friends School has typically had less silence and more direction than an adult meeting would. In our community meeting, an adult leader, usually me, presents a few questions related to Quaker values and their connections to our lives, there is a brief conversation about these questions, and then the group settles into a very short period of silence, in which community members can speak if they are moved to.

This spring, as the end of the school year approached, I experimented with lengthening the silence and giving students and parents less specific guidance. Instead, I asked them to get in touch with their innermost selves and be open to sharing what is in their hearts. This was challenging to some of our students, and while some adults were moved to speak, children were less likely to speak up if they weren’t responding to a specific prompt.

But during the silence (and amid the fidgeting), I began noticing all the non-verbal ways that our community members connect during the silence. We settled down together. Breath grew deeper, bodies relaxed. Younger students, sitting near their parents, leaned onto them or lay across their parents’ laps. A first grader took a teacher’s hand. Older students made eye contact across the group and shared a grin. It made me see how this silence and community can operate on multiple levels. Putting aside time to be together, even while saying nothing, we connect.

Karen Carney

is the head of school. Karen’s career demonstrates a rich and diverse set of skills: project oversight, curriculum development, educator training and mentoring, and classroom instruction. Prior to coming to Chicago Friends School, she worked as a senior specialist in science curriculum for American Institutes for Research. Before this, she oversaw educational programming at the Adler Planetarium, first as its director of education and then as associate vice president for visitor experience and learning. She has also worked in instruction and teacher development at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Learning Sciences Research Institute and has authored more than 20 scholarly papers, book chapters, and conference presentations.

Karen is an active, dedicated Friend (Quaker) and has held various leadership positions at the Evanston Friends Meeting. She enjoys baking, cooking, and painting and is a member of the Playmation improv comedy team.

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