When, as a teacher, I first attended meeting for worship at Carolina Friends Middle School (CFS) almost 13 years ago, I was impressed. Children, teachers, everyone was—well—quiet. Though there were days when it seemed as though students were actively engaged and the quiet had a quality of silence, there were a greater number of days when it seemed that all of us were struggling to stay calm for long enough to make it through the 20 minutes we were supposed to sit still.
Students at CFS attend meeting for worship once a week from the time they start "early school," our preschool and kindergarten, until they graduate. In all the units of the school, they also settle in and settle out each day in silence. They are well practiced in sitting quietly. In early and lower school, the faculty work very hard with the children to help them learn about meeting. In lower school, teachers thoughtfully and carefully help them begin to consider what a leading to speak really is; they help the children understand the difference between being led to speak to a query in meeting and answering a question in class. They have moved from the sweet ritual of early school filled with song and verse and community sharing to really trying to center, use silence, and understand what each person brings. They talk about silent waiting. As the children practice the skills of sitting quietly and vocal ministry, the teachers are repeatedly delighted by the students’ responses to the weekly query. Meetings seem to have a profound, age-appropriate, spiritual feel to them; some children often offer insightful messages, others listen intently. But by middle school, when kids begin really to question why we are doing this, things shift. Suddenly, everything they’ve learned about meeting for worship seems to evaporate, and it takes a concerted effort to create a meeting experience that challenges students to engage actively in the silence rather than just tolerate it.
There are several factors that can easily contribute to derailing the best of intentions when asking middle schoolers to sit in silence. We often see kids test the limits with regard to sitting still when they first enter middle school. They know the drill, but in this new unit, they want to see if we mean it. Also, by middle school, adolescent insecurity means that no one is quite sure who they are or where they fit in, and self-consciousness looms large. Sitting in silence for an extended period of time can become an exercise in reviewing all of one’s flaws just as easily as a spiritual experience. Social concerns can preoccupy the minds of even the most spiritually centered children, leading to silent conversations across the space. Growing, gangly bodies and hormonal impulses can make sitting still uncomfortable at best, especially when friends or sweethearts are nearby. In our middle school, all of these factors led to a weekly meeting for worship that felt quiet, but not silent.
Most students at CFS, like those at most Friends schools, are not Quakers. They do not practice silence on Sundays, don’t learn how to center themselves in First-day school, and don’t have parents reinforcing what we try to help them learn in meeting at school. Though most of those same children have been practicing meeting for worship at school for many years by the time they get to middle school, it is not the same as a group of Quaker kids sitting in silence.
As a lifelong Quaker, I grappled in my first few years at CFS with the disconnect between middle school meeting for worship and what I was used to on Sundays. As one of the very few Quakers on staff, I felt that it was somehow my responsibility to help move our school meeting in a more centered direction. I began to talk to some fellow teachers and found out very quickly that many of us wanted something more.
Student compliance with the quiet is nothing to sneeze at in middle school, but we wanted our meetings to hold more meaning than what only sitting still for long enough could provide. Over the next couple of years, we brainstormed and eventually tried several different approaches in order to engage the kids. We had already worked to make the silence at the start of our day deeper and fuller, and we longed to bring the true silence we were experiencing to our longer meeting for worship. We began to move into a query: "What does meeting for worship look like for middle-schoolers?" We saw some progress, little glimmers of light, but it wasn’t until we hit upon turning meeting for worship over to the children that the Wednesday afternoon silent time was transformed. Even then we had a couple of false starts.
When we first decided to tackle the issue of student disengagement in meeting, we looked in earnest at several possibilities for deepening the silence. One issue we recognized was that most members of our faculty were not Quakers, and their only exposure to meeting for worship was here at school. We decided that if we could help the non- Quaker teachers hook in, that would help us all model silent waiting more effectively for the students. A few of us, those who had attended meeting outside of school, designed a monthly schedule of queries to be read on a rotating basis by different teachers. Queries were designed around events, seasons, and special days in our calendar in an attempt to provide some relevance to the students’ secular lives. Most teachers appreciated the opportunity to get more involved in the quality of meeting for worship themselves, and were very willing to take turns reading a query.
It was a good idea. We tried this rotating schedule of prescribed queries for one year, and we did see some increase in participation as opposed to compliance, especially from the teachers whose turn it was to present the query. But we still had mostly quiet meetings, not silent ones. It was progress, but we weren’t there yet. It was time to tweak the plan a bit more.
The next step was to turn it over to the kids. We had the great idea to let students present the query each week. It sort of worked; if we asked, we could get volunteers to read the queries, but the rest of the students still had not bought in. When students heard a peer read the query, one of two things would happen. If the reader was a socially successful kid, others would get really quiet, listen respectfully, and even give the query some consideration before quickly becoming bored and reverting to an unsettled quiet. If the reader was a kid who carried less social clout, a quiet would fall over the assembled group, but subtle looks would fly, immediately invalidating whatever was said—no matter how thoughtful or relevant the query was. The content was lost in the social brouhaha. Even as a veteran teacher, I was surprised by the skill and speed with which a few students with clout could derail a good thing. It, too, was a good idea—more child-centered certainly— but we were not gaining ground.
While we worked on tweaking meeting for worship, we were simultaneously tweaking our advising program. Advisee group time had held a central place in our daily schedule for a long time, and we all acknowledged its importance. Each advisor would meet twice a week with a small group of students aged 10 through 14 for connecting, group building, overseeing the nuts and bolts of daily middle school life, and communicating with parents. But we wanted something more. Under the guidance of our head teacher, we worked hard to develop an advisee curriculum that would promote the kind of community we really wanted in our middle school: one of respect, loving support, trust, and appreciation of each other’s differences. It worked. Almost as soon as we began putting our intention and attention on our advising, it grew stronger and more aligned with our philosophy.
When way opens, it sometimes takes us by surprise. This was our experience with meeting for worship. As our advising program improved, we felt the effects in places other than advisee time. The atmosphere around the school was lighter and felt safer. Kids were more comfortable. We felt the kind of community we had been striving for begin to flourish and grow. Although I don’t think any of us on staff recognized the moment at the time, that was when we decided to truly turn meeting for worship over to the students. Instead of writing the queries for them based on events in the calendar, we decided to teach them about queries, ask them to consider what was important in the life of the middle school, and invite them to write their own queries. We made a simple set of guidelines (sidebar) to help them understand their charge. We paired advisee groups and gave each pair a month of meetings to plan.
Groups took their assignments seriously, and we learned how to support them while they grappled with choosing themes, writing and presenting queries, and leading meetings that worked. As long as we gently coached them along the query-writing process—making sure they felt clear about what it was they were asking us to consider and that they had worded the query in a way that would elicit contemplation rather than a yes or no answer—they did a fantastic job of coming up with themes that were relevant and spiritually challenging.
These days, more often than not, meeting for worship at our little middle school is so full of spirit and so still, centered, and alive that I marvel that I am sitting in a room with 140 adolescents. Of course, not every Wednesday meeting goes that way. We have our unsettled days just like every other school, but I am moved over and over again by how successfully these middle-schoolers can get to a place of deep, silent contemplation, if not reverential waiting. We have vibrant, sometimes even exciting meetings.
A typical meeting for worship begins with all of us trickling in and settling into silence. One or two students from the advisee groups in charge break the silence with an explanation of the query and the way in which they would like us to consider it. And this is the key: the students come up with great ideas about how to worship that do not always involve sitting completely still. Their ingenuity has led to walking meditation, a video lead-in to silent contemplation, a lying-down guided imagery exercise, a laughter meditation, and many other forms of truth-seeking and Spirit-filled listening, all of which have contributed immeasurably to the deepening of the silence and true participation in meeting.
One of my favorite meetings that the kids planned involved washing stones. We had experienced a brief rush of misbehaviors that involved small breaches of trust in our community just prior to this meeting for worship. We had held a meeting for worship with attention to business to discuss how to restore trust, and things were a bit tense. One advisee group decided that we needed an opportunity to let go of the things we’d been stuck on. They got little pieces of chalk, a very large bowl full of small pieces of slate, and another full of water. After we settled into silence, they invited each of us to come forward when we felt moved, write something we wanted to let go of on a piece of slate, then wash our slate clean in the water and set it in a new pile. The symbolism was lost on no one; we really did feel that we’d created a clean slate for ourselves.
Another particularly moving meeting occurred after our eighth grade had visited American Friends Service Committee’s Eyes Wide Open exhibit. Some of them were so moved by the rows and rows of shoes they’d seen representing the human cost of the Iraq war that they decided we all needed to experience at least a bit of what they’d felt. They had taken a silent video of themselves at the exhibit, which they shared at the beginning of meeting for worship. When the video was over, we settled into silence, each of us deeply lost in our own responses to the film. After some silence, one student stood unprompted, walked to the middle of the circle, took off her shoes, and returned to her seat. The reverent silence that fell was palpable. One by one, other students added their shoes to the growing pile in the middle of the room. By the end of the meeting, the pile of shoes in the center of the room had changed all of us. It was we who were impacted by this war. The war was no longer some far-off idea. We were left contemplating the cost of war and the Friends Peace Testimony in a profoundly personal way.
One meeting for worship that had a less reverential feel, but got everyone thinking about what really matters nonetheless, had to do with service-learning. The planners hung a variety of signs around the room, each listing a way one could be of service. On the signs were causes that many middle schoolers have passionately involved themselves in over the years: animals, Earth, people, energy conservation, recycling, care of the environment. After we had settled in, the advisee groups in charge asked us to move silently to the space under the sign that listed the cause we felt most drawn to. Once we settled into our new spots, we were invited to look around, notice what passions others held, and, if we wanted, share about why we had chosen our particular spot. The most memorable of the messages was from one seventh grader who had placed herself in the very center of the room. She articulated what many of us had struggled with in choosing one cause to identify as the most important; each cause was so interdependent on the others that she could not support just one. We needed individuals to be passionate about just one and others to be passionate about all of them together so that we could see the big picture and the little picture and take care of all the things that needed our time and attention.
Giving it over to the kids—it seems like a very simple step now, but when we began we did not know how successful it would be. Now our meeting for worship is full of silent waiting, introspection, thoughtful consideration of a query, and more waiting. Getting us to that point was an act of reverential waiting itself, full of trials, tweaking, and lots of learning. Of course, we still have work to do. We have to continue to make sure the grownups don’t take over, and, as grownups, to examine our own relationship to silence and meeting for worship. We need to continue to help the students understand how queries work by reintroducing the idea every year. We need to continue to make sure our advisory groups stay strong and provide the base for this critical work. We need to remind ourselves to stay open to truly seeking the truth and to allow for changes when we need them, whether or not we can see the direction they will take. If we continue to attend to these things, I feel sure that we will no longer sit quietly, but sit, in our energetic, still, full, rich, reverential silence.