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.

Slice of Life Day 28: Hearing Student Voices

During the month of March I am blogging daily with others in the Slice of Life Daily Challenge. Thank you  TaraAnnaDanaStacey,  Betsy  and Beth at Two Writing Teachers for providing and supporting this place to learn and grow. Read more slices here.


Today. What to write? Lots of thoughts. Overloaded brain. Things aren’t completely thought out. I may misspeak. That’s a difficult place to be when you are putting your words into the world. It happens. Just keep writing. That is the goal I told my students. That is your goal for today. So that’s what I’m telling myself on day 28 of the March Slice of Life Challenge.

Write don’t stop. Just write. It’s about fluency, I tell my students and myself. You must be fearless when you know someone might judge your writing. When students write they are judged. They are assessed as to what they need as a writer. What a vulnerable place to be. If someone was out there taking notes on my writing, categorizing my needs as a writer, designing a teaching point for me, would I feel good or bad about this? What would make me feel privileged to get their input. What would make me feel less than and want to hide and never write another word.

I remember one time when I was in a Teachers College workshop with Colleen Cruz, I was stuck. She walked up to me asked me a simple question. With my answer I knew where to go next.  It was magic. She just asked a question and opened my eyes to what was right there. I just wasn’t looking.  I’ll never forget that feeling. It was empowering. Nothing about it made me feel less than. It made me realize what I needed to reach for as a writer and a teacher of writing.

That magic aha moment is hard to give to students. What I am starting to see though, after years of doing this work, is that my mission is to nudge writers, ever so slightly in the direction that they are leaning that approximates forward. Pushing too hard will just result in a fall.

Hearing  what student writers are saying has taken time. Hearing what they are saying versus  hearing my thinking of where I’m trying to take them, is my challenge. What they think and say makes sense, perfect sense to them. Just like understanding phonetic writing, a teacher’s ear needs to be fine tuned to the nuance of what they say and see and how it relates to what they are attempting to do. With that understanding, I can nudge them on from where they are sitting. It takes patience and time of both teacher and  student. I’m just acquiring the ear for this work. Student voices seep in  when I stop myself  and just listen to what they are saying. Then I have the huge aha moment.


You my dear readers have put up with my meanderings over the last 26 days. Thank you. I do appreciate it. To those who continue to visit and take the time to comment. I can only hope I give back a little of what you all have given to  me.

A few slices ago I mentioned a podcast I was doing on twitter and blogging. if you have the time check this out. Listen for my lovely student voices. Unfortunately there isn’t enough of them in this podcast.


Sunday Night Thoughts

The nerdlution thing has got me cornered here.  So many ideas lurking in my head and the week hasn’t even started.

More often than not, my Sunday nights are bursting with ideas, worries, and theories. My challenge right now in this post is to focus my thinking into something hat will make sense for me and my students.

I’m processing a conversation I had with my husband about a student’s writing. This student’s manuscript is extremely difficult to read. He looked at it, read it aloud slowly. He kept looking at it, processing it. He said, “You know this is actually quite beautiful, visually. Impossible to read, but beautiful.” After bit more examination he said, “his thoughts are really good, interesting.”  I had never thought student’s manuscript as beautiful. My husband went on to say, “He’s very creative, an artist, sort of an impressionist.” Coming from my husband, a bottom line kind of guy, I was a little surprised. He saw an artist in this boy. Surprised but grateful for that new perspective on this student. So I’m seeing this child through new impressionistic eyes. He is doing the writing work in a joyful manner. The conventions of form are not his concern.

I’m processing the #caedchat on great teachers. Great teachers empower, inspire, are passionate about learning, have high expectations, experiment, ask why, listen.  These are just a few of the comments I favorited.

Ask why and then listen stand out for me. Too much of the time i’m so concerned about getting our message across, I forget or don’t give the time to stop and listen.

  • Lessons need to be made with a questioning heart.
  • Leave a big space for why in every lesson.
  • Enter every conversation knowing students have a reason for their actions or inactions. It is my job to figure out why by asking and listening.

Tomorrow starts a week of festivities. Practices, performances and celebrations will be the focus from Wednesday through Friday. So what do I want my students to hold on to as they leave for a three week break?

  •  to enjoy their families as I plan to enjoy mine
  •  to rest and grow
  •  to want to read
  •  to want to write
  •  to miss their friends and routine by week two
  •  to want to get back to school before they come back

Still sorting out these ideas along with the nuts and bolts of tomorrow.

Looking forward to it.

Thanksgiving Lessons

celebrate link up

The best part of my  Thanksgiving celebration was listening to siblings and cousins, aged 15 to 20, talking about what they had in common, the focus of their lives, school.  They are what the world would consider successful students. Good grades, ya da, ya da. I just listened and learned.

I got in trouble. I was always talking back. Don’t know why I did that.  It wasn’t what she said, it was how she said it.

This comment was from my son. Now he never got any real trouble in school. Never a trip to the principal’s office. Teachers consistently put that comment on his report cards, “Pleasure to have in class.” Yet what stuck out for him was how he got in trouble in kindergarten. I know for a fact that the majority of kindergarten was a good experience. But what this 19-year old held on to was how he got in trouble.

Wow. A tiny bit of negative is so powerful. Powerful and kinda scary.  I don’t blame the teacher at all. He probably did something wrong and needed to be held accountable.

Thinking about the second part of his comment is interesting. Don’t know why I did that. He wasn’t sure why he kept talking back. Students aren’t always aware or mindful of their actions we are holding them accountable for.

This brings me to the third part. It wasn’t what she said, it was how she said it.  Ah, there is the crafty part. How we say it. The outcome can seem to be the same, yet the means to getting there so very different. How we get there may matter more than what we get our students to do.

This brings me to another bit of conversation about a teacher:

She shared the perfect amount of stories and she’d listen to our stories.  I learned a lot in that class, but I didn’t really appreciate it till later.   

Wow. Stories matter, what we share and how we listen matter. And  sometimes that learning isn’t realized till later.

My children and nieces are those successful students. They didn’t give up or as “get off the bus as @teachkate and @MaggieBRoberts share in their blog. But what about those fragile, for whatever reason, students that look like they are on the edge, how we say it, how we get there matters. That may just keep them on that bus. We are not “just teachers.” We have a tremendous responsibility to keep students present and engaged in their process.

Here are some lessons I’m taking away from my 2013 Thanksgiving table:

The process creates outcomes.

Stories help us along our path.

Outcomes are not always apparent.

Most of all, listening matters.2013-11-28 14.58.10