Chapter 3 – Listen to the Students

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In middle school Sandra was one of my bellwether students. She smiled easily, was a hard worker, participated enthusiastically, and did all of her homework. One day, I spotted her crying during our library time. She finally admitted that she was overwhelmed by the week’s work in all of her classes. When we returned to our room, I announced the Paperwork Reduction Act. No homework was due this week. We would have ample time in class to finish our classwork. We would, in short, slow down for a week. The context changed the content. All I needed to make that decision was seeing Sandra’s distress. Her smile of relief beamed from the back row. So did several others.

Bellwether students hold the emotional truth for your class. They are not always privy to all of the drama, but they don’t create any either. Well-liked by their peers, they are easy to teach. They pay attention, stay on task, and try hard. You will be fortunate if you have more than one in your classroom. Look to these students when you need to know how a lesson is going. Their smiles will tell you that your lesson is on target, their big eyes will beg you to bring the noise down, their puckered foreheads will tell you that no one understands, their tears will tell you that something has gone terribly wrong. Also, when you goof up, they will be the first to forgive you. Find them and listen because they do not speak often, but when they do, it’s the truth.

When you become a teacher, you will find that students will whisper, murmur, speak, shout, and scream at you both inches from your nose and from across the playground. They will do this as a cacophonous chorus. During the first minute of the week, Jorge will stand in front of you, blocking your view of the classroom, loudly describing how much he read this weekend, while Yarrow asks for another copy of the homework, and Lucas yells from the back of the room that Tyree needs a Band-Aid. It is okay to congratulate Jorge mid-sentence, write down Yarrow’s request on a Post-it for later, and head for Tyree, but at some point, take a quick second and check on each child.

Many books recommend greeting your students at the door which is hard because they straggle in and you can’t simultaneously supervise your increasingly chaotic classroom. Sometimes so many students are flowing past, that you can’t actually check in. They can figure out my mood, but in two seconds, I can’t read what’s going on with them. Plus, I have to get back to the coat hooks to supervise. So even though you may have greeted them at the door, they need to connect with you. It’s confusing, and disrupts your plans, but they will learn better for it. So get the Band-Aid and the extra homework, walk around the room, and listen to each one of them, even briefly. Here’s the other reason why.

I had been teaching for less than two months before I had to call Child Protective Services. Since then, I have lost track of how many calls I have made or instigated. I know that I averaged two a year for several years. At first I thought it was because I was a writing teacher; children reveal so much with their words. But not all writing teachers have this experience. I think it’s because I watch for context (how they behave), not just content (what they say).

Scared children can be frustrating. They may refuse to work, talk back, or hurt other children. They are used to getting yelled at. So when it seems appropriate, I interrupt the pattern. For example, Rose had been testy for days, and finally screamed at another girl. I stepped outside with her and could see her shrink. I knew she was expecting me to yell at her, so instead I relaxed and asked what was going on. It took a while, but when she spilled, I nearly cried. We talked, I took mental notes, planned my call to Child Protective Services, and kept an eye on my classroom. Sometimes the needs of one outweigh the lesson for the day. Sometimes it’s worth breaking the pattern and simply listening.

Other students are hard to hear because they’re yelling. I overheard this argument in the hallway.

New teacher: “No, you get 4th grade math!”

Student: “But I should be in 5th grade!”

New teacher: “Mrs. M held you back, so you get 4th grade math!”

It made me sad. This situation had actually happened to me two years earlier and turned into an opportunity for a win-win.

Rock, who had been held back, said nearly the same thing to me. A child asking for harder work should be music to a teacher’s ears. I gave him the grade level higher knowing one of two things would happen. Either, he would be able to do it, or he would quickly find out for himself that he couldn’t. In my case, Rock admitted that the work was too hard in about ten minutes. He was quite upset, so I made a deal with him. If he could work hard for the first half of the year and catch up, I’d advance him that grade he wanted back so badly. I told him it was a long shot. Those poor study habits that got him into this situation in the first place, that desire to ignore his work, were going to be a problem, but if he was willing to go for it, I was as well. That was the win. We were now on the same team. As it happened, he couldn’t overcome his habits and stayed back. But there was good news. In the two years he looped with me, he went from below basic on the state tests to proficient. I don’t know whether I’m prouder of his progress or the fact that he often comes back to our school to visit me, especially when he needs to sell something. He’s now ahead of grade level in both math and reading and writes for the school paper.

Listen to each child’s work. I love writer’s workshop. After the minilesson, I get to meet with individuals, discuss work, think deeply about a single child’s thought process and needs, and offer a little advice. It’s incredibly rewarding. Other subjects offer similar opportunities. My third-grade daughter brought home a state test prep packet. She got mad, mad, mad at one math question. She finally wailed, “I don’t know what to do! I don’t know what they want!” So I sat down with her while she read the question to me. It had something to do with a kid named Art dividing 24 marbles into 6 bags. I asked her to tell me what she knew. She shouted from twelve inches away, “I get how to divide marbles into bags, but what does that have to do with painting?” Children’s difficulties with math sometimes have little to do with the numbers, but you won’t know that if you don’t listen.

Listen to your classes’ needs. For math, and sometimes science and social studies, textbook publishers and districts provide pacing guides, not only describing what to teach but when to finish it. Districts even disassemble math units to pick out the lessons that need to be covered before standardized tests begin. This may work in a lot of classrooms, but never mine. There are two problems.

First is a sadly mistaken idea of time. Textbook publishers have so many great ideas that they plan a 180-day school year. Check your calendar. A few years ago, my school district planned 175 days, and debated whether to forgive some snow days. Lately, we have had 170-day years. Even when I taught a 180-day school year, I did an experiment and kept track of assemblies, fire drills, half days, field trips, parties etc. I ended up with 156 teaching days for social studies. No wonder I didn’t make it to the fall of Rome. No wonder the pacing guide was non-helpful.

Our new math textbook had the same problem. You’d think math publishers would be able to do basic addition, but apparently not. I was much relieved to read that we could complete the year in 160 days. Still, I estimate that I will only have 148 actual teaching days. So I took a closer look and found that they didn’t count some lessons and counted some two-day lessons as one. There were actually 215 lessons. It looked like I could push my students and combine some activities and get down to 187 days. If I send the chapter review for extra homework, even knowing how much I hate burdensome homework, I will still have 173 days. Time math is a teacher’s nemesis.

Second, pacing guides don’t take student needs into account. I’ve heard teachers express relief at having covered everything, but how did they know their students comprehended? Most of us could attend a perfectly-paced class in calculus, and still get hopelessly behind. Children who are not ready can’t hear. If you listen to your students, you will find that some can’t tell squares from rectangles while others already know the sum of the angles inside a pentagon. So any given math lesson is too hard for some and boring for others. I test my students at the beginning of the school year, and skip the chapters that don’t meet their needs. Either they already know the material, aren’t ready for it, or the textbook is on a different planet. My district has a computer-based test that helps me figure out their learning needs, but the district’s benchmark or the textbook’s end of year test will do.

Even if you don’t want to frighten your students with the end-of-year test, you can use your state’s standards or the common core standards to see if your textbook is worthwhile. This has been a particular problem for small states that can’t dictate contents. They have had to make the generic option work. I spent one summer analyzing four grade levels of my Missouri math text and found out that some units were a complete waste of time. Worse, it was usually the first unit. For three out of four grades, the book started the school year by boring them with material that was below their readiness. Basically, children were coming to school at their most primed, excited, and ready to learn, and within three weeks, we killed all of that momentum. Plus, the time I wasted meant I wouldn’t make it to the end of the book where some of the most important work of the year resided. (For specifics on how to decide what to teach and what to skip, see appendix E.)

Listen to your students when you are not around. I taught an English learning lab class right after lunch. Boys would gather in the hallway before the bell which would have been fine if some of them hadn’t been frustrated and angry. Having as many as 19 languages at a time in that class pretty much meant that those boys shot dirty looks at each other, but were otherwise inarticulate. I wasted a lot of learning time asking other students to translate while I sorted out fights. I finally figured out that arriving at my door five minutes early saved me all of that trouble. Later, I was to have the exact same success by picking up my elementary students as soon as the school opened so they didn’t sit in the cafeteria and argue, by giving one class a morning recess separate from recess with the older students and a different class lunch recess separate from the younger students. Students don’t always have to speak for you to find a contextual pattern that you can listen to.

Allow silence. Teacher education programs often introduce a concept called “wait time.” After you ask a question of the class, the longer you wait for an answer, the more hands go up. It really does improve classroom participation. If you have trouble making yourself pause, try, “Two people have an idea, now three, five, nine, wow, okay, Jessica, what are you thinking?” But there is a more important silence. When a child is struggling academically or socially, it is so easy to talk, or even rant, at them, but it won’t solve the problem. Instead you need a quiet conversation, perhaps including their parents. Tell them precisely what you have observed, ask what the problem is and let silence descend… for… a… long… time. It will get uncomfortable. Let it. Eventually, it will get so uncomfortable that someone will struggle into that gap with a tentative answer. You can match it to your observations and nurture the idea or reshape it.

If it becomes clear that the student has no idea or will refuse to walk into that silence, you can jump start the conversation with some sentence starters. I will say something like, “Lily, I have a couple of ideas about what is happening, tell me if one of them sounds right. You have lots and lots of ideas for what to write but keep thinking that none of them are good enough so you never get started. Or you are trying to pick something to write that only has simple words that you know how to spell and you keep running into words that are too hard and quitting. Is it one of those?” For behavior issues, I might say, “Nathaniel, since you don’t know why you shove people while you’re in the backpack closet, I have a couple of ideas, tell me if one of them sounds right. You get mad at people during recess and wait for a chance to get even with them. Or you find it funny to see how many people you can make fall down. Does one of those sound right?” Often I’m right, but even if I’m not, a student will usually feel the need to correct me. Either way, listening instead of ranting will help us get to a solution.

Also, consider whether you are really listening. Every time I hear the complaint, “These kids just won’t listen!” I have to wonder who the worst listener is. I typically find that the adult is broadcasting her message over and over, louder and louder, but says she tried listening. To whom? (For an excellent description of how students take over the classroom conversation from teachers, read chapter 4 of Herbert Kohl’s Stupidity and Tears). I also see adults who ask a question of a child, hear the first few words of the answer, then run over it with their response. I’ll admit to this one myself, especially when I have a long lesson planned, and I think I have guessed the issue. But it’s a horrible practice when a student is trying to tell you what’s wrong or what their problem is. It crushes the trust between you. Check yourself. Ask the children in your life how you can listen better. Wait for their response. Listen to it without trying to defend or explain yourself. Let this skill blossom and watch the shy children in your room bloom with you.

Finally, quit talking. Teachers have a strong urge to dump everything they know before they release the students to start working. One of my master teachers was so nervous about state testing that she started half an hour late because she had so much advice to give. I couldn’t remember what she said after the first three sentences. I’d be surprised if the students even remembered that. In small group, Randall got the teacher’s point, but she kept teaching. He finally politely interrupted with, “Sometimes you just help me too much.” Another time, Jimmy shook his hands over his head and said, “I just wish you’d stop so I can work.” Every time I hear a teacher going on and on and on, I think of those poor students whose motivation is being destroyed because their teacher doesn’t trust them to solve a problem they might encounter.

If you are concerned that some students are ready and some are not, try this. “If you are ready to start, stay at your desk and begin. If you need more help, move to the front with me.” In a small room like mine, I have students change desks, back versus front, but the idea is the same. One or two students will change their minds and float back to front, but that’s fine. The point is you can differentiate by releasing the students who are raring to go and supporting those who still need you.

Classrooms are incredible feedback mechanisms. Children will tell you with both words and behavior when they are excited, enthused, anxious, or bored. All you have to do is listen. As a teacher, you have a choice. You can blame the students for a failed lesson, or you can improve your instruction. I am not saying that you have to entertain; there is enough of that in our society. But if you create deep, meaningful, relevant work, and demand clear thought and intense effort, children will astound you. Listen to your classroom. Think about what you hear. Keep tuning your craft until you hear the symphony that you dreamed of.


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