The Joy of Listening
Like many of you, I am starting 2010 with a clean slate, ambitious agenda and refined, reasonable goals. Celebrating one full year of blog writing is one of the good things of ’09 and one I hope to do more of in ’10. Another goal for the year to a commitment to listen more.
Yup, listen. I’ve written about listening before in “Story Telling” and 5 Reasons Why You Need to Pay Attention to the Hard Work of Listening and the blog, Story Telling.
Because listening, like eating well, exercise and hugging those we love, needs to be practiced lest we forget. And the better we are at listening to others and to ourselves, the better people we become. And isn’t being a better person what most New Year’s resolutions are about? So in the waning days of December and the first several days of January, I’ve been working being a better listener, especially with children.
Reggio Emilia is a rich and gorgeous region of Italy known for it’s early childhood programs which grew out of the community’s belief that if they were to flourish after WWII, they needed to create very best schools. In the past two decades, pockets of “Reggio-inspired” schools have sprung up all over the U.S. and the approach is widely understood among teachers and families. At the core of their schools’ philosophy is a pedagogy of listening. We’ve learned much from the Reggio schools and early childhood education in general, notably, that children do not have the logic or the experiences that adults have and that children need to construct knowledge for themselves by being actively involved in constructing knowledge. We also know that this happens best in an atmosphere of trust and social interaction. Teachers need to be active listeners of the ideas of children to know what children are thinking about, what ideas they are curious about and working to puzzle through. Young children’s cognitive, emotional, social, and physical development are inextricably connected so that if you were to address one, you are addressing the others by the very nature of their symbiotic relationship. To do this, we must listen to all the various ways children communicate. (Check out Reggio Children). As a teacher and a parent, this is hard work, but it’s also provides some of the most rewarding moments that come with work and play with young children. More importantly, it helps nudge them out of their comfort zone to grow in new ways.
If my 11-year-old son really wanted a specific model car for Christmas. Santa didn’t come through, but James quietly persevered in researching where to buy something similar, how to get it at the best price, and then build it and tow ramps carefully crafted to resemble the ones Travis Pastrana planned to jump over in his Subaru rally car. While my little guy worked on this, I listened half-heartedly (a result of holiday multi-tasking) and just didn’t get the obsession. Then I stopped to really watch the skill with which he cut cardboard and tape to engineer two small ramps. This caught my attention and I remembered to listen. “What’s the big deal?” I wondered aloud. “It’s just like the car Travis is going to jump and break the record. New Year, No Limits. Remember? I told you about it.” Yikes, he got me.
I didn’t remember because I didn’t listen. Been down this road before. As a four-year old, he instructed me “YOU CAN’T SAY REALLY!” because he recognized my reply of “really?” really meant I was not listening and didn’t intend to start listening anytime soon. As he put the finishing touches on his Red Bull model ramp, I apologized for not listening, looked him square in the eye and said, “would you tell me again please. I am listening. Really.” His reasons for creating a model ramp were as unique and hilarious as he is and I would have missed this opportunity had I not truly listened.
And then last week, in my classroom of sweet three-year olds, listening to their dialogue over building towers filled me the joy in knowing I am right where I should be in life, and darn lucky to be there.
We were building with small Corian tiles in dozens of colors, discussing how you build stuff. What makes a tower tall, strong, straight. Inherent with the spatial skills of building something tall, are the social skills required to share materials and space, emotional security to take risks, and the fine motor skills to stack and balance these 1″ square tiles. Remember that bit about development is connected and based on a sense of belonging and trust? You could see it in action as we sat on our mirrored floor and built towers. When the tiles started becoming scarce, one imperialistic child politely requested more from neighboring tower-builders. Most children cheerfully complied, others did with conditions imposed (“not yellow, that’s my color” or “when I’m done.”), and others willingly shared until they realized they had sold off their real estate. Our group whittled down to two builders who had very different structures – one flat and neatly ordered in a 3 x 8 array and the other a shoulder-high tower. Soon they ran out of tiles and then looked at me. When I didn’t reply, they started talking to each other. I heard things like “You take this one. yellow is your color you said,” and “Let me show you how to make it strong like superman.” “Do you want me to help you?” This out of three-year olds. Sharing the once sacred tiles in short supply. Demonstrating and teaching a friend some of the skills they had acquired just minutes before. That’s growth. And if I hadn’t sat right down on the floor to listen to them, I would have missed it.
I recently finished Greg Mortenson’s new book Stones into Schools and want to share something from his text that serves as an eloquent reminder to listen.
“When you take the time to actually listen, with humility, to what people have to say, it’s amazing what you can learn. Especially if the people who are doing the talking also happen to be children.”