“Before I know what to teach, I need to know whom I teach.” -Cornelius Minor
Last week I finished We Got This., Cornelius Minor’s relentlessly positive and ridiculously quotable book (which is a highly recommended read), and while it has me thinking about a lot of things, what I keep coming back to is the line above. Minor has a number of eloquent and flashy lines, but it’s this simple line–which acts as a thesis statement of sorts for the book–that has sat with me, as I feel that it hits upon something important and rare.
Over the last year, I’ve been thinking a lot about the traditional roles that teachers and students get cast into: the teachers as the talkers, whose role is to dole out knowledge and the students, who are supposed to play the part of empty cups waiting to try and catch a bit of teacher’s wisdom. I’ve also been thinking a lot about how when we reverse those roles, and teachers take time to play the role of active listeners and learners, some remarkable things can happen, including the following:
- We might be experts in content, but each student is an expert in what he/she/they values. And the research is really clear that students will learn things faster and better when they value what they are learning. Close listening allows us to figure out what students value, thus better positioning us to frame our content in ways where its value is apparent to our students.
- New knowledge is built on the pathways established by prior knowledge. This means that when we understand what students do and don’t know, we can help them to absorb the new information by connecting it to what they already know.
- All humans–teachers included–are painfully bad at times when it comes to understanding how others see and respond to us. When we as teachers ask our students about our classes, we can get a better sense of what is and is not working, enabling us to do it better the next time.
- When students have real voices in a class, they tend to get more invested in the success of the class and the success of the teacher, as it is no longer them vs. the teacher. Instead, we are all in it together.
These 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 further in one regard. While Minor and I both recognize listening as powerful, the difference between us is that my listening is more opportunistic than planned. If a student talks, I strive to listen, but I didn’t do anything to make sure that all the student voices are heard. Minor, on the other hand, builds listening directly into his lesson plan every day to make sure that every voice is heard on a regular basis. He even goes so far as to have graphic organizers (see below) to record and reflect what he heard while listening to each student.
I love this concept of taking listening seriously enough to graphically organize and reflect upon what kids tell us, but as a writing teacher with a likely student load next year of between 155 and 160 students, I don’t foresee myself filling out one for each student (as much as I would really like to). But there is another way to ensure that all students are heard regularly: allow them to speak through their writing on a regular basis. Writing is the most regular individual contact point between teachers and students in many classes, making it the perfect place for us to directly build in more organized and deliberate listening. I plan to do that in 2019-20 in the following ways:
- I want to change my first week of class from being about my rules and my class to having a focus on learning about who my students are. I already do this somewhat by starting each year with having the students write a letter to me about their hopes, fears, interests, and history in their English classes. But next year I also plan to hold micro-conferences with them to discuss these letters, as opposed to writing responses to the letters by hand (which is what I currently do). I think this will both save me time (as my responses take me hours of out of class time) and allow me to dig a little deeper into their stories and show them that I am really listening.
- I plan to have students give me written feedback after every unit as opposed to just at the end of the semester (which has been my practice so far). At one point, in We Got This. Minor reminds us that “feedback is an essential part of [the] design process.” No film studio would ever show a film that wasn’t screened before test audiences and no publishing firm would ever publish a book that didn’t go out to test readers, so why is it the norm in teaching to wait until after we’ve designed and implemented our whole semester to receive feedback? I’m not sure, but I do know it won’t be the norm in my classes anymore.
- Lastly, I’m also going to have students write me a letter every quarter updating me on how the class is going and the status of those hopes, fears, and interests from the original letter. This is an idea I heard years ago from Smokey Daniels, but with Minor’s inspiration I hope to finally do it this year! And if my responses to these are built into workshop time, doing this won’t add much more to my reading and grading time!
Towards the end of the book, Minor calls carefully planned listening in the classroom a “superpower” and “a revolutionary act.” I suspect he’s right on both accounts. My evidence? In March a senior in my film class wrote a paper that was pretty critical of my choice of the movie Lady Bird because she said it was overly derivative of the earlier movie Real Women Have Curves. As a teacher, I could have taken her criticism of my choice of movie as a challenge, but instead I asked her to tell me more, and she filled me in on how there is indeed a large amount of controversy concerning this. Then, just a few days ago, out of the blue I got this email from her four months after the feedback was given:
Dear Mr Johnson,
I just wanted to write because your response to my essay on Lady Bird and Real Women Have Curves was very important to me. I felt listened to and assured that you were committed to creating a classroom that was culturally respectful and relevant to people from many different backgrounds. It is actually very rare to get a response that respects and includes the minority perspective when something like what I addressed is brought up. You are one of the only teachers that has done that for me. It is a strongly impactful gift. Thank you very much.
It’s worth noting that all I did was listen, and yet the student felt driven to thank me months later in the middle of her senior year summer. That is indeed a revolutionary superpower!
Yours in teaching,
Let me help you!
Teachers are busy–too busy–so we need to share with each other. That is why this blog exists. I’ve studied and written about writing instruction for over ten years and would love to share what I’ve found with you. Join my mailing list now and I will send you a thoughtful post about teaching writing each week. As a thank you, you will also receive a copy of my free ebook A Game of Inches: Making the most of your feedback to student writing and deals on my upcoming book from Corwin Literacy on best practices in writing instruction.
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