"To listen fully means to pay close attention to what is being said beneath the words. You listen not only to the 'music,' but to the essence of the person speaking. You listen not only for what someone knows, but for what he or she is. Ears operate at the speed of sound, which is far slower than the speed of light the eyes take in. Generative listening is the art of developing deeper silences in yourself, so you can slow our mind’s hearing to your ears’ natural speed, and hear beneath the words to their meaning." —Peter Senge
On Monday evening, I spent time with some colleagues and we were discussing the role “listening” plays in discourse. Listening intrigues me. In fact, in Conferring: The Keystone of Reader’s Workshop, I mention listening well over 50 times. Listening is something I constantly work on and to be honest, I have to practice it--a lot! Don’t we all? Robert Frost once said, “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.”
Listening is a complex cognitive process. “Listening is the language modality that is used most frequently. It has been estimated that adults spend almost half their communication time listening, and students may receive as much as 90% of their in-school information through listening to instructors and to one another.” (NCLRC) If this is true, it behooves us to talk to our students about the role listening plays in their learning… and to provide explicit and authentic situations in which “listening” plays an essential role!
My 4th graders and I decided to tackle the essence of discourse this year. In October, we began our investigation. We compared the idea of “discourse” with a concept my students deemed “missed course.” One of my students said, “Part of having meaningful discourse is making sure that your conversations stay ‘on course’ otherwise we might as well call it ‘missed course.” (Clever children, eh?).
We looked at the origin of the word “discourse,” from the Latin “discursis” meaning to move about, to and fro. Having discourse is not about sitting still, it’s about movement, interaction, flexibility, and creativity in thinking (words students suggested). We realized that if we were going to take our learning to new depths, we’d have to spend time communicating with words, talk, and communication. It was then that we began our early conversations of speaking and listening… with in the context of “trust, respect, and tone” (see Conferring, p. 42-50).
And our conversations have continued throughout the year… I’ve noticed my students are able to handle “talk” about learning with each other and with me. They understand the role “talk” plays in our journey as learners. They know conversations in reader’s workshop about thinking strategies and what wise readers do lead to deeper understanding. They know that conversations in writer’s workshop lead to more successful and productive writing lives. They know that conversations in mathematician’s workshop lead to more commitment to number sense and its application. They know that conversations in other content areas add another dimension to their growth as learners. They know that talk… and listening… provides the opportunity to hash out ideas, think critically, and make wise decisions.
During our chat this morning, one of my students suggested to us, “Sometimes I notice that in the books I’m reading, the problem is caused because someone is not listening… there’s no discourse happening and so a conflict occurs.”
“Really?” I pondered.
“Yes… like in How to Steal a Dog (B. O’Connor), there’s a conflict between Georgina and her mom. Georgina wants to talk to her mom, but her mom doesn’t have time to listen. Georgina is just as worried as her mom is, but neither of them has the time to talk and solve their problems. So Georgina’s mom is struggling and it causes Georgina to plan ways to make money. They are both worried.”
And my students chimed in with the following titles and the difficulties that might have been resolved with more discourse within the context of the story
- Waiting for the Magic by P. MacLachlan – the void between the parents and children
- Pendragon by D. J. MacHale – the problems between Bobby and Frizzell
- James and the Giant Peach by R. Dahl – the distance between Aunt Sponge/Aunt Spiker and James
- The Tiger Rising by K. DiCamillo – the lack of listening between Robert and Sistine
- The Bronze Pen by Z. Snyder – the lack of trust between Audrey and her mother
- Rules by C. Lord – the dealings of Catherine and her mother because of her brother’s autism
- Word After Word After Word – by P. MacLachlan – the lack of time to talk for May regarding the new baby
- A Nest for Celeste by H. Cole – the relationship Celeste and Trixe
- Max the Magnificent by T. Wiebe – the wedge between the mother and father
- The Tale of Despereaux by K. DiCamillo – the conflicts between Roscuro and King Phillip
- Matilda by R. Dahl – the hatred between Matilda and Mr. Wormwood
- Fish by G. Mone – the anger between Scab and Fish
- How I, Nicky Flynn, Finally Get a Life (and a Dog) by A. Corriveau – the struggle between Nicky and the bully
- The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester by B. O’Connor – the angst between Viola and Owen (or Owen and Tooley for that matter)
As we discussed the role of listening in each of the texts and how “talk” and “listening” might have resolved the conflicts in them, we started a conversation of “What does listening mean?” It was Brooklyn who summed it up better than I ever could, “Mr. Allen, we always talking about being becoming a readER instead of just reading, so shouldn’t we really be talking about being a listenER instead of listenING? There’s a difference between listening and being a listener!” These are the statements that came about as a result of talking about being a listenER today (student initials follow each statement)…
Being a listener means:
- You have the ability to discuss or argue C.T.
- You develop an interest or a sense of urgency C.K.
- It takes TIME, there’s a bit of slowness and ‘good manners’ D.P.
- There’s a sense of understanding – it’s about knowing not just hearing A.L.
- Independence – there’s a connection between listening and independence B.L.
- You get an invitation into someone else’s mind – you hop into a conversation and it gives you permission to share thinking between you and me, me and you N.W. (I talked about ‘reciprocol’ listening after this
- Silence is a part of listening – like the three seconds of air space S.S.
- You can ‘piggyback’ with a sense of synthesis… you get a sense of ‘extension’ between your thoughts Z.G.
- You give or get feed back that makes a connection L.P.
- You see body language reactions between you J.F.
- There is a ‘clearness’ in your mind—you clearly hear, not like Charlie Brown’s teacher—that makes you understand more J.M.
So, if we want classrooms in which the power of discourse grows and thrives, we have to talk to our students… and become listenERs! We don’t have to hold up a hand signal that says “Okay, everyone, active listening…” If we want to develop effective listenERs with a habit of mind of listening, we have to provide authentic situations for students to talk about the very foundation of effective communication.
That's what I was thinking about today after school as I sit here at the table in my classroom. I’ll close with two quotes: