Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Being a Better Listener

In 1998 I published professionally as an educator for the first time. As a middle school teacher three years into it, I was swimming in curriculum, planning field trips (as team leader), running team meetings (as team leader), managing low-level discipline (as team leader) and then I scrambled of crumbs of guidance around literacy, writing, and conventions. 

Looking back on it today, I'm amazed I made the time to write and revise something--anything--for publication. It would be sixteen years before I would publish professionally again--even though my memory of this article and what drove my writing then is nothing but pure joy.

So, why did I write it? And why did I abandon writing for publication for sixteen years afterwards?

The article, Seeing the Light Through Antony and Cleopatra focused on directing middle school students in the middle school play.

That year I employed the technique of theater with the lights on--as Shakespeare's plays would have been experienced in the daylight. Without summarizing the article, I'll add that I spent most of the article describing what impact keeping the lights on had on the actors and their interaction with the audience...and what that meant for our goal in telling the story.

You can't find the article or issue (Fall 1998, vol. 2, issue 3) online anymore with the exception of the very grainy, poor quality scan of my article which I stumbled upon. Shakespeare Magazine, published by Georgetown University, has been long out of print. I can't even find a copy of any issue on eBay.

That said, I am wondering what conditions were in place for me, a young teacher struggling like all of us do, to inspire an attempt at publishing?

Significant time studying writing under the guidance of National Writing Project programs (not to mention exposure to the seminal research of Don Graves, Don Murray, Lucy Calkins) helps me make sense of what happened.

Outside of teaching, my experiences at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, MA--more specifically, the people who taught me at S&C--planted the fundamental skills which I constantly return to in my teaching: honesty and generosity.

Those two virtues mean that when I work with kids I have learned to truly listen--not with any agenda in mind. That is what we did at rehearsal. I learned not to tell kids what to do. They talked it out, and I mentored a lot by listening.

Similar to conferring with young writers in class, yes, I have a tool belt of ideas and techniques ready, but I try to listen and respond to what they share and not with my predetermined, narrow predisposition. I set aside the I know better attitude and invoke an I'll listen better attitude. Sometimes the tools I bring to conferences are useless. Sometimes the best tools I possess are the two ears I was born with. 

Sometimes that is all our students want and all they need.

Honesty means more than telling a kid the truth. It means being completely there for him/her in that moment. And this idea blends with the idea of generosity. In a profession where curriculum, data, and standards drive a lot of what we do, it takes a generous approach to set that aside to make room for the unpredictable needs student.

Teach the writer, not the writing.

In 1998, something sparked within me. The students in the play gave me confidence in my voice. The time we spent in rehearsal after school--highly social and reflective--laid the foundation for me as a teacher and a writer. 

By writing how honesty and generosity drove our learning, I found a bit of a life preserver in the early stages of my career. While I can still remember the pride and validation I felt in publishing, it was still no match for the joy I shared in with the kids who were members of those plays.

It was the listening that mattered. The listening was embedded with the honesty and generosity. And the listening has been behind much of my resurrection as a writer. 

It is no coincidence that my writing life began to take off again when I (re)learned to be a better listener (conferrer) in the classroom. It makes me (want to) laugh that I had figured out something very important so early in my career, but that it took nearly two decades for me to figure out that I actually needed to do it in the classroom too--not just on the stage or athletic field.

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