Thursday, December 16, 2021

Do we listen to children but never really 'hear' them? The lost art of understanding our students.

I've had a paper on my study floor for several years in my pile of papers loosely categorized as those ‘I must read some day’. Many times, I've picked up a photocopied extract from a book titled ‘The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination’. The book was written by psychiatrist Dr Robert Coles. Each time I would skim a few paragraphs and think, "now why did I place this paper from a psychiatrist here to read"? I was flipping through the pile again this week when I saw the Coles' extract once more. I read a few pages and finally realized why I’d kept it. I wrote a post on the topic for another blog I write for parents and teachers who want a faith-basis to school education. But after posting it, I thought that what I'd seen in Coles' book was just as relevant for non-religious schools.


I strongly believe that Coles' work needs to be read by teachers, parents, doctors, psychiatrists and even politicians. After reading his work one key aspect resonated strongly with many of my own instincts about nurturing and understanding our students at school. We often fail to truly listen to the stories our children want to tell us. Essentially, their stories about what matters most to them. Instead, we more often observe and draw conclusions based on their behavior, the things we’ve listened for, and responses to our questions.


Coles unpacks the lessons he was to learn about knowing and understanding his troubled patients. One of the simplest, yet most profound lessons, was simply that patients - and I would add students at school - want to tell their stories. The question for this post to parents and teachers is do we often we fail to truly listen, and instead begin to ask questions about the things WE want to know, not what they are trying to share.


With the mentorship of good teacher and senior colleague, Coles realized his patients were telling him the stories they thought he wanted to hear, and refraining from those things that mattered most to them. They at times did try to share their stories, but more often than not, he failed to listen to many of these things. Instead, he pursued his own narrow questions and they would stop sharing the things that mattered most to them. These became the 'hidden' things of their lives. If we reflect on this in relation to our students, what might these things be? Often, they are their special challenges, hidden pain, life frustrations, hidden hopes and fears. As teachers, I suspect we often miss the stories that offer an insight into who our students really are.




As I read Coles' work, I could see special significance for teachers who try to understand their students. I suspect our school students often carry around stories to which we barely listen. If they do attempt to share them in the 'cracks' of school life, they tend to interrupt the flow of our plans for the day and we fail to listen. Most students arrive at school full of life and keen to tell others the stories that matter to them; stories about the things that matter to them. But do we listen? If we don’t, we lose so much. In the comments they make, and the stories they might share, we would gain a richer insight into the things that matter most to them, not to mention their fears and hopes.


In my book ‘Pedagogy and Education for Life’ I say much about story, but Coles’ work has reminded me that we need to amplify the importance of storytelling in our classrooms even more. Children are born to be story tellers. If given opportunities they will share stories in class, walking into school in lines, at group tables with other students, at sport, while waiting in assemblies, or simply waiting at the school gate to go home. Some teachers might see the buzz of such conversations and stories as unimportant chatter. But if only we would listen I suspect sometimes we might just hear children speaking of the fears, phobias, hopes and aspirations that impact on their lives.



Robert Coles was taught by his mentor Dr Ludwig something critical about not missing opportunities to listen well as a psychiatrist.


The people who come to see us bring their stories. They hope they tell them well enough so that we understand the truth of their lives. They hope we know how to interpret their stories correctly.


While we might be teachers, not psychiatrists, I wonder how often we miss such stories and opportunities? Whether our students' comments and stories are happy, sad, important or just great memories, do we give them opportunities to share them? And if they do, do we actually listen?


I share a number of stories in my book about teaching moments when I have gained great insights into my students in the cracks of classroom and school life. One of them concerns a ‘non-talker’ I met in a Kindergarten classroom where I was teaching part-time in a NSW country school.


As a researcher, I visited classrooms regularly in the town to explore using writing as a means to encourage young writers to express themselves. I would visit the same Kindergarten classroom each week and run an immersive writing workshop. I started in the first visit by handing out blank books and asked them to: “tell me a story in the writing books.” This might seem ridiculous to the average Kindergarten teacher, but it caused no problems for the children, for if you asked many why they go to school they might just say "to read and write". I stressed that they were to choose anything that was important or special to them. No-one refused to participate.


One little girl finished her work and shared her story with me. She simply left her seat and came to me quite excited and keen to read what she had written, much of it was invented spelling. She read her work with great enthusiasm and pride. When the School Principal dropped in on this particular morning (no doubt to check on the visiting researcher), I asked the little girl to share the story with her. She did so and returned to her desk. The Principal was aghast and when she spoke to me later, she shared that the little girl “didn’t speak”, and had said nothing to her teacher in the first 8 weeks of school. In fact, she had been tagged to join a “non-speakers” group so they could monitor her progress.

In my pedagogy book I share a number of stories, that give some insight into the surprises we often receive as teachers when we observe our students closely and listen to them. One story is of an experience I had with an African American student I taught in an Indianapolis Elementary school in the 1980s while a visiting Professor at Indiana University. Chanda (a year 5 student) was not my most cooperative student. She rarely completed tasks, and often didn’t even start. One morning as she dropped her bag on the desk, the contents fell out, including a bundle of paper with writing on the many sheets. I asked her what she was writing? To which she replied:


“Nothing, sir.”


I gently prodded a little more and said, "what are you writing about". She responded, "not much Sir". I had the good sense to say, “I’d love to see your writing”. She reluctantly pushed a sheet across the table and said, “It’s just music, sir, just bin writin music. 


I began to read her quite poetic and rhythmical writing, and discovered that there was a dozen or more examples like the first that I picked up. Yes, it was music! Some wonderful music (and poetry) that offered a window into her challenging life in a 'Trailer Court'. Chanda went on to share that she had been writing music at home for some time and it was one of her passions.


I could go on to share many other stories of students who would wander into my classroom in the morning before classes for a chat. I always tried to listen, and if I did, they often shared many things. Some seemingly banal, others profound, some disturbing, but all offering insights into aspects of their lives and a sense of who they were as people.



One of Robert Coles’ great insights while working with adult traumatized psychiatric patients, was that all people deep down are story tellers and want to tell their stories to someone who will listen. Sadly, he found that if people do share something of our lives, but they sense others aren't interested, then they stop and withdraw into telling us what they think we wish to hear.                                                            

As an elementary school teacher and later as a university lecturer, I found that our students do want to share some of their life story if they have a relationship of trust with you. Their sharing of personal stories often happens within the classroom in the ‘cracks’ of the school day. But it also happens as we walk in lines to school sport, as they unpacked their bags at the start of the school day, or as they prepare to go home. I always loved playground duty as a young teacher (I know, teachers will think I'm mad), because this was another less formal place where children would come up and talk about the things important to them.

Assisting the formation of our students as people who will take their place in the world is a foundational part of education. To have any right or opportunity as a teacher to do this, we must create contexts where our students are willing to tell their stories. And when they do, we must listen carefully so that we might just come to a deeper understanding of who they really are, and what their hopes for the future might just be.