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listen, seek to understand, especially when we disagree

“The world is tearing itself up because of one thing, and that is belief. The idea is that rather than screaming about it, we ought to just listen. . . . It rather idealistically and rather quietly suggests another way to talk to each other.”
          –Jay Allison, Host and Co-Produce of “This I Believe”

The end of the year and the semester nears once again, and I find myself wondering if I’ve made any different whatsoever in my students’ thinking, in their outlook, and mostly in their willingness to listen. I often feel that the biggest frustration I have as a teacher is the sense that my students just don’t listen to me–whether I’m not clear in what I say, whether they’re just not interested, or whether perhaps they don’t trust me enough to listen because I represent yet another obstacle between them and what they want–I couldn’t say. As a final endeavor, though, to impart to my students the importance of listening, of seeking to understand before judging, I ask them to participate in a “This I Believe” essay writing project. I’ve written about this project before. See: Getting Students to Speak with Conviction if you’re interested. This time around, though, I wanted to really emphasize the importance of this project as not so much an exercise in speaking as an exercise in listening. This is the spirit in which the national project was started after all. Here’s what I’m planning (for tomorrow’s class):

  1. As usual, I cannot resist the opportunity to set the stage with a little “walk-in” music. For today’s class, I’m going with Michelle Tumes’ “Listen.” I seems appropriate enough.
  1. I remind students that this “This I Believe” project is more about listening than it is about speaking and share with them the quote at the top of this post by the series host Jay Allison, and as such the class will today will be focused on listening.
  2. We take a little “listening” quiz to get things started. I read the following statements to students and they write their answers down. (This is just a fun warm-up. Afterwards, we go over the answers quickly to see who was listening.)
    • Is there a federal law against a man marrying his widow’s sister?
    • If you went to bed in September 1962 at eight o’clock and set the alarm to wake up at nine o’clock in the morning, how many hours of sleep would you get?
    • Do they have a 4th of July in England?
    • If you had only one match and entered a cold room that had a kerosene lamp, an oil heater, and a wood stove, which would you light first for maximum heat?
    • How many animals of each species did Moses take aboard the Ark with him before the great flood?
    • The Yankees and the Tigers play five baseball games. They each win three games. No ties or disputed games are involved. How come?
    • How many birthdays does the average man have? The average woman?
    • According to international law, if an airplane should crash on the exact border between two countries, would unidentified survivors be buried in the country they were traveling to or the country they were traveling from?
    • An archeologist claims he has dug up a coin that is clearly dated 46 BC. How do you know he is a liar?
    • A man builds an ordinary house with four sides, except that each side has a southern exposure. A bear comes to the door and rings the doorbell. What color is the bear?
  3. Now, I try another similar activity. I start by telling them there is a prize for the person who answers it correctly. The competitive spirit gets going. Then I say, “You are a bus driver. At the first stop 10 people get on. At the second stop 6 people get on and 4 get off. At the 3rd stop 2 people get on and 7 get off. At the 4th stop. . . .” And so on for a bit. The students will be busy trying to add/subtract things. Then I end by saying, “And now the important question. What’s the name of the bus driver?” Very few get the answer.
  4. Now for one more listening skill exercise (time permitting and assuming its not growing tiresome). It’s called “Little Grey Rabbit.” Say to the group:

I want you to think of an animal and give it two descriptions, for example, a sexy, spiky hedgehog. What you need to do is go to another member in the group and pass on your animal to them and then collect their animal, you then keep doing this until you’ve passed animals to everyone in the group.

You are only allowed to say the animal and it’s description once, if you can’t remember what was said then when you go to pass the animal to the next person you must say ‘can’t remember’. Or if you remember parts of it say, blank, hopping, blank.

  1. Once the participants have completed the exercise, I ask each participant to give you the name of the animal they currently have in their head (i.e. the one just passed to them) and write it on the board. Then we go round and find out the animals that everyone initially had. The animals will probably not tally with the originals. I close the session by saying, “This is a simple exercise, but only (xx) animals survived. So, what went wrong?”
  2. Now that students are “warmed” up, I remind them once again that of the utmost importance in this project (and beyond) is the willingness and ability to truly listen–in order to understand another even if you don’t agree with him or her. To emphasize this point I remind them of the words of Preseident-Elect Barack Obama by showing them this clip:
  1. From there, we listen to some of the “This I Believe” essays online. I ask students to listen very carefully and complete the following task:

Without attempting to indicate your agreement or disagreement with the essay, write a one to two paragraph summary of the author’s core belief and the way this belief has shaped his or her life. Each summary should be scrupulously accurate in recording the philosophy that guides the life choices of each author.

  1. We do this for one or more of the audio essays and then share our summaries to see if we were all listening carefully. Significant discrepancies in summaries may indicate a problem in listening. Here are a few good ones that I like to use. The last three are actually students from my previous semesters reading their essays for our own class web site.
  2. After some discussion and if time remains, students can return to drafting their own personal belief essays. Remind them that during our next class, we will be sharing these drafts (in a hope of understanding each other a little more).

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