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November 1, 2014
Vol. 72
No. 3

Ray Charles Listens to Birdsong

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Credit: Copyright(C)2000-2006 Adobe Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Some movie scenes stick with you. In the movie Ray, about the life of singer Ray Charles—who was born into poverty and blinded at a young age—Charles is talking to his girlfriend. Suddenly he says, "Listen. Do you hear that?" She doesn't hear anything. A blissful smile crosses the face of the actor playing Charles as he listens to a bird singing. Watching this scene, I realized that this brilliant musician didn't just hear, like the rest of us mortals, he listened.
Unlike Ray Charles, I can both see and hear, but I knew in that instant that I could listen better. I'll never listen with the acuity of a fine musician—I can't carry a tune—but I can listen with an alertness and openness to discovery. I can tune in to what I do hear as a teacher—my students. And I've begun thinking about how we as educators can guide students to listen more attentively to one another.

The Challenge and Power of Listening

When teachers think of listening, we usually think of the students listening to us. I often hear teachers lament, "Students don't know how to listen. I have to repeat myself constantly. They don't attend to simple directions." Sometimes colleagues speak less in frustration than in concern, wondering, "Why do students seem lacking in empathy?"
I hear my students say that they don't listen even to one another; they interrupt each other, and the loudest voices are often the dominant ones in a class "discussion." Students seem to be in their own echo chambers. But how often do we listen, truly listen, to students speak? How can we set up conditions for them to learn to converse on substantial topics—so they learn listening skills? Such conditions might lead students to pay attention not only to us, but also to one another.
It's a topic that has always challenged teachers. As William James (1890/1950) wrote,
Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction, and Zerstreutheit in German. (p. 403)
For 10 years, I've tried to guide students into this state of attention and listening through Touchstones discussions at St. Martin's-in-the-Field Episcopal School. Students in grades 5 through 8 meet weekly for 45–55 minutes to read selected passages, find a point of entry, and probe ideas together. We discuss brief extracts of works by writers such as Plato, Francis Bacon, Herodotus, St. Thomas Aquinas, Voltaire, Horace Mann, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, to name a few.
Touchstones discussions follow four rules: (1) Read the text carefully; (2) Listen to others and don't interrupt; (3) Speak clearly; and (4) Give others your respect. These rules align with Common Core speaking and listening standards. They give each student a structure in which to acknowledge others' contributions and modify the opinion he or she started with. Most important, they encourage students to listen and build on one another's ideas.
We sit in a circle in these discussions so everyone can make eye contact. Students do not raise their hands to speak. This small change has an enormous effect. Although I facilitate the flow of discourse, I'm not an authority on the text. We are all members of the group, with equal rights and responsibilities to speak and listen.
You might say a Touchstones discussion is a republic, not a dictatorship (benign or otherwise). Touchstones, with its emphasis on developing awareness of underlying dynamics, helps students (and teachers) practice and improve discussion skills, such as speaking clearly, teaching oneself and others, admitting when you're wrong, and, especially, I think, listening. Students have said that learning to listen to others is the hardest skill to master.
Former United Nations ambassador Madeleine Albright said, "Really good ideas come when people are together having discussions. There is power in conversation" (quoted in Bennet, 2014, p. 13). I agree. I've become convinced that listening is the wellspring of communication and change. If we teachers want to listen like Ray Charles and if we want good ideas to flow from student discussion, let's strengthen the power of quiet, active listening.
Here are some things I've learned to listen for when facilitating these discussions.

Listening for Empathy

A 5th grade class of students who were new to Touchstones was discussing a folktale from China, "Money Makes Cares." A rich man envies a poor man's pleasure in life. He gives the poor man, Ti, a lot of money; indeed, once Ti has riches, he stops working and singing and instead becomes worried about money. In the end, Ti gives the money back, saying "Money makes cares." Although the story was unfamiliar, my students all have ideas about money, allowances, and gift buying. I asked them how having money might make them happy and how it might make them unhappy. I listened carefully to the unfolding conversation, judging whether and how to intervene, noticing who hadn't yet spoken and who might be dominating the conversation.
These students were just learning how to have discussions without hand raising. Without being called on, they needed to both find a way into the discussion and allow others to enter. Because one of our ground rules is to listen and not interrupt, students were also learning to wait for a speaker to finish. "Don't interrupt" is the hardest Touchstones rule for students. Sometimes they interrupt because it has become a habit in the classroom, the only way they can make their voice heard. Sometimes they get excited and blurt out their thoughts.
We've talked about expressing an idea and then just stopping, making a conscious effort not to ramble on. At the same time, students must learn to not cede their speech if they are not finished expressing their idea. I've taught them key phrases for entering gracefully after someone speaks ("Have you finished?") and respectfully halting an interrupter ("I've haven't finished my idea yet"). Students have discovered that a discussion often ends in a different place from where it started.
"I would buy a dirt bike if I had money," Joey said excitedly; he then added sheepishly, "And pay for college." Another student talked about creating jobs for people, which would make him happy. Molly sounded a note of worry, saying that one drawback to having money would be the fear of wasting or losing it. Another student then said, "The good thing about money is that I could shop all day. But then I wouldn't be playing with my friends. Friends are more important than money." The discussion had moved from excitement about having money to concern about handling it to a reordering of values—because students listened to one another.
Students were also learning to be comfortable with silence. Sixty or even thirty seconds of silence in a roomful of adolescents can feel like an eternity, but I recommend enduring it. A reflective silence can lead to better listening and empathy. At the end of this discussion, we left a space for students to speak who had not yet spoken. Into the silence came the sound of a small child in the room next door, sobbing. Isabella, a quiet 8th grader, said, "Poor little kid. I remember when it was such a big thing in 1st grade to get through the day without crying."
This was listening as empathy. It arose out of the opportunity to talk about what makes for happiness and to listen to and identify with the unhappiness of another. The comment that breaks a silence may break your heart or make you laugh. Isabella's did both.

Listening for Differentiated Learning

The goal of these discussions is student-generated, student-managed intellectual inquiry. The exchanges arise out of genuine student interest; they are not Socratic dialogues in which a leader has an agenda.
A Touchstones discussion is a hands-on, real-time, critical-thinking activity for participants; active listening on the part of all members is important to how the inquiry unfolds. Touchstone discussions inherently differentiate because each person needs to find a point of entry into the discussion that corresponds to a sincere question he or she has about the text. Whole-group discussion is usually preceded by individual writing and small-group discussion.
The process teaches individual responsibility for one's own learning and for successful group learning. By 8th grade, student coleaders facilitate whole-class discussions. These coleaders read the passage beforehand and come prepared to read it aloud for the whole class. When Laura and Maddie led the discussion based on a passage from Aristotle's The Ethics that describes the qualities of a great man, they asked participants to propose opening questions.
Patrick asked, "What great people do you know, and what makes them great?" Several students offered qualities such as honesty, creativity, and athleticism. The conversation kicked around, then Christopher wondered out loud, "Do friends need to be equals?" This elicited a lively response as the students talked about status, a topic keenly parsed by adolescents. Hallie then asked, "Is a great person honored by everyone?"
Students continued listening to one another, building on offered examples. But then the conversation began to veer off topic. Natalie, not one of the coleaders but a participant, then applied a technique I had taught students to help refocus or redirect a meandering discussion—referring back to our text: "Aristotle says a great man does things excellently. What does it mean to do something excellently?"
Besides teaching students to take ownership of a discussion and increasing their critical-thinking and collaboration skills, these discussions help all participants identify their comfort zone in speaking and listening—and expand that zone. This is the basis of lifelong decision-making skills and success.

Listening for Intended Meaning

An early philosopher gives us a technique that teachers can use today to encourage students to listen closely and speak clearly and confidently. Heraclitus was born about 540 BCE. He wrote in thought-rich aphorisms. Consider his aphorism "Listen not to me but to the logos" (quoted in Brann, 2011).
One meaning of logos, as Heraclitus uses it, is intention. Skilled listeners can listen past students' personalities, beyond their inarticulate words and faulty grammar, to pay attention to the gist of their message. Students can learn to do this.
Listening for intention means asking questions ("Do you mean …?") or restating the speaker's message until he or she can effectively frame or expand on what he or she thinks. This respectful playback is the essence of civility in conversation. We should model it and give students opportunities to practice it.
Consider how two 6th graders used this technique in discussing Cato the Younger and friendship, drawing from Plutarch's The Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans:
M<EMPH TYPE="5">s. B<EMPH TYPE="5">arry: Would you want to be friends with Cato?G<EMPH TYPE="5">abrielle: I would not. It's hard to make him laugh.R<EMPH TYPE="5">achel: Gaby, are you saying that you would only want to be friends with someone who made you laugh [and you laughed with]? Laughing with friends is important, but it's not the only thing.G<EMPH TYPE="5">abrielle: What do you have in mind, Rachel?R<EMPH TYPE="5">achel: Well, suppose I was sad because my dog died. I'd want a friend who would be sad with me.G<EMPH TYPE="5">abrielle: I see what you mean.
I give my students discussion stems to help them build conversations:
I agree/disagree with _________because __________.Are you saying_____________? (Restate in your own words what you think someone has said.)Can you give an example, _________?Having students use the speaker's name in the stem helps knit the discussion group together and shows respect.

Listening for Social Action

Listening often leads to social action. Participation in weekly discussions, whether through Touchstones or another intentional structure, gives young people confidence in expressing their ideas and confirms for them that those ideas matter. This is where change begins, or as Madeleine Albright called it, the power of conversation.
One group of 8th graders discussed Homer's story of Hector and Andromache on a very nuanced level, perhaps because we happened to discuss it on the anniversary of 9/11. The group struggled with the concept of bravery. They began with the idea that bravery means acting because one has no fear and moved to the idea that bravery can mean acting despite fear. They thought there was a problem with knowing in advance whether one would act bravely in an extreme situation, but that it is possible for everyone to do small acts of courage every day—in learning and in friendship.
It's wonderful to see students reach these ideas themselves, and it's even more wonderful to see them in action. One act of bravery that 27 of my students engaged in last year was volunteering to participate in an oratorical contest. Weekly, intentional discussion had prepared them well for other forms of speaking, such as debate or oratory.
Participants spoke for five minutes on how their passion affects the world. Our students practiced their speeches first for their classmates and teachers; parents and teachers were in the audience listening during the contest. The range and nature of their passions came as a surprise to their teachers. Students expressed their passion on such subjects as worldwide education for girls, engineering, and shark conservation. We invited students to give their speeches, saying this was their chance to speak—and adults would listen.

Is Listening an Endangered Species?

It's not our imagination that many students don't listen well to teachers. According to Nanette Johnson-Curiskis, executive director of the International Listening Association, "First graders can repeat roughly 90 percent of what their teacher said. Middle schoolers can recollect 50 percent, and by the time students get to high school, it's down to 25 percent" (personal interview, June 2, 2014). Practices like those described here can help make listening more active, respectful, conducive to learning, and productive.
In our educational literature, much is said about how to read, write, and speak well; less has been said about how to listen well. In our hyper-extroverted, digitally communicative habitat, listening—the ability to hear the birdsong like Ray Charles did—might be an endangered species. It's one that teachers must protect.
Consider what Ruby, a 7th grader, said when I asked why we need to attend to what others say:
The only way to get somewhere is to ask and disagree. But to know why you disagree, you have to listen. When you listen, you have a better understanding of how people look at things. Whether you agree with them or not, you have a wider perspective. You have to listen.

Bennet, J. (2014, May 13). When talk isn't cheap, New York Times.

Brann, E. (2011). The logos of Heraclitus. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books.

James, W. (1890/ 1950). The principles of psychology (Vol. 1). New York: Dover.

End Notes

1 I'm indebted to Eva Brann of St. John's College, Annapolis, Maryland, for insight into this Heraclitus aphorism.

Cynthia Barry has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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