‘Tis the season of back to school–that time of year that is ripe with fresh school supplies, empty notebooks, and an as-yet-un-ransacked classroom library. This time of year always delights me, and I got to experience it early because today marks week two of having students for me. I hope you’re one of the lucky ones who hasn’t seen students yet, but if not, cheers to being back already!
I’ve been thinking carefully about what tone I’d like to set in the first days of school. I didn’t want to leap into things with a review of the syllabus, a distribution of the many forms my preservice teachers will need to fill out, or a review of the big tests that loom large for them at the end of this school year.
I wanted to start with something, instead, that would build our community into one of support and anticipation, rather than one of anxiety and pressure.
Naturally, we began with writing. I asked students to brainstorm four questions they’d like every teacher to be able to answer. We spent some time in our writer’s notebooks writing, then paired off to ask one another a few of our questions.
After a few minutes of talk, which is always invaluable, I asked students this question to elicit some sharing:
Who heard a good response they’d like to share?
Students began their replies with, “I loved what Sara said,” or “I thought Sean made a great point,” or “Jake had an interesting answer.” As many of our responses touched on the importance of building communities that were inclusive, we noted how simply shifting the way we shared responses to focus on listening rather than talking emphasized the former.
As we moved through our day, I returned again and again to this theme: we selected critical friends to partner with who would read our work and provide feedback; we read an article about student-faculty partnerships before setting professional development goals we’d work toward in teams; we set up a Google Drive folder to encourage collaboration and negotiated feedback protocols and submission guidelines; we did some yoga to encourage the notion of disequilibrium and read an excerpt from Pose, Wobble, Flow about being teacher-writers.
My first day of school thinking around listening hearkens back to my work with the C3WP Institute I led through NWP this summer, which is focused on argument writing and how we can encourage students to consume, create, and negotiate real-world arguments more skillfully.
It also reminds me of a passage I read about compassionate readers in Disrupting Thinking this morning (a book I refer to as Interrupting Thinking, thanks to a certain 16-month-old in my life):
Compassion should sharpen the readers’ ability to see other points of view, other perspectives, and to imagine the feelings of those who hold them. It should enable readers to take, if only momentarily, the perspective of someone else and thus understand motivations and thinking.
But to be willing to take on another’s perspective…you must be willing to enter into a dialogue with the text, to interact and not merely extract. And through these transactions with texts, we might learn how to better enter into conversations with those in the real world who offer us another perspective. (45-46, emphasis mine)
Far too much of the reading, writing, speaking, and listening that our students do is for the purpose of extraction, and not interaction. Of course it is–what can be extracted is easier to measure than what can be inferred, experienced, or connected with. We’ve taught students to read in order to answer a question; to listen in order to reply.
As a result, in our schools and in our self- and social media-saturated society, our students are all too practiced at speaking, and out of practice at listening. If we want our students to learn, to engage with texts and peers and the world in a more authentic, dialogic way, we must teach them to listen.
This year, I will ask students to more thoughtfully listen to and engage with the ideas of others. The teachers they’re observing, the authors they’re reading, the students with whom they’re working, all have notions my students will agree and disagree with–but they will learn nothing if they don’t slow down to listen.
Shana Karnes teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University. She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life. Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or read more of her writing on the WVCTE Best Practices blog.