Why Teaching Students How to Listen to Each Other Is More Important Than Ever (and How to Do It)

Last week a friend of mine introduced me to an app called Radio Garden that allows you to listen to tens of thousands of local radio stations across the world. Since then my trips to the store, daycare, and the dentist have been filled with calypso from Barbados, Ghanian hip hop, and electronic tango straight from Buenos Aires. These are not necessarily genres that I normally listen to, but in scanning stations I have been purposefully non-purposeful, clicking on random stations and delighting in the happy accidents and new music that have followed.

Sam’s Radio from Ghana on Radio Garden (seen here) has been a huge hit with my whole family.

Coming across these beautiful genres of music from around the globe has reminded me of something I thought about a lot during this distanced year: How much we have to learn and gain from each other and yet how rarely we seriously invest in doing so. Instead our default tends to be sticking to our well-worn paths of information or spending the moments where do meaningfully interact with others largely waiting for our turn to speak.

I have found this to be especially true in education, where despite Speaking & Listening being a core standard for almost any school or state I know, the Listening part is given almost no attention at all–that is unless its listening to the adult (both the teacher and the texts) who is currently speaking.

The 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 after the full pandemic year, I am convinced that the same is equally as true for students. Fifteen months of Zoom, hybrid, and distanced teaching have made clear just how much students get from hearing not only the voice of the teacher, but the voices of their fellow classmates as well.

Those months have also made clear just how underprepared many students are to meaningfully communicate with each other. While it is easy to file silent Zoom rooms and awkward hybrid conversations under the issues that came with problematic learning platforms (and there is no doubt some truth to that; see here for really interesting research on why Zoom makes our brain freak out), it is worth asking whether those modes of teaching might have also acted as canaries, letting us know about student issues with communicating that preceded Covid in largely invisible ways.

Over the course of the last year, I found myself wondering about this a lot, and as the year progressed, I began to focus more and more on teaching students to truly listen to each other. The results of this were easily the highlight of a year that didn’t have many, with the increased listening leading to classroom discussions and papers that often reached pre-pandemic levels of engagement and depth once I got serious about listening and the students began to break out of their Zoom silos and build on each other’s ideas.

This fall, as we hopefully come back to something approaching normalcy, my goal is to build upon that success by leading with and further leaning into direct instruction about listening. Considering the success I had with it during a hard year and the rustiness that many students will undoubtedly have in hearing each other, there are few pedagogical ideas that I think are more important right now.

Here are some of the core pieces of my plan for how I hope to bring listening into my classes this next year:

Making the Case for Listening

Several years ago, I observed a student teacher who asked students before her first discussion to get out a notebook and a pen for notes. This request was met by a silent moment of confusion, as the question hung in the air so tangibly that one could reach out and grab it: Why? Will there there be a quiz or something on the discussion?

The teacher, sensing this question, went on to elaborate that in college she found that taking notes during discussions was as important, if not more important, than taking notes during lectures. Generally the lecture notes and information are readily available online, but the insights of one’s classmates–which can be equally insightful–only exist for a few moments before they get dislodged by another set of ideas or dissolve into the ether. It is best to preserve them while you can, hence, the notebook.

Before this moment discussions in my class were, well, discussions. I asked questions and we then talked about them. I can’t recall ever talking with students about why discussions are so powerful, and I know that I never asked them to take notes. Since then though, conversations about what discussions can do for us–like help us put pieces together, grow through hearing other perspectives, and challenge our own notions by releasing them in to the world–have generally preceded any moment of classroom sharing and interaction, but this year the plan is to dig deeper than ever into how the conversation happening between students in the class can be spun into gold later when doing projects and writing papers.

Engaging in Actions That Speak As Loud As Words

In Not Light, But Fire, Matthew Kay takes the notion shared by the student teacher above to the next level by discussing the importance of listening with his students and then backing those words up with actions that make clear just how important it is in his classroom. Specifically, he…

  1. Models what good listening looks like
  2. Has students practice patient and active listening early in the year
  3. Has a dedicated spot in his students’ notebooks for taking notes during discussions
  4. Has students (and him) share quotes that they recorded and loved at the end of each discussion
  5. Encourages students to quote each other along with the texts in the reflections, papers, and projects

I have heard more than a few teachers speak about the virtues of listening, but Kay is the only one I know who trains his students with this level of intentionality, and having tried these methods in my classes during this last year, I can attest that when a teacher talks and walks listening, discussions and student work take on a very different feel than when listening is simply a nice concept for students to do with what they will.

Structuring the Listening

When it comes to great teachers of listening, my gold standard is still Linda Christensen, whose classroom I got to observe when I did the Oregon Writing Project. Christensen does regular read-arounds where all of her students share narratives, seemingly without hesitation, while all the other students lean-in, noticeably connecting to and caring about the work of the other students. To witness her class in these moments is to watch a symphony fluidly orchestrated by a master conductor.

In her book Teaching for Joy and Justice, she describes how the secret to her success is in large part her structure, which creates security for her students by making the expectations about how the audience should listen and interact as clear as spring water. On page 69, she describes a standard approach she uses before these read-alouds:

  1. Students sit in a circle and get paper slips that they use to write specific, positive comments for the student who is sharing their work.
  2. She then tells them: “People are sharing their lives with you. Be a hungry listener. Listen with your head and your heart.”
  3. Next, she explains the types of comments one could give: Comments on content, style, personal memories that surface, and phrases and lines you like.
  4. Then, after each student reads, the listeners write their comments and sign them, so the reader knows who gave them the compliment.
  5. Lastly, she opens the floor between each student for students to share their compliments verbally, as a way of modeling the types of responses one could give, and at the end, the students share the slips with each other.

Christensen is not the only one to structure student interactions like this. Most notably the National School Reform Faculty has hundreds of thoughtful protocols that are based around the notion that when people have clear structures, it can ironically free them up to communicate better as speakers and listeners. Still, Christensen’s blend of clear structures and unwavering belief in the importance and value of student voice remains the model I go back to again and again when structuring student listening.

Embedding Listening Wherever Possible

Even with the approaches above, by the middle of last year, it was clear that in the face of Zoom classes and a pandemic, I needed to give listening a bump in my classes. My students often said (and I think often believed) that they were listening to each other, but the number of students citing each other and building on each other’s ideas suggested otherwise. So as the second semester kicked off, I made it my goal to make student listening a daily element of my lesson plans, weaving it into nearly everything we did.

For example, on the first day of the new semester, I ditched my regular icebreakers, and began with a poetic structure that I have enjoyed for years: A Golden Shovel, which is a poetic form created by Terrence Hayes where you embed a Gwendolyn Brooks poem into your poem. Here is part of Hayes’ first Golden Shovel next to the original:

The Golden Shovel is fun because it is both an active homage to someone else (in this case Hayes paying homage to Brooks) and a playful way to build on the author’s ideas. In our the version though, the students didn’t necessarily embed and build on Brooks’ words. Instead they were allowed to celebrate and use lines from any poem or song they loved, making it a good getting-to-know-you poetry assignment.

Normally, I just stop there with this assignment, but this time, after students shared their Golden Shovels, I asked them to write new ones where they embedded and celebrated favorite lines that they heard from their fellow classmates’ Golden Shovels. The result was really a wonderful bonding activity, and the message was hopefully clear: In this class, their fellow classmates are sources every bit as essential as any other source, including the texts.

I then continued to use similar structures as often possible. A few of the more successful ones included:

  • Reflections where instead of reflecting solely on a text, students would reflect on a text, share their reflections, and then write another reflection responding to what their classmates had to say
  • Whole group discussions where the students generated the questions based on what they heard from their classmates in breakout rooms that changed, pushed, or improved their thinking
  • The use of student work as official mentor-texts, where students read and then actively sought to emulate a successful example of something like parallel structure or an appositive from a fellow classmate (if you do this, make sure the student is alright with sharing their example, even if it is anonymous)

In a year with a frustrating amount of pedagogical dead-ends, the listening that happened in my classroom led to discussions and papers in the second semester that matched and often exceeded what I’d seen in previous, non-distanced years. I think the reason for this is that when students seriously listened to each other, the compound interest generated in those conversations meant that by the time they got to papers and projects, they had already put in the mental preparation needed to jump in at a high level, making surface arguments rare and stale ideas mined from Spark Notes almost non-existent because they were too engaged in a true conversation, one that was to interesting to pass on!

Thanks for reading, and yours in teaching,


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5 responses to “Why Teaching Students How to Listen to Each Other Is More Important Than Ever (and How to Do It)”

  1. As a student myself, I 100% agree that students should listen to each other. It’s important in order to at least give a sense of normalcy regarding learning, given that it’s in an online setting due to current circumstances. Thanks for posting this!


    1. Thank you for writing and for adding your thoughts!


  2. […] March 2020, I’ve touched upon this topic a couple times. I’ve written about tools for how to get students to listen to each other and how I use Chris Lehmann and Matthew Kay’s Burn Five to build camaraderie. […]


  3. […] year, I also plan to do something I’ve read, thought, and written about, but never done fully, which is to have students write narrative pieces that they all share with […]


  4. […] have written about this a lot recently, but I want students to also listen closely to the stories that their fellow classmates tell. This […]


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