ARTICLE

Listening Helped Give Voice to the Silent

My curls tickle my face. My fingers feverishly sort though papers. I make last-minute decisions for the day. A former student, who stops by every day, chats by my side. It’s 7:30 a.m., and I’m depending on Folgers to usher me into a coherent state when I hear this student say, “Mrs. Yahn, ever since your class last year, I just can’t stop talking. I used to say nothing in class, but now I talk all the time. You taught me that.”

My curls tickle my face. My fingers feverishly sort though papers. I make last-minute decisions for the day. A former student, who stops by every day, chats by my side. It’s 7:30 a.m., and I’m depending on Folgers to usher me into a coherent state when I hear this student say, “Mrs. Yahn, ever since your class last year, I just can’t stop talking. I used to say nothing in class, but now I talk all the time. You taught me that.”

I drop my papers, push back my unruly hair and look at this student.

Anne generally times her visits in step with my first sip of coffee and the click of my projector and computer groaning to life. We talk about eighth grade. I nod at her woes over friends, boyfriends, assignments and dress codes. I serve mostly as a set of ears. For the first time in a long time, I respond with a question pertinent to my own learning: “Anne, what do you mean I taught you that [to talk in class]?”

Anne reminds me I was the one always insisting they get involved in the conversation with activities like participation cards and pass the microphone. I got students standing and energized. I couldn’t hide my zeal for student involvement in class discussion.

However, if I hadn’t been listening at those moments between scattered “good mornings,” crooked piles of papers and desk calendar updates, I would have missed an important vantage point that my research had neglected—listening. When I paused to listen to Anne, it occurred to me that discourse is an ongoing dialogue between two people. I, however, had been focusing on students who needed to participate and make their voices heard, while seemingly neglecting the equal value in the silent participation simultaneously occurring—or not—around the speaker.

So I wondered: How can people truly respond if they don’t first listen? Turns out, it’s not all about the talk.

My discussion with Anne led me back to information on creating democratic discussions. “Ground Rules for Discussion” helped foster an environment where students considered how to motivate both themselves and their peers to actively participate in classroom discourse.

When I implemented the plan, students appeared uncomfortable. Suddenly they were being asked to consider the needs of people beyond their own desk. Initially, students were as awkward with the new strategy. But in a short time, they matured into being able to handle the weight of their new task. And our classroom began to grow with ideas and techniques that could feed the minds of all learners, rather than satisfy only a few.

Yahn is a middle school language arts teacher in Ohio.