No Talking

by Andrew Clements (2007)

How often do we as teachers or adults encourage our children or students to refine or condense their thoughts, to say it in fewer words, to whittle a message or a letter or an essay (or a Tweet!) down to its essentials? How often do we have to do that in our own lives, reducing arguments to a 5-minute elevator pitch? Much of life is learning how to simplify your message so it can fit on a billboard. And in a sly, back-handed way, this is what Andrew Clements’ curious, iconoclastic No Talking teaches, too.

It starts out as a simple school-yard war over cooties. But when Dave Packer is inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, it becomes something much more interesting. Dave challenges his nemesis, Lynsey Burgess, to see who can talk less in school – the boys or the girls? They craft an elaborate set of rules to keep track of who says (or wastes) more words. They don’t want to break any actual schools rules, so they devise a succinct and pithy solution to the problem of teachers. If a teacher asks you a question, you do have to answer, but you have to do it in only three words.

From here Clements’ fireworks follow. Like many of his books, there is an essential, respectful, constructive, challenge from students to school authority. How will the principal, Mrs. Abigail Hiatt take it when her cafeteria becomes mysteriously silent? The same cafeteria she has been trying to silence for years, waging constant war with the Unshushables. Does she appreciate the silence and the space to think? She does not. She perceives nothing less than a challenge to her authority.

But some of the teachers see things differently. They notice students finding alternate ways of communicating – from singing nursery rhymes to using computer blurps and bleeps like R2-D2. They pick up on the elegance of Dave and Lynsey’s three-word poetry. They notice students explaining their math solutions (“Fewer steps!”) and creating an ongoing three-word narrative (“A woman screamed.” “She was scared.” “She saw – snakes!”) and delivering a ping-pong History report (“Italy is old.” “The Roman Empire…” “…ruled the world.”). They notice the quiet, students thinking more, students adapting ingeniously, and students practicing the economy of writing they have been trying to teach all along.

Andrew Clements keeps things brisk and playful from chapter to chapter. His books always have a narrative momentum and drive and No Talking is no different. He turns Dave and Lynsey’s challenge to Mrs. Abigail Hiatt into an invitation to us all – students and teachers and parents – to take up Gandhi’s challenge. Think, before you talk. Make space for the silence. As usual, Andrew Clements maps an unexpected, safe, respectful way for students and teachers – and schools – to construct a new dialogue.