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March 1, 2022
Vol. 79
No. 6
Classroom Conversations

Listen Up! A Strategy for Student Discussions

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Fostering listening skills has a host of benefits for students and teachers.

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Instructional StrategiesClassroom Management
Listen Up! A Strategy for Student Discussions
Credit: DIEGO SCHTUTMAN / SHUTTERSTOCK
A few months ago, I posted a few screenshots from two of my 10th graders' analytical essays on Twitter. I was bursting with pride, and I just had to show someone. These sophomores had used a strategy that I had been gently encouraging my classes to try, but hadn't yet required: They had thoughtfully quoted their classmates' comments from class discussion in their essays. The reason I was so thrilled? They had added these quotes not for a grade, but because they were starting to recognize the inherent value of the approach.
Over my career, I've realized that in order to lead reliably productive classroom conversations about important issues, I've got to teach good listening before anything else. It's safe to assume that the adult world hasn't reliably modeled patient listening. Any thoughtful analysis of both traditional and social media makes this clear. Likewise, it's safe to assume that, in their prior schooling, most of my students were not consistently asked to critique and improve upon their listening skills—that their participation grade measured how often they spoke, not how thoughtfully they listened. Because of this reality, I've got to build foundational listening skills brick by brick, good habit by good habit. These habits, like listening patiently, must be modeled, practiced, assessed, and reflected on as reliably as any of the tested skills that I teach.

Raising the Bar on Listening

Adding foundational listening skills to my teaching repertoire required me to shift some of my most basic practices—starting with how I direct my attention when my students speak. When a student raises their hand in a typical whole-class classroom conversation (not fishbowls, Socratic seminars, etc.), our focus tends to go to the speaker. The only time we teachers pay attention to the rest of the class is when they interrupt—or otherwise act up—during the contribution. The bar for classmates, then, is quite low: Don't be rude and you're good. If the student happens to have a particular interest in the speaker's contribution, they might listen, but they don't really have to. If we want to get the most out of our classroom conversations, this quietly polite, seemingly benign disengagement must be the first unproductive habit to break.
The first adjustment I made in my own classroom was shifting my energy from the speaker to their classmates. While maintaining a broad connection with the speaker through sporadic eye contact, head nods, and spoken affirmations, I also started intentionally locking eyes with folks around the room. Not in a "caught you not paying attention!" way, but with an enthusiastic "Are you hearing this?" energy meant to include them in the moment. In the same vein, I'd make sure to verbally praise how well classmates were listening (by looking at clues like eye contact) as often as I praised speakers for cool contributions to the discussion. Through practice and reflection, I started to get good at making these connections (it took a while). Then I started hunting for organic moments where students cited each other in the conversation. The first moment when it happened, I lost it. "Whoa, everybody! You know what made me excited about what Sarai just did? Who knows?" The students laughed and had no clue. Bubbling over, I said, "She cited Marc! He said ___, then she built on it by saying, ___! I love the way you did that, Sarai! Let's go!" I needed them to know that citing each other was a quick and easy way to impress me (and in turn, impress and encourage each other).
While both the subtle shift of my focus and the habitual celebration of informal citations were impactful, I knew there had to be a next step. But I didn't discover it until I saw how my colleague Amal incorporated notetaking in physical notebooks into her ELA class. Adapting her approach, I decided I would encourage, and then possibly require, students to cite their classmates' contributions to class discussions in their writing. This would accomplish a few goals.

Citing Each Other's Ideas

First, meaningful citation requires good notetaking, which gives students a clear task while someone is speaking: actively collecting ideas they agree or disagree with or find enlightening or intriguing. Second—and frankly most important to me—formal citation adds academic gravity to our class discussions. I often got the sense that my students considered class discussions to be a break from "real" work like reading and writing, the same way they'd view show-and-tell or pizza parties held after reading a certain number of books.
Once we got to a conversation, all they had to do was raise their hand once or twice to collect participation points. Much easier than writing an essay. Even students who were rigorously committing to our conversations, authentically engaging their classmates' ideas, and sharpening their views by gaining new perspectives didn't consider these actions to be "learning." They'd leave class saying things like, "That was fun, Mr. Kay. Can we continue that conversation tomorrow, or do we have to do work?" Asking students to cite our conversations in graded assignments allows them to better realize that thoughtful discussion isn't a vacation from learning.

In order to lead reliably productive classroom conversations about important issues, I’ve got to teach good listening before anything else.

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Matthew Kay

There's also a related, and perhaps humbling, bonus for teachers. Requiring this kind of citation forces us to keep most of our planned class discussions threaded by a big idea, and to make sure that the final project (or activity) asks students to somehow engage with this big idea. This is the only way our students' conversation notes will remain useful. For instance, as I write this, my freshmen are reading Trevor Noah's Born a Crime (Spiegel & Grau, 2016). There are so many ways to discuss the book, but my student teacher and I have decided to apply the lenses in Ibram X. Kendi's book How to Be an Antiracist (Random House, 2019). A good portion of our planned conversations will ask kids to analyze the different forms of racism that Noah and his mother encounter and how they resist. These conversations are the steak and potatoes that keep the kids engaging each other and lead to a final essay. I'm grateful that this citation policy keeps my more tangent-chasing tendencies in check.
Finally, discussion citation makes kids feel like true scholars, philosophers, and critics. There's nothing like seeing your observation cited in a classmate's essay alongside Octavia Butler's or Richard Wright's. We show them that they are not too young for their opinions to matter. This establishes an environment where it's common for students to be impressed by each other's ideas. It's not a weakness to admit that your idea has its roots in someone else's truly great point. Considering today's hyper-individualistic culture, it feels good to actively teach kids to show (and receive) love for one another's thoughts and ideas.
End Notes

1 See: https://twitter.com/MattRKay/status/1458948092615696392.

Matthew R. Kay teaches students English at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia and is the author of Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom (Stenhouse, 2018).


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