My colleagues and I teach undergraduates the fine arts of writing, speaking, and presenting. In this work, we talk explicitly to students about readers and audiences. Much of our work, in fact, involves making students aware of those people to whom they “transmit” their messages, reports, essays, and research. I doubt, however, that I’ve ever taught my students how to be good readers and audiences themselves, even though I hope I model the habits of a good reader and listener.
Today, at our neighborhood school, 670 students gathered in the big gym for the annual Thanksgiving assembly. Mr. Cavanagh, the principal and master of ceremonies, communicated a simple message to this young audience: “Be silent and attentive, and if you can’t be silent and attentive, at least be silent.”
Not in fear, but out of respect for Mr. Cavanagh’s words, they did sit still, and most were attentive. Some children were as young as 5 and some as old as 14. (It’s a K-8 school.) No blurting, no elbowing, no yanking at teachers’ sleeves.
After an hour, Mr. Cavanagh — an experienced educator who probably realized the energy that goes into being a good audience — called for a “one minute wiggle break.” Everyone stood up, stretched, turned to friends and talked, shifted in their places, and sat down again at the signal. The musical and theatrical numbers continued for another 30 minutes or so. The singers and players were wonderful; the audience performed beautifully, too.