On Conventions & Talk & the Power of Listening

This week I head to Las Vegas for NCTE’s annual convention where, along with session Chair Mary Ehrenworth and my fellow speaker and colleague Jessica Cuthbertson, I’ll be presenting at a session on Friday entitled “Unleashing and Harnessing the Power of Talk to Construct and Demonstrate Understanding of Texts, Ourselves, and the World.”

In my part, I’ll be using the lens of talk to share some of the work I’ve written about here and, along with Dorothy Barnhouse, in What Readers Really Do. And I’ll be demonstrating a lesson, using the opening page of Lois Lowry‘s The Giverthat positions students to talk their way from confusion toward insight, with the participants playing the role of typical middle school students—which means that no comment is too literal or far-fetched. Then Jessica will share a clip of “The Giver Geek Squad”—a.k.a. some of her 6th graders—wrestling with some of the patterns and details they’ve noticed in the book.

Our session is based on the premise that, as Grand Conversation authors Ralph Peterson and Maryann Eeds say, “Dialogue is the best pedagogy.” And it’s informed by the work of Peter Johnston who, in his indispensible books Choice Words and Opening Minds, demonstrates how profoundly our talk affects students. My time in Reggio, however, reminded me of how important it is not just to give students time and space to talk, but to give ourselves time and space to listen. In fact, listening deeply to what students are saying seemed something that many of us wanted to import from Reggio and bring back home to our schools.

This is not to say we don’t already listen. But like the purposes behind the practice of charting, which I explored last week, I think there’s a subtle but significant difference between the purpose of listening in Reggio and here. And that difference seems captured in this quote from Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

In classrooms I think we tend to listen in order to reply instructionally, as we zip from student to student to student, dispensing advice during conferences,  or we squeeze in a required number of small groups in a narrow window of time. In fact, we’re often evaluated by how many students we can get to in a day, which seems to suggest that we value quantity over quality, despite whatever we might say, and, perhaps, are more focused on teaching than learning.

In my own practice with teachers, however, I often try to do what I was pleased to see affirmed in Reggio: to use what precious time I have to try to understand as deeply as possible what students are doing with the texts in front of them by listening to their thinking. Last month, for instance, I worked with a small group of students as a handful of teachers watched. According to their teacher, all five students seemed stuck at level M. And knowing that level M books often require a fair amount of inferring, especially around characters and their relationships to others, I planned a lesson using the following excerpt from Patricia Reilly Giff‘s book Fish Face, which, as you can see, is filled with revealing details that both show and tell.

I explained to the students that we were going to read a chunk at a time then share our ideas about what the writer might be trying to tell us through the details that she’s chosen. But while one student was able to read the first chunk and say that he thought Emily was jealous of the new girl because of “the stuff” about the earrings, the other four weren’t so sure. And as we listened to the talk that ensued, it became clear that those four students were really confused about who was who—who had the brown hair, who had the earrings, who thought about begging her mother—and much of that confusion stemmed from their uncertainty about the pronoun ‘she’.

Giving the students the space and time to talk—and listening really closely—allowed us to better understand what was holding those students back. But instead of jumping in to clear up their confusion or offering some on-the-spot instruction, I did something similar to what Reggio teachers do. I took what I’d learned by listening and designed a new lesson—what in Reggio they call a new ‘learning context’—to, in their words, ‘relaunch’ the learning, choosing the following page from Leftover Lily by Sally Warner, which offered similar pronoun challenges.

Gathering the four students who’d struggled last time, I began by making a list of pronouns and acknowledging how confusing these little words could be. Then I invited them to think about how we could figure out who those small words referred to as we read a paragraph at a time and talked. And as I and the observing teachers listened, more things came to light. Some students thought the ‘I’ in the first paragraph had to be the same ‘I’ in the second, though others thought that didn’t make sense. Then one suggested that since there seemed to be a conversation going on, the ‘I’ in the second paragraph had to be the person Daisy was talking to, which she thought was Lily. All the students agreed with that, but that didn’t necessarily mean they knew whose heart was going floop. They needed to talk that through as well, eventually solving the problem by replacing the ‘my’ with each character’s name and deciding whose heart would most likely be bouncing or tied in a knot, which is how they interpreted floop. To do this, they had to go back to the beginning and think about what was happening, while also dealing with the pronoun ‘us’. And through this process they ultimately arrived at the idea that Lily, of the flooping heart, was the one telling the story.

As the teachers and I thought about what we’d heard, we decided that these students needed much more time practicing this exact kind of thinking in order to truly internalize and learn it, and that they also needed time thinking about how dialogue, narrators and paragraphs worked since they also weren’t sure that the ‘she’ in the last paragraph meant Daisy. The teachers were eager to try and create additional ‘learning contexts’ for them to experience these concepts—and to continue to listen closely to better understand their students’ thinking.

I’m eager to listen in Las Vegas as well, where I’m sure there will be much to learn. And I’m eager to meet blog readers in person if any of you are there. Just know, though, that what happens in Vegas might not necessarily stay there . . . .