To Sustain the Tough Conversations, Active Listening Must Be the Norm

We have to prepare students—and ourselves—to communicate, question and work our way through a disconnect when the outside world spills into the classroom.
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What do you do when you attend a protest with people shouting, “Defund the police,” your voice and car horn raised with them, and one of your students’ parents is one of the cops handling the blockade?

On June 13, 2020, I drove my car to John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville, Virginia, to join in a noise demo. Drizzle tried to dampen the mood. But people with pots and pans, tambourines, megaphones and some with just their hands and voices marched on, followed by a line of cars. They quickly whipped their energy into a righteous block party. As I broke off from the protest to make my way home, an officer waved my car ahead. It was the parent of a few of my students. 

On my drive home, I saw two people in my mind when I thought about the officer: the cop and the dad. A member of the system that too often shoots first and asks questions later for men who look like me, but also the giant who hoists his daughter on shoulders so high she laughs with the clouds. That smile was still somewhere underneath the rain and frown, right? In the grand scheme of things, that didn’t matter. What mattered is that, just like in that intersection, so many perspectives would be coming together in school, and I would have to lead them.

I must be brave. I must speak, and neutrality feels like betrayal. Some things are not up for debate in my classroom. Black lives do matter, and we won’t be debating whether that’s true. Yet, I’ve seen this situation play out as a debate all year. 

Too often, our shared discussions in society and in school include a right and wrong side, a red and blue side, no gray area for nuance. That’s no classroom. Building a strong foundation of the basics, listening to one another and communicating with grace will allow our community to sustain the tough conversations when they come up for us, whether remotely or in person. 

This work for classroom culture is critical and it’s never too late to begin. Here are a few ways I work to ensure that students have an opportunity to really engage with one another in my classes.

Sharing as the Norm

One of my greatest fears, when I’m sharing with those close to me, is that what I say and how I feel fall into a vacuum of like-minded people. I always ask myself, “Have I shared these thoughts and feelings with others who don’t look or think like me?” Truthfully, the answer more often than not is no. How can I ask my students to do something I am reluctant to do with my own peers? I have to push myself to be the example. 

In Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, Zaretta Hammond talks about “selective vulnerability” and educators using their challenges and triumphs to encourage kids as they grow. That idea can also bleed into putting yourself, as a person, on display for your students. Set the standard for them and share. Don’t expect them to share about themselves with you if you don’t do the same. Coax their stories out of them by telling your own. 

This begins the process of building a community of active listeners who feel safe displaying  their full identities but also who receive the identities and cultural experiences of others. Receiving does not mean agreeing—it is a willingness to accept what is being shared as true and valid. 

We can give students the opportunity to validate their classmates; it can be as simple as encouraging a Zoom reaction or giving students the chance to paraphrase or repeat what they heard their classmates share out. I find that asking students to repeat their peers, instead of me doing it, helps the conversation stay student-centered and holds the group accountable to the person sharing.

Listening With Intention

There are many ways we check in with kids to make sure they’ve grasped what has been taught. Have you ever checked in on how well students are listening to and getting to know each other? One instructional coach showed me the missing ingredient to an activity I had done in the past: to have students list the classmates they remembered and then prompt them to write what they remembered about those classmates. Take inventory of those responses! Are students hearing each other, remembering what the people around them have been sharing? Students can make it a goal to get to know the classmates who didn’t come to mind immediately and set an intention to listen out for details about that peer. 

Listening for details is key, and it’s why I went to that noise demo in June, partly because I felt like I wasn’t being heard. The people who I needed to hear me were so far away and inaccessible; I worried my message would never reach them. Those forces were right there as we chanted. They had no choice but to stop and listen. 

When discussing difficult topics in the classroom, selective hearing can be a common occurrence. I’ve received many emails over the years after an impromptu conversation or a restorative circle because half of the message made it home through my students. Children need to be taught how to stop and listen, to truly engage with what they are hearing. 

Kids can and will sit with their feelings and internalize them if they are taught how. Educators can help by encouraging students to recognize the importance of the information their classmates share. For example, I might tell students, “Your peer is sharing more than their love of French fries. They also said, ‘People don’t like me because they think my face is mean.’ Another classmate values basketball and family, but he also shared with us that someone he loves is in jail and carries their photo around with them. Do you hear them? When they speak, do you remember all they are approaching the conversation with?” 

Modeling Respectful Curiosity 

It’s hard sometimes to ask follow-up questions when opportunities arise. We get stuck, and we assume what someone else may think. But that’s because we don’t truly know all that someone brings to the conversation. We can teach kids how to move past those moments when they may feel nervous about asking a clarifying question.

The way to meaningfully interact with others while honoring cultural differences and varied experiences needs to be modeled and explicitly taught. Educators can give students specific sentence frames to ask follow-up and clarifying questions: “Could you pronounce your name/holiday/tradition again for us?” or “What was it like growing up in _______?” We can also teach them to ask a probing question without demanding information from others: “You’re from ______? I don’t know much about that. Could you tell me more?” 

Students should also have nonverbal tools at their disposal to help them meaningfully interact without snatching the story away from the presenter. Common hand signals to show a connection, the ability to jot down a question while they are listening, even the use of the chat section in Zoom to respond are perfect. These are the skills we as teachers use all the time. We should give kids the scaffolds they need to be as inquisitive as we are!

For me, it was tough not to hide my face as I passed by that police officer, my students’ parent, on my way home from the noise demo. I needed to stand by my experience. Families and their students will have the same resolve. The children of activists, police officers, pacifists and every facet of the issues society faces outside are coming into my classroom, logging onto my Zoom. 

Communities are full of differences, and those differences can clash in ways that will break us if we let them. We have to prepare our students—and ourselves—to communicate, question and work our way through.

About the Author

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