The Writing Teacher’s Secret Weapon: Listening

Screen Shot 2018-02-07 at 2.41.58 PM.png

I come from a long line of talkers. One should only embark on a conversation with my father if you feel like resting your vocal chords for the next forty-five minutes, my grandfather (and this is true) used to communicate with his out-of-state relatives almost exclusively through sending them 90 minute monologues recorded on cassette tapes, and on my dad’s side, my lineage traces all the way back to Gov. William Bradford, the first governor of the Pilgrims, who was noted by one historian as a “storyteller of considerable power.”

I share this with you to make it clear that listening is not a trait that comes particularly naturally for me. While I am wildly fascinated by the stories of others, I would be lying if I said that my disposition wasn’t to talk first and listen later. During my first years as a teacher, this trait manifested itself in my tendency to play the part of the stereotypical sage on the stage on a regular basis. Students from that era have since confided to me that it was well known amongst the student body that all it took for them to get a nice long break from the lesson was to get me pontificating about one of my many interest areas.

And it wasn’t just standing in front of the class where this trend appeared. When I look back on my lesson plans and papers from that era, what is conspicuously missing is any trace of listening. Instead, from how the students should approach the writing process to how they should “fix” their papers, every step of the way was the equivalent of my grandfather’s cassette tapes. There was no moment for students to share their thinking, nor was there even the pretense that this was about anything but me disseminating information to them. Instead, it was the classic teacher/student dynamic–which is so easy for everyone, talker or not, to fall into–of the teacher acting as a pitcher full of wisdom while the students were the empty glasses waiting expectantly for knowledge to be poured into their heads.

Now I want to make it clear before moving on that this is not a post against direct instruction. I’ve written before about how important it is, as we have lots of valuable information to impart. What this is a post against is forgetting to listen to our students. We need to listen to them because students and teachers are co-founders of the student’s education. It is only when both turn the key to unlock the student’s mind, that learning can happen. Further, both bring important expertise to the table. Teachers bring an expansive understanding of how writing and the writing process work, and they can act as sure-footed guides through the twists and turns of drafting a piece. Students bring an expansive understanding of how they work and know exactly what scares, inspires, interests, bores, and helps them. When those two are put together, the stage is best set for learning.

With this in mind, I have now built in moments of listening to nearly every step of the writing process. This is meant to send a clear message to students that we are partners in this endeavor and that their voices matter just as much as mine.

Here are some of the ways that I now include listening in my process:

  • I ask students to “clear” their topics with me when they finish pre-writing. While I will use this as a moment of guidance if students seem to be veering off course, my main goal in doing this is to establish myself as an interested and engaged listener. I do this by asking a lot of questions and by truly trying to hear out their concept before offering any advice.
  • When students share papers with me for revision, I ask them to share a short note  telling me how they view the paper as it currently stands and how they would like me to respond to it. This sort of reflection trains them to be more metacognitive and involved in the revision process, but it also makes it clear that I need to hear their voices to craft the best response possible.
  • When I provide feedback, I always strive to have more questions in the margins than suggestions. I don’t always accomplish this, as it depends on the student and paper, but the goal helps me to remember that my margin writings are there to motivate, guide, inspire, and teach, and in many situations questions are actually far more effective at accomplishing these goals than statements because they put the ownership and effort back onto the students.
  • When I conference with students, I always start with a broad grin and the same question: “How’s it going with the piece?” My students sometimes poke fun at me for this pseudo-cheesy standard greeting, but I feel its regularity, light-heartedness, and invitation for them to speak first establishes me as someone who genuinely wants to hear what they have to say, which in turn opens them up to my suggestions.

This post’s central claim that listening is a secret weapon might seem hyperbolic, but after using it for years, I don’t think that it is.  The average students spends the majority of the average day being told to do things: sit there, eat here, read these pages, don’t do that, do this instead. Thus, when someone actually asks for his/her/their opinion, the contrast is often really powerful.

Further, it we look at the beliefs that are commonly shared by our strongest students, as Dave Stuart Jr. does in this amazing recent post, we see a lot that is closely tied to being heard. Dave’s five beliefs that are keys to long-term flourishing are the following:

  1. My teacher is good at her job. (Credibility — this is featured in John Hattie’s meta-analysis)
  2. This work is valuable to me. (Value)
  3. I can improve my knowledge and skill through my effort. (Effort)
  4. I can succeed here. I can do this stuff. (Efficacy)
  5. I belong in this class with these people. I’m one of them. (Belonging — this, and the rest of the list, is featured in Camille Farrington’s review of over 400 pieces of research literature)

Out of these five, there is not a single one–whether its value, belonging, or efficacy–that doesn’t have has a prerequisite that the student feels heard and valued, and I would argue nothing is more effective at growing those feelings than to have someone simply listen to you.

Thanks as always for reading, and yours in teaching,


Connect with Matt

If you like this, join my mailing list for a weekly writing newsletter, a copy of my free ebook A Game of Inches: Making the most of your feedback to student writing, and access to my upcoming database of members-only resources for writing teachers!



12 responses to “The Writing Teacher’s Secret Weapon: Listening”

  1. […] doesn’t come with all the answers or lecture on what to do.” I’ve already talked about how essential it is to make it clear that you are listening to students, but what I love about this quote is how it also highlights the importance of not offering answers […]


  2. […] Legendary writing teacher Donald Graves always began writing conferences by doing what he called “receiving” a piece. What he meant by this was that he made sure the students’ voices were heard by having them start the conference because as soon as the teacher starts talking, many students defer to the teacher’s voice and begin seeking ways to please the teacher. If we want students to truly say what is on their minds–which is essential if we want to form strong relationships with them–we need to have them start the talking, while we start by listening closely. […]


  3. […] are some of the reasons why I made improving my listening one of my biggest goals last year, but after reading We Got This., I now realize that I need to go […]


  4. […] comments can have a negative impact on student writing because it can make students feel like we aren’t listening to what they have to say and that writing is little more than an exercise in not making mistakes. That being said, using […]


  5. […] this blog, I’ve talked about listening before, but what I strive to do in my Septembers goes deeper. It isn’t just listening, which […]


  6. […] written before about how I start each year with the students writing letters and narratives, so that I can quickly get to know who they are, what they like and value, and the […]


  7. […] readers will know that I come from a family of notoriously poor listeners. Those were the genes I inherited, and one of the great challenges of my adult life–one that […]


  8. […] into writing in the classroom, I keep coming back to the intersection of two things: choice and listening. When students get to co-construct their educational experience with others and those others are […]


  9. […] always know what students need. Letters and greetings like I describe above and generally being careful listeners can give us some sense for student needs, but many students, especially early in the year, can be […]


  10. […] while in the second, the listener digs deeper. In a rush to form connections (when connected with my tendency towards talking too much), I could easily see myself doing lots of shift responses, so in these conferences I plan to […]


  11. […] summer before the pandemic I discussed how when teachers begin to seriously listen to their students, that listening can become, in the words of Cornelius Minor, a superpower. Now, in this summer […]


  12. […] 2:1 ratio of teacher talk to student talk is something I know well. As I’ve discussed before, it can be second nature for me to settle into that recitation script time and again in my own […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: