In this post, I reflect on listening. If neither title above makes ultimate sense to you, try this one: Quiet, the bee is sleeping. On a recent morning, as I was walking near our deck, I glanced inside a small gap–half the width of my little finger–between one of the corner posts and the railing. In that gap, I noticed a black-and-gold bumble bee sleeping in the pre-dawn quiet, undisturbed. I enjoyed finding him resting there, and, although I never heard him per se, the twilight atmosphere in which I made the discovery captures a component in the process of listening. The following reflections on listening grow from a confluence of recent experiences. Time away from the formal academic year gives me a chance to reflect more richly on such confluences than I usually do during official school days. I find it helpful to remember this gap vacation and school modes because I often encourage students to reflect, but I need to understand, and take into account, the various levels and kinds of reflection. Many school cultures struggle to encourage depth of thinking, especially reflective thought. Granted the age gap between me and my students makes a difference; I am more inclined to look back on years of experiences. Even so, my own reflective explorations help me help them. Somewhat regardless of the depth, I can pull from these writings an appreciation for associations. How do the chains work? How, and when, do we most meaningfully notice these links–be they conceptual, sense-related or other. As I have written elsewhere, and believe as firmly as ever, our mind is powered by association. We are natural poets all. Reflective writing opens the window on associations that our brain is making with or without our attention.
Three days ago, I wrote a letter. Yes, by hand. I wanted to congratulate a sophomore whose hard work this past year had produced the most original final exam essay. When he emailed that essay, he apologized for not having achieved higher grades. He also, truth be told, said that he enjoyed the class.
In my letter, I asked the student not to apologize because he had faced his challenges with resilience, persistence and unquenchable curiosity. The final exam asks an intentional sequence of interconnected short-answer questions about The Kite Runner. Students who were aware of the ideas developing in their answers had the raw material to address the essay question, which they knew would focus on the topic of moral courage in three books: Alvarez’s novel, In the Time of the Butterflies; Wiesel’s memoir, Night; and Hosseini’s novel, The Kite Runner. On the top of the short-answer sheet, this student wrote “Finally figured it out!” Just beneath that declaration, he drew a wide, narrow rectangle in which he wrote: “Main Theme of Book: Guilt: living with guilt and finding a way to be good again.”
Yes, he has struggled this year–struggled to understand. But that’s exactly the point. He has not backed away from this challenge. I am not surprised, but certainly am pleased, that his persistence produced such a distinctive essay. The writing rings with his own voice, which means his own mind. He has carved out a meaning that works for him. Ironically, that meaning involves the ideas of guilt and becoming good. Consider his email. This ironic connection reminds me that learning is personal. While he accurately identifies a major theme in the novel, he also has named a major theme in his course work this year.
How, then, does this episode embody the idea of listening? In two ways. First, when I read student essays, and perhaps especially exam essays, which are designed to show individuals’ making new meaning from the course materials and discussions, I listen for their voice, their original interpretations. Second, this student, with his email apology and exam-sheet declaration, is listening to himself. He knows that he has crossed over into the satisfying land of understanding. He is aware of having solved a conceptual problem. He has spotted the bumble bee sleeping in the gap.
Two days ago, I met a good friend for lunch. We talked about our families, our jobs–about growing things, making things and trying to figure some things out. Has has recently written about listening; at least, that’s how my memory of his blog post emerges at the moment. In particular, he recalls asking William Stafford, “What is at the heart of great teaching?” Stafford answered, “Find out where your student is, and help him get to the next step.” Do you hear my connecting Stafford’s response to the idea of listening? I have always valued listening–in myself and in others. I am grateful for Stephen’s question and Stafford’s answer because they make me feel good about my work with the sophomore boy mentioned above. Struggles like his can take a long time to bear noticeable fruit, but we need to remember that the fruit does fall and that it takes time to do so, which is something else that Stephen and I talked about during lunch. (Incidentally, I think of educators’ recent pleas, especially in the context of technology conversations, to meet students “where they are.” I respect this plea, and therefore want to understand the various ways in which we teachers can do this. Some of these ways involve may involve facebook or youtube, while others involve letters and essays.)
Finally, I have been thinking about Dave Eggers’ book, Zeitoun–an account of a New Orleans family’s many struggles during and after the Katrina disaster. I highly recommend it. Pretend America is a person whom you have just asked for a story. “Tell me a recent story,” you say, “that shows how good you can be, but also how your complicated nature causes needless suffering and indignity.” Zeitoun is the story America tells. As for the connection to listening, I am thinking of an image that runs through the book, and appears on the cover: the main character’s paddling his canoe through the flooded streets of New Orleans. He is able to help a number of city residents, people and dogs, because his craft proceeds quietly enough that he can hear suffering. He listens for it and responds. Part of his reason for staying behind in the city, while his wife and children have evacuated, is so that he can help people. Listening from his canoe allows him to do this over and over.
The title, “Leave room,” refers to my leaving room for students to grow, to “get to the next step.” Of course, leaving room involves more than just listening, but listening allows me to design the space into which they can grow. This idea of growing into a space explains the garden photograph I have attached. You notice that I have left room for the parsley to expand; I may also transplant the tarragon into some of that space.