Listening Part One: “Say More About That”

I was looking through the bazillions of emails this morning, after filling up on wise words from blog posts and tweets, and I noticed this quote of the day at the top of my Gmail:

It is not the voice that commands the story; it is the ear.  —  Italo Calvino

That, I thought is it in a nutshell. Over the past several years I have been coming around to this notion of listening to the world around me.  I thought I knew what that meant. But you see, I’m a talker by nature. I think through my talk. That should have been a clue for me as a teacher, but I was too busy talking.

Only by listening can we communicate; only by listening can we teach.

As a teacher, my listening is often done through inquiry. I approach a student, ask, then listen. Sounds simple, but really not so, in at least three ways — one, the nature of my question(s); two, how I hear the response; and three, my response to the student’s response.

The nature of my questions has evolved dramatically thanks to writers like Vicki Vinton, Dorothy Barnhouse and now Dan Feigelson’s new book Reading Projects Reimagined. Rather than come prepared with a list geared to one skill or another, I come with a lean list. Questions that don’t have an agenda. In fact as I write this I realize they should be viewed as requests rather that questions.

  • What are you thinking/noticing
  • Say more about that
  • Why
  • How did you figure that out

I use these on an as needed basis; some more frequently than others. They work for almost anything, any book, subject, behavior, conversation. You name it. Try it on for size.  I’ve found the one I use most frequently  is “say more about that.”

The “say more about that” does something magical. First and foremost, it honors.

  • It says — what the student just said has value.
  • It says — the teacher is trying to learn from student.
  • It says — the teacher is listening.

Second, it allows students to develop their thinking beyond their initial thought. Thinking takes time, and by allowing students that space you’re giving them room to really process. I want my students to go on a journey of thought. “Say more about that” allows for the journey; for their thoughts to develop through conversation with a patient listener.  Using “say more” in conferences gives students a sense that their thinking matters and a way to develop their thoughts. It could be seen as a first step to metacognition and personal agency.

If that was all “say more about that” did it would be huge. Well worth your teaching time. But there is so much more. It gives teachers a window into where students really are in their thinking. It gives teachers a huge leg up on what and (more importantly) how students are processing material, as well as next steps for the teacher. (More on that in another post.)

Students are thinking. Our job as teachers is to get them to do more of that work and help them along the way. If we as teachers jump too quickly to our (often very visible) agendas and teaching points, without giving students space to say more about their thinking, we are not really listening. In so doing, we may inadvertently miss the mark completely, wasting our teaching time and more importantly our student’s learning time.