How often do adults encourage children to refine their thoughts, to whittle a message down to its essentials? How often do we have to do that in our own lives, reducing arguments to a 5-minute elevator pitch or a slogan that can fit on a billboard? In a sly way, this is what Andrew Clements’ 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 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 a respectful and constructive challenge from students to school authority. How will the principal, Mrs. Hiatt, take it when her cafeteria becomes mysteriously silent? The same cafeteria she has been trying to silence for years, waging a constant war with the Unshushables. Does she appreciate the silence and the space to think? She does not. Instead, she perceives the quiet as 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.” “It was dark.” “‘Oh, no – snakes!’”) and delivering a ping-pong History report (“Italy is old.” “The Roman Empire…” “…Ruled the world.”). These teachers notice students thinking more, adapting ingeniously, and 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 No Talking is no different. Dave and Lynsey’s challenge to Mrs. Hiatt is an invitation to us all – students and teachers and parents – to take up Gandhi’s challenge to think before you talk, making space for the silence. And he turns the classic boys-versus-girls trope on its head along the way. As usual, Andrew Clements maps a clever and respectful way for students, teachers, and schools to construct a new dialogue.