“Listening Is an Act of Love”

Full confession: I wanted to say something profound, to share some brilliant new teaching strategy that had emerged from my classes over the past month, but as I sit down to write on one of the first sunny days of a very gray February, I’m feeling a little tapped out of great ideas. Like Hattie, knowing that I have just two months to get my IB students ready for their spring exams is making me feel a little white rabbit-y, and I think all the newness of a new school, new students, and a new city has made me stick to familiar lessons rather than pioneer new ones. Though I haven’t invented any new lessons, in the past week, I did re-learn an important one: to borrow from the title of The Princess Diaries’ Lily Moscovitz’s cable access show, I’ve been reminded to “shut up and listen,” because–to quote another public broadcast show host, StoryCorps’ Dave Isay– “listening is an act of love.”

The lesson began when my freshmen held a Harkness-style discussion of The Catcher in the Rye. I’ve not taught the novel before, so I didn’t have many resources to draw from and I worried all month about what I should have been doing differently. Should I have asked more questions about symbols? Should I have reviewed comprehension questions after each assigned reading? Should I have shared more instructions about how to find and think about Notice and Note signposts? And should I have guided our first big discussion of the book so that I could make sure students were probing deeply and thinking critically?

The students’ mature, compassionate, and well-mannered self-guided discussion on Tuesday and Wednesday gave me my answer: “No…you should shut up and listen.” They didn’t need me to make magic happen. For two days, students talked thoughtfully about Holden, challenged each other to support ideas with evidence, and coaxed each other to speak when some classmates sat silent for too long. And as I listened to my students, I realized that they had listened to Holden Caulfield in a way I never had as a student. When I read the book during high school, I couldn’t get past Holden’s rough shell to appreciate the “catcher in the rye” inside, but my students “got” him, and they appreciated the way Salinger seemed to “hear” people their age decades ago.

As I read some revised paragraphs from the freshmen later in the week, I tried to listen again. The ninth graders’ revisions showed me that they had heard my questions about which pieces of evidence supported their ideas, and their writing told me we needed to talk some more about building momentum and ending with a “click.” As I listened, I learned that these revisions didn’t need grades yet, they just needed feedback, more questions that showed I was still listening.

Standing in the eye of a group-work hurricane during my IB classes was also a time to listen. As students worked together to put scenes from The Merchant of Venice on their feet, I sat at my desk or wandered around and listened in on conversations. The project’s assessment depended on that listening. I looked forward to final performances, certainly, but the skills I was really looking for were demonstrated during planning. As they brainstormed and rehearsed, students justified their costume choices, their sets, their props, their gestures, and their expressions with evidence from the text. To the passerby who just looked inside my room, it would appear that I had given the class a day off, but a good listener could hear how much the students knew and understood about Shakespeare’s problematic play.

And then I greeted my seniors on Wednesday, the day when we learned they had lost a classmate in an accident, I knew it was also time to listen. A day intended for more scene work was instead a time to talk together or be quiet together or find comfort in a routine…a time to listen to each other–to memories, to questions, to the little funny stories anyone tells when they’re trying to cut the silence and the sadness.

And then I came home Wednesday night to news of more students, miles away, who had lost classmates, too. And the next day, those students channeled their anger and fear and sadness and frustration and mourning and love into a powerful political voice. Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, and their classmates in Parkland are making the world shut up and listen. Sometime, somewhere, someone else must have listened to those students, listened to the point that it empowered them and assured them someone would always listen.

And so I will keep practicing the lesson I re-learned this week, all the while hoping that listening is just the first act of love I can offer communities who are hurting. Let the next act be action, changes that protect the young voices demanding to be heard. 

What’s the best thing you heard (or overheard) this week? When have you felt listened to? How can we teach our students to show each other that they are listening? How can we help our students be heard? Please share your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter @MsJochman. 

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