Monday, October 10, 2011

Listening Part 2: Listening Failures

Here are some listening failures from my own experience. After each are a few perceived causes of the failures followed by an approach that seems to open channels of communication a little more.

Case 1
Teacher (T): Kid, why didn’t you finish this?
Student (S): I couldn’t.
T: Why not?
S: Because of the cherry marker.
T: Are you serious? Finish it.

You might chalk this up as one of those crazy excuses kids make, or you might better chalk it up as someone not listening. In this case, one of my own, I clearly was not listening to my student, and, get this, HE WAS TELLING THE TRUTH. This was a case of sensory overload, and it is far more common than you might expect.

Cause: I am too certain I am right that I am not actually listening and validating my student's point of view.

Solution: Listen, and take into account the student's suggested solution. On a subsequent day when the student was again struggling, I removed the smelly markers, and the student was able to complete the assignment immediately.

Case 2

S: I go dinner with senior.
T: I went to dinner with some friends.
S: No, I go dinner with senior.
T: I went to dinner with some friends.
S: Not friend.
T: Okay. But you went to dinner.
S: Yes.

Okay, this is better and again based on my own experience, but again, I have totally missed the point as well as the teachable moment. What was important to the student was not the when or the how many; it was with whom. And implicit in this whom is a cultural connotation not carried in English.  I did nothing to help him communicate that cultural connotation at all.  All I have done is show my student that English is irrelevant to his communication needs.

Cause: I am too focused on my own goal and not the goal of my student nor the more important information in the student's culture.

Suggestion: I don't have an exact solution for this problem, but I have found that starting class by explaining my objectives (and occasionally how I will measure them) and inviting students to share their own goals for the class has made students more aggressive in verbalize what they really want to know as well as making them more cooperative in listening to my correcting grammar in accordance with my previously stated goal.  I may have been able to teach prepositional phrases functioning as adjectives or dependent adjective clauses ("some friends from the year ahead of me" or "some friends, who mentor me"), but if I had had their input on what they wanted, I may have gleaned this.
Case 3

S: I didn’t think much of this piece.
T: I don’t care what you thought of it. Why did the people of the time like it?
S: This piece has been used in foreign film to show how foreign influence has driven the people who act within to impotent madness.
T: But that wasn’t what the author was getting at.

As a writer as well as a teacher these last examples are particularly troubling because the thing a writer loves about writing is that its influence may wax and wane, but it always has the potential to influence each person who reads it anew each time it is read. Each influence is valid, whether or not it was intended or the influence has changed.

Cause: Narrow vision in accordance with a perceived correct answer and an unwillingness to allow the canonical to be practical/living.

Suggestion: Share the goal that before new applications or nontraditional views can be shared, you as a teacher must ensure that students understand the traditional attitude toward the piece.

Case 4

S1: Y bit me!
T: Are you serious? Y, did you bite him?
Y: Yes.
T: You are eight-years-old. Babies bite. Time out. In the baby playground. Hustle.
Y (tears in his eyes): But we were playing vampires!
S3 (to teacher a few minutes later): You’re proud of yourself, aren’t you?

This is one of my most troubling recollections of teaching. Yes, the student was wrong to bite, but he was simply taking an age-appropriate game too far (a common problem for this student), and the cause of the misbehavior was not at all the same cause of the same behavior in young children, so the student was inappropriately shamed, even though the punishment was more creative and effectively extinguished the behavior among all of the students for the entire time that I remained their teacher.

Cause: Simply not listening and pride--there were other teachers present, and I wanted to act swiftly and decisively.

Solution: Ask more before dictating punishment. Once immediate danger has been averted, there is no reason not to ask for both sides of the story.

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