photo credit: Jason Rosewell

Listening: An Essential Social Justice Practice

Written by Amy Bintliff

As a veteran teacher of youth labeled “at-risk,” helping disengaged students re-engage is my primary focus. I’m working to combat statistics, like the fact that only 69% of U.S. students graduate from high school on time with a regular diploma (Swanson, 2009) with historically underserved student, such as African American, Latino, and American Indian, with graduation rates 25%lower than those of white students (Henry, Knight & Thornberry, 2012). Here’s what I know that gives me power: Basic indicators, such as attendance and suspensions, can provide early school disengagement warnings (Henry, Knight & Thornberry, 2012) Increased connectedness leads to fewer episodes of teen depression, lower risks of dropping out, and reduction in risk-taking behaviors (Blum, 2005; Chapman, et. al., 2013)

Knowing how essential it is for “students to feel personally accepted, respected, included, and supported by others in the school social environment” (Goodenow, 1993) means that I have to work hard at knowing who my students are as individuals. Listening is the way that I accomplish that. Listening not only means that we know our students, it also changes the way we teach. When we listen to our students, we find ourselves challenged and inspired to create more relevant, social justice oriented curriculum, as Linda Christensen, an educator and writer for Rethinking Schools, explains:

…It’s not just a definition. It’s kind of what it means to be a social justice teacher and to create a social justice classroom. First, it is grounded in the lives of our students. We use situations out of their lives as text{s}, so we use what’s happened to them as additional texts in the classroom. The curriculum should be rooted in the students’ needs and in their experiences. (Golden & Christensen, 2008, p. 60).

As people in power positions, we teachers have the ability to help students transcend social inequity, rather than being bound by it. As a teacher I have privilege. As a white person I have privilege. As the person with the college degree in my class, I have privilege. As the adult, I have privilege. I must learn to be aware of how I listen, and how I set the space for others to listen, and who I’m listening too. Is it mainly the young men? Is it only the extroverts in my class? Is it only the highly vocal parents? I must consider all of these dimensions and frame my own listening from a stance of anti-oppression. Beth Berila (2015) describes this when she writes about interpersonal and group listening:

The idea here is to withhold judgment or a planning of our own statements and instead give our full attention and awareness to the person who is speaking. This listening is informed by three central principles: listening to learn; listening for understanding rather than agreement; and asking powerful questions. This form of listening enables a much more authentic presence with one another that can build the trust essential for sustainable communities that can dismantle systems of oppression. Because so much of oppression happens in the ways we relate to one another — ways that are learned behaviors — truly receiving one another while suspending our internalized assumptions enables new possibilities to arise. (See Berila, Chapter 4, for more on mindful listening in social justice courses)

When I first began teaching, I would jump in to provide solutions for my students, or would quickly shift a discussion to fit my own purposes. I learned that if I quickly jump in with solutions, I take away student agency and prevent students from talking through a situation or I impede the development of their ideas. Now, instead of jumping in with my suggestions or ideas, I simply repeat a phrase that a student said back to them word for word, so that they can realize that their own descriptions of an event or concern holds the knowledge they are seeking.

Here are some ways your curriculum can focus on listening to your students:

  1. Cooperative Learning. Consistently incorporating high-quality cooperative learning strategies enable students to have voice (Ladson-Billings, 1994). There are many other forms of cooperative learning; choose one and stick to it!If students know a cooperative structure is following a mini-lesson, they know that they will have a way to voice their ideas to others and you have an opportunity to listen and learn from their thinking. Recommended cooperative learning resource: Kagan Cooperative Learning
  2. Storytelling. Create activities that involve storytelling. Storytelling activities always feels different than just sharing our personal narrative writing, because with storytelling, students are able to be creative and draw connections to their experiences that don’t have to fit a specific writing model. Students build on their stories with partner practice and they always develop creative ways to capture audience attention.
  3. Restorative Justice Talking Circles. Incorporate restorative justice talking circles. In a talking circle norms are established by the group. The norms usually focus on the ways the community can listen respectfully and support one another. A talking piece, an object of significance chosen by Circle members, is passed around inviting equal participation. If a student holds the talking piece they are invited to speak, while all others listen to and support the speaker. As the talking piece makes its way around the circle, students all have an equal opportunity to share or pass. Talking Circles have been shown to build connectedness (Bintliff, 2016; Boyes-Watson, 2008; Boyes-Watson & Pranis; 2015; Riestenberg, 2012). Circles can also be used as a structure to promote the sharing of writing, thoughts about a lesson, or reflections on a community or class activity. A wonderful book that I recommend to get you started with Talking Circles is Circle Forward by Carolyn Boyes-Watson and Kay Pranis.
  4. Student-Led Service-Learning or Action Planning Around Social Justice. What better way to engage student voice than to listen to students as they work to strategically create a means of improving their community? Much service-learning is designed by educators based on building or program goals. But when your students choose their own topics, work together, act, and then publish their findings, it creates a great opportunity to listen to your students’ ideas and concerns about social justice within their own community. Two recommended service-learning guide books are Service-Learning by Degrees by Alice Terry and Jann Bohnenberger and The Complete Guide to Service Learning by Cathryn Berger Kaye. Teaching Tolerance’s Perspectives for a Diverse America, a free on-line curriculum that includes a section entitled “Do Something”, which provides wonderful ideas for social justice action projects.

Listening, of course, is a skill that we work at over a lifetime, and the more we work at it, the better we get. When I first began teaching, I quickly realized that I needed to hone my listening skills in order to connect with my students because the context of their lives was very different from my own. I took every training opportunity to increase my listening skills: Courage to Teach work atParker Palmer‘s Center for Courage and Renewal, restorative justice training (resources recommended in a later section), cognitive coaching training (Costa & Garmston, 2002), and mindfulness meditation work. And I keep working at it!

One way to increase potential learning is to expand the listening circle to include your students’ caregivers. Consider rethinking family night/conferences to rely more on i inquiry-based interviews with parent/guardians (Kroeger and Lash, 2011).When we don’t engage in inquiry with our families, we often assume the “best” parents are those who follow the traditional expectations of involved parents — those who attend conferences, communicate in a timely manner, volunteer, etc. When educators do not account for the full picture, we often misinterpret the types of resources our parents may bring to our classroom communities (Compton-Lily, 2003; Gay, 2000 & 2010; Gorski, 2013; Kroeger & Lash, 2011; Nieto, 2000.) At times, we reach out to the most disconnected families in a way that creates an assumption that the parents are deficient in some way (parenting classes, sending home clothing or items that weren’t asked for, etc.). Schools committed to teaching for social justice must think carefully about providing ways to listen to parent/guardians in our communities in a way that honors the language, history, culture, knowledge and wisdom that is present within our families (Nieto, 2000). This includes honoring our families’ preferred methods of communication.

Here are some ways you can listen to your students’ caregivers:

  1. Survey your parents/guardians. Send home a paper-based survey, plus copy it on e-mail, on the first day of school asking parents/guardians how they prefer communication. Include an example of a calendar with times when you are available so that parent/guardians can easily check boxes of times that work well for them. Then read the surveys and create a chart showing contact times for each student, or place each survey in a binder under the student’s name. It’s an extra step, but I find that many teachers send home surveys and then forget to actually use the results! You may occasionally need to call on a Saturday, or an evening, but the benefits of the relationship-building make it worth your while.
  2. Friday Shout Outs! Make two positive phone calls home at the end of each week. Think of two or three students who really did a great job, and then call and share that news. End your call with the question, “Is there anything that you’d like to share about your child?” The calls are usually brief, but you gain a huge amount of wisdom through the interaction. You can do this via e-mail too, but phone calls add a more personal way of engaging. Plus, you end your week on a really positive note!
  3. Talk Less-Listen More. When meeting with families of students who are struggling, shift your methods into an inquiry-based model. Spend less time talking and more time asking questions such as, “What would you like us to know about your child? What ideas do you have for enriching your child’s education? What would you like to share with us?” Then honor that information, document it, and work it into interventions or planning. Follow-up within a timely manner. Hold these meetings in community centers, coffee shops, or other venues, if parent/guardians prefer.
  4. Personal & Academic Questioning at Conferences. Be sure to ask families questions during conferences. Even though time is tight, ask academic or nonacademic questions and really listen to the answers. Reach out via phone to families who may have difficulties attending conferences and push to encourage your school system to offer a variety of times for conferences and multiple modes of communicating with families.
  5. Curriculum Transparency and Feedback. Be transparent with your curriculum. Find a way for parents to respond to lessons and activities via a blog, school-based social media group, phones, and/or paper-based slips that go back and forth. The more modes of communication, the better. Don’t rely on grading software to be your only method of communication!
  6. Sharing by Elders or Family Members. Invite elders or family members into your classrooms to share. These invitations can easily relate to any curricular area. Send home inquiries, “Would you like to present a five to ten-minute sharing activity with our class on ___________?” The sharing time can be face-to-face, via a conference call, or can be recorded and played for your class. Go beyond career sharing (i.e., parent job talks) and provide examples of other ways to share, such as hobbies, family history, collections, favorite books, etc.
  7. Community Poetry and Art. Create family and community poetry or short story around a theme, such as “growing up” or “how I see the world”. Begin a line in your class with your students and then send home an opportunity for family members to add to the poem. Students love watching the poem grow and teachers learn a lot about the families participating. Invite family members to an art hour in which the poem can be converted into a mural. This provides diverse opportunities for sharing that aren’t all literacy based.

In my fourteen years of teaching, I’ve incorporated these ideas into my middle and high school classes. In 2013, I surveyed students at the end of the year, asking, “Do you feel connected in this classroom? Why?” Every student marked, “yes”. I expected students to respond that it was because of specific activities or field trips, but the majority of students responded, “You listened”, and, “When we needed to share something you stopped everything and looked at us and just listened”. One student wrote, “My mom and I both felt like someone was finally hearing us.” Another student wrote, “For so long I’ve felt that there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t do school work. But you listened to me and we figured it out.” When I began to build in time for listening into my lessons, I didn’t feel like I was falling behind in my curriculum. Instead, I felt like I was more aware of what my students were “getting”, what I needed to review, and how I could best support their learning and success from an equity lens. When I listened to my student’s families, we were able to create partnerships that improved students’ academic and personal growth. Listening is my most effective tool as an educator.

Works Cited

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Berila, B. (2015). Integrating mindfulness into anti-oppression pedagogy: Social justice in higher education. New York: Routledge.

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