Learning to Listen to Each Other

At this time of year, two weeks into the start of school, every teacher is watching what works and what doesn’t work for which kids, constantly modifying what we’re doing with individuals and groups and the full class, with a particular intensity that all of us recognize as September.


Nothing else feels more important to me, in all of that, than the ways I help students begin to use their new, more mature ability to listen to each other.

Encouragement and support for good listening can take many forms. Part of it is simple body language: getting kids to face a speaker, to face into a small group with whom they’re working.

Some of it involves helping students understand what the whole group loses when they hold side conversations during group meetings. (I’m grateful to all adults in the school who model attention to the main show, instead of creating their own side-show.)

It always helps to establish formats for taking turns, so that each student’s voice is heard and each student can begin to learn from the spark in every classmate. In Tamara’s class that happens partly through portrait bags, bags of important evidence from home. In my class we make and then share portrait pages, essentially the same thing 2D. There’s also sketching sharing, in the full class, and writing sharing both in the full class and in peer conferences, and something called “headlines” at lunch, in which kids open quick windows into their lives outside school.

In math class and in projects time, kids are working in partners or teams, and I’m listening for good and equitable conversation among them, supporting those conversations to help them be as informed and productive and inclusive as possible.

When projects time groups start to share with the full class, we talk first about what the audience wants from each person sharing, and what the people sharing need from the audience. As the sharing goes forward, I try to make sure that every child gets to practice both speaking in front of the full class, and listening within the distractions of the full class–along with, at this time of year, the distractions of the outdoor setting. Over time kids realize they miss cool stuff in their classmates’ presentations when their attention wanders.

Both roles are important–speaker and listener–and all of us, at every age, can keep learning how to speak more clearly; how to listen more accurately and responsively. More than any other skills progress, learning to speak and listen lay the foundation for students’ future success.

All that is true at any school. At Touchstone, I watch it go further. Having learned to listen to each other, Touchstone students give each other inspiration and strength in uncountable ways. Yes, there’s always the temptation to exclude someone who doesn’t seem to fit; but side-by-side with that, year after year, I watch kids manifest our human ability to receive difference as a gift. Year by year they test and refine their skills for working collaboratively, using all the strengths available. In the process, students help each other learn and grow in ways that no teacher can engineer, no IEP can prescribe.

I’ve often joked–not really joking–about wanting a magic wand, which would let me bring back the lost parent, or unscramble neural circuits, or heal all manner of wounds; the magic wand that would miraculously free and lift each student to be his or her most wonderful and powerful self. In some sense, at Touchstone, I do have a magic wand: the power of the students themselves, and what they do for each other–beginning with listening.

— Polly Brown, Touchstone Community School, Head Teacher for 10, 11 and 12 year olds