As a teaching artist, I do much of my work in other teachers’ classrooms. Over the years, I have both spent a fair amount of time talking with administrators, planning with teachers, and observing student / teacher interactions. One thing I have observed is that in most school situations, students are given few opportunities to speak at any length. There are many reasons for this, some more legitimate than others, but I think that however valid the reason for keeping students quiet, the result is that, by the time they get to middle school, many children are uncomfortable expressing their opinions in front of teachers and classmates. There is always the suspicion that when an adult poses a question, he or she does so with an answer already in mind, and students quickly learn that wrong answers might be greeted by classmates with distain or ridicule. The irony of this situation is, of course, that one of the best ways to assess what a student knows is by listening to him talk. Student discussions throw light on the speakers’ misconceptions and missing knowledge in a way that most pen-and-paper tasks cannot, and aural assessment can be done in a fraction of the time it takes to read and evaluate a stack of essays.
Because we don’t have to worry about things like test scores and administrative edicts, my colleagues and I have the luxury of allowing students to spend hours of workshop time in talk. Although the work of our programs develops literacy skills and broadens our students’ knowledge base, these outcomes are a means to our main program goal, and not the goal, itself. Creating opportunities for unfettered student discussion is a crucial part of our process toward the goal of encouraging independent thought and increasing self-confidence. It is through discussion with each other that students develop their own ideas and gain assurance that they can voice them convincingly.
That said, productive student talk has to be directed, and I think directing classroom conversation is one of the most important skills we teaching storytellers can develop. I would bet we all agree that the most crucial element of that skill is our ability to listen. There are times when student discussions call for adult intervention, but they occur less frequently than most adults (myself included!) imagine. A guidance counselor who co-teaches in one my programs once told me that before interjecting a remark, a facilitator should always say to herself, W.A.I.T. – Why Am I Talking? I have learned that the reason for my own impulse to speak up is usually that I’m afraid the kids won’t be able to resolve an issue unless I lead the discussion. Silence and patience have taught me that, given enough time and direction, they usually reach on their own the point I wanted to make. As they talk without adult interference, students gain confidence in their ability to speak for themselves. The model of an adult respectfully listening, voicing agreement or disagreement with only a word or a nod, teaches them one of the most important rules of successful social interaction, namely that it requires a balance of action and observation; of speaking and listening.
A couple of weeks ago, I sat at the back of a workshop that was being led by four student storytellers who participate in a storytelling program at Frelinghuysen Middle School in the Morris School District. In that program, which I direct, students learn to tell stories through a variety of artistic media. It is a long-term program and students who join in their 6th grade year often remain in the program until they leave the school after 8th grade. Every year, when I introduce a new group of 6th graders to the storytelling program, I ask some older student storytellers to take part in the presentation. The students who were leading the workshop in question had been in the program for a year.
Near the end of the session, one the workshop leaders, Anjel, said to the new recruits, “Storytelling is a very relaxed place.”
A 6th grader responded, “Why? What do you do?”
Anjel paused. He and his classmates had just finished a twenty-minute explanation and demonstration of what they do in Storytelling, so that, clearly, was not the focus of the 6th grader’s question. Anjel looked toward the back of the room where I was sitting. I shrugged. I didn’t have an answer. I was a bit surprised when I heard him describe our workshops as “relaxing.” Although I know the students enjoy themselves, the program isn’t easy. I expect participants to accomplish a lot in the 40 days I see them, and many of our projects require them to take risks, both socially and artistically.
One of the other leaders, a girl, spoke up in answer to the question. “Well, in Storytelling you can be yourself.”
“Right,” said Anjel, “you can say anything and you know no one will make fun of you.”
“And,” another leader chimed in, “we talk about everything.”
The sixth grader nodded his head as if his question had been answered satisfactorily, but I can’t believe he felt that it had.
However, upon reflection I realized that the student storytellers’ description of the atmosphere in their storytelling workshops demonstrates another way in which listening to students helps them grow, both intellectually and morally.
‘Unfettered student talk’ is an expression I used earlier. It’s hyperbole, of course. We fetter if things start getting out of hand, but I believe that another thread in the binding of the trust essential for our programs to succeed is our willingness to let students talk about anything. Anything.
Children have so many questions about the world, and in a world where many traditionally ‘adult’ topics are the subject of daytime talk shows and after school soap operas, today’s children must carry in their heads a stock of confusing information about topics like sex, drugs, health, and religion that they have no opportunities to organize or clarify. The traditional sources of worldly wisdom: parents, teachers, and clergy, are often not good sources of information for teens. Parents immediately worry that the child’s question refers to his own predicament; teachers are warned against broaching subjects that are socially or politically controversial; and the clergy usually toe the party line. Even when a child knows an adult who is willing to listen and engage in conversation, it’s often hard for the child to begin it.
By the time our children get to middle school, they are full of questions, and they have reached the time of life when their most interesting sources of information are their peers. Every middle- and high school teacher has overheard conversations between students that are so full of misinformation it would be funny if we didn’t realize that the likelihood they will make decisions based on these falsehoods is high. Here again, listening to student talk becomes an invaluable tool, because it allows us to recognize our students’ misconceptions and redirect their line of inquiry. It also gives us insight into what topics they worry and wonder about.
Once in a middle school storytelling workshop, I told the story of Bearskin, a Grimm tale about a soldier who makes a bargain with the Devil. I had told the story at least a hundred times before to audiences of teenagers and adults and it always introduces interesting conversation about a variety of topics. This day, however, the conversation turned in a new direction when a boy asked,
“Wait, was that the real devil?”
I had fielded the question before and I responded as I usually do when I want more information before committing myself to an answer by asking, “What do you think?” I was expecting a reference to something religious, and the boy was not a little kid, so I was taken aback when he replied,
“I just want to know if he was the real devil with the horns and tail and pitchfork.”
Luckily for me, this statement began a discussion among students about the possibility that such a creature existed. I listened to students offer their various interpretations of Old Scratch, before suggesting that the devil in my story might be a metaphor. This was greeted with protests along with citations from the story to prove the students’ point that the character was, indeed, real. Finally, the first boy, in exasperation, said,
“I’m talking about the devil who takes you to hell if you’re bad!”
Silence. The boy had opened a topic of conversation that is frequently censored in school, namely contemporary religious belief. The other students were uncomfortable, and I didn’t want my response to undercut the teaching of a parent or priest. The silence was broken by a girl who asked in a quiet voice,
“What really happens after you die?”
Unsurprisingly, this was the question that was really on every child’s mind. As soon as the girl asked it, they all began to talk at once. Some gave explanations they had heard in church or on television; others told stories of the death of a relative or friend. As I listened, I realized that it didn’t matter that I had no answer to the girl’s question. What these children needed was an opportunity to talk about life and death, a topic too loaded and too uncomfortable for many adults to entertain. I joined the conversation when I thought I should, but I offered neither answers nor platitudes. Just before the bell that would end the class, I told a short parable about the difference between heaven and hell which I knew would both clear the air and send the students away with something concrete to think about.
So, as it turns out, I agree with Anjel and his fellow storytellers that people are more relaxed in a place where they know they can speak freely and that their ideas will be taken seriously. And as talking helps students to understand and articulate their own thoughts, listening to students talk helps us understand them. Their conversation opens windows into their lives, their thoughts, their interactions, and their attitudes, and I believe that our willingness to let these scenes unfold without judgment or interruption offers our students a unique and important educational experience.