Throughout my time as a teacher of gifted elementary students, I found a recurring theme among parents of the children in my class.
While every parent wants their child to get the best education possible, these parents of high-achieving children didn’t always focus on basic curriculum and test-based knowledge. The two top skills on their educational wish-list couldn’t be found in a textbook or take-home worksheets.
They wanted their children to learn leadership and communication above all other skills. That’s because those skills are underrated in early education, but lauded later in life. And it’s much harder to learn them as adults.
Thankfully, leadership and communication skills are very much intertwined. And while the latter may seem like something that comes from practice while talking and conversing with other people, I found the best way to teach communication was to observe silence.
I’m a huge fan of classic Hollywood films. If it’s black and white, there’s a good chance I’ve seen it — probably multiple times. These vintage movies are often discounted by younger filmgoers because they lack the special effects or superheroes found in most modern movies.
But they have so much to offer.
Take silent films for example. Most kids, including just about every student I ever taught, scoff at the notion of a 100-year old black and white film, with no talking, explosions or pop-music soundtrack. But almost every student changed his or her mind when they actually watched one of the movies.
I always showed my students the three biggest silent film comedians of the early era: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Their gravity-defying stunts and slapstick physical comedy instantly became a favorite in my classroom — with many students going home after school and searching out more of the old movies on YouTube during their free time.
Over the years, I had students dress up as these old actors (by their own choice) for Halloween or convince family members to add vacation stops so they could visit statues, filming locations or Hollywood Walk of Fame stars dedicated to their silent film heroes.
Some parents questioned why I showed these films to students — as the sight of grown men hanging from clock towers, being chased through city streets or dangling in cabins from cliffs doesn’t seem to have much educational value on the surface.
But, to find the real gem, you have to brush off some of the dust and dirt and look below the surface.
These films were shot and released more than 100 years ago, but still manage to excite young viewers today. They laugh, cringe, shriek and cry along with the stars — and never even know what the actors’ voices sound like. That’s a pretty powerful skill to have.
After watching a film each Friday at the end of the day, I’d work with my students to explore how these actors could convey their feelings — and make viewers feel their emotions — without ever speaking.
I challenged my students to study the methods on their own. After all, you don’t have to yell, scream, pout or throw a tantrum to get your point across.
Over time, students’ methods of expression changed as they watched these films from the angle of an observer and not just a fan. They realized that communication isn’t just about words. And those students became leaders and more successful in and out of the classroom in part because of these lessons.
Give it a shot with your child or class. Almost all of these films can be streamed online for free. Start by letting them simply enjoy the hilarity of the slips, falls and tumbles. But let those laughs lead into a serious conversation that asks leading questions — things like “How do you suppose they were able to make you laugh without ever talking?” or “Can you think of ways that you can let people know how you feel without actually telling them?”
Point out the actors’ facial expressions, body language and reactions. As your child how he or she knows the actor is sad or happy. What tells them that the actor is scared or brave? Challenge your child to try some of these methods on his or her own.
These questions often lead to deeper talks about communication and why being loud or outspoken is often the worst way to get your point across. Build onto these lessons by letting your child put on their own silent film. This was always a favorite lesson of my students, because it allowed them to be silly and creative, while learning an important lesson in communication.
Before you know it, your child or class will be finding brand new ways to express their feelings without following the same old, loud script.
Ray FitzGerald holds Bachelor’s degrees in both journalism and education from the University of Florida and St. Leo University. He is a long-time teacher of the gifted in an elementary setting and works with parents, educators and children at RaiseALegend.com and hosts the weekly Raise a Legend Podcast to help raise a generation of legendary children.