This study demonstrates findings from a year-long investigation of pedagogies of listening in an urban teacher education program in the Southwest of the United States. Instigated by a provocation during pandemic on-line teaching, this study’s goals were to instigate and improve pedagogy to privilege student voice and enhance instructor listening. Findings demonstrate how one invites students to tell, listens to what is said, and acts upon these hearings. The data is told through description of pedagogies student and teacher impressions during and after the study.
This research stems from a provocation (Pinnegar & Hamilton, 2009) that occurred in a teacher education course in spring 2021. Teaching online, during the pandemic, created a sense of relational loss and disconnection from students. To combat these feelings, I added end-of-semester one-on-one meetings with my students, who I had only seen online during the semester.
Yesterday, during my final conference with Marcella (pseudonym), I learned that several student teachers are working at a middle school campus where their students are doing ‘independent learning,’ code for module-based online courses. The students never see teacher-directed teaching at all, and the only real lessons Marcella saw were the four that she gave to fulfill the student teaching requirements. Marcella was worried because the school wanted to offer her a job, and she was afraid she might not enjoy being a monitor rather than a teacher (adapted from journal, May 2021).
I was distressed about how little I had known about this (and other) student’s lived experiences as student teachers during the pandemic. This challenged my teacher identity, as I prided myself on relational pedagogy (Cooper et al., 2019). From this critical incident (Kelchtermans & Hamilton, 2004) and others that resonated (Conle, 1996), I started investigating what it would mean to fully listen to my students in a purposeful and systematic way.
During summer 2021, I started investigating a pedagogy of listening to prepare for my upcoming fall classes. Pedagogies of listening have been addressed in the work of Leonard Waks (2015) and Sophie Haroutunian-Gordon (2010) among others. Stemming from student-centered approaches like Reggio Emelia (Rinaldi, 2004), Freire’s critical pedagogy (Rice, 2015), and experiential learning (Waks, 2015), listening pedagogy defines and theorizes classroom practices that can enhance a variety of learning experiences. I determined that my prioritization of listening would have the goal to limit my talk to learn about “students’ interests, and adjust instruction” (Waks, 2015, p. 5), a key component of self-study.
I immediately recognized that 'Listening Pedagogy', or pedagogy of listening, and its goals were connected to other communicative endeavors that occur and are studied in classrooms. I saw alignment with the intellectual scaffolding that occurs in ‘noticing’ mathematics achievement of students (Ball & Forzani, 2009) and in rigorous feedback practices (Gauna et al., 2020) with listening. Social justice aims are also forwarded and aligned with listening pedagogies. The culturally responsive practice (Gay, 2010) of privileging student voice and culture (Hammond, 2015) attend to both the promotion of intellectual growth (Tomlinson, 2015), as well as classroom environments that promote democratic schooling efforts (Gutmann, 1999). The philosophical foundations of social justice, critical pedagogy, and equity that undergird these practices are philosophical frameworks that spurred my professional group “Las Chicas Criticas” to engage in the work of self-study for the past decade (Cooper et al., 2016; Cooper et al., 2018; Cooper et al., 2020; Gauna et al., 2020). By bringing Listening Pedagogies to my classes as a way to improve instruction and attend carefully to my students and myself in a reflexive manner (Schön, 1984), align with the visions of equity and self-study.
In Fall, 2021 and throughout the academic year, I adopted and adapted Sophie Haroutunian-Gordon’s (2003) descriptive framework or rationales for listening, adopted from Plato’s Theaetetus, in order to engage myself and my students on an investigation into listening. The framework included listening in order to 1) seek understanding, 2) resolve a question and 3) fashion a solution to a quandry (p. 10). This framework resonated with me, as I recognized that I often responded to students with an answer, when often I should have sought understanding. I began to fashion classroom instruction in which I highlighted listening as a soft skill weekly alongside the content being taught.
As a classroom community, we diagnosed the three different types of listening and practiced various skills and practices that set up listening as a priority. I modeled skills of active listening for understanding using responsive listening with dialogue protocols (Gauna et al., 2020) and practiced questioning strategies to engage in students’ quandaries. I practiced modifying my wait times, refraining from answering questions too quickly (a cultural habit), and being transparent (Cooper et al., 2018) about my attempts towards a stronger pedagogy of listening with my students. Whole class discussions, scheduled one-on-one conversations, cycles of written and verbal feedback, and face-to-face classroom experiences all became planned spaces for investigating listening.
Course artifacts including exit tickets, course evaluations, student journal prompts, and class observations (Martin & Russell, 2005) were collected and reflected upon through my journals, written after each class. Journal responses were shared weekly with Las Chicas Criticas, a long-standing knowledge community (Craig, 1997) to deconstruct nascent meaning and monitor adjustment and refinement of thinking and practice. Data from researcher journals and student artifacts were coded and theorized in an iterative and inductive manner seeking resonances (Charmaz, 2010) between and among data sets. Interim texts were storied and re-storied experiences, which ground the working in theoretical framing and pragmatic explanation. Resonances with the collaborative group and joint analyses (LaBoskey, 2004) supported triangulation of data sources. Data from both students and the instructor are shared narratively as experience-based exemplars (Lyons & LaBoskey, 2002). The examples included come from my work teaching differentiated instruction to seniors in a teacher education program, during the 2021-2022 academic school year at a Tier 1 urban university in the Southwest United States.
Findings revolve around three components of listening pedagogy as I implemented it in my courses: 1) inviting telling, 2) listening to what is said, and 3) responding to what was heard.
Inviting the Telling
In Fall 2021, my University returned to face-to-face instruction for undergraduate classes. I observed many students struggling to reacclimate to the face-to-face classroom culture including peer conversations and co-constructions of complex ideas. Students shared in reflections that “I wish you pushed us to talk more” and that they felt “out of practice” having conversations. Student insecurity for my students (mostly seniors) was not new, but its extent felt very new to me.
Only two people even volunteered to answer an opening question in class yesterday, about what their biggest issues in their student teaching this semester. When I realized that they would not talk in whole-group, I moved to make the question a turn-and-talk. Still, people were very reluctant to share (Instructor’s journal Fall, 2021)
Modeling vulnerability was an approach that allowed students to slowly open up throughout the semester. One strategy, which I call “the semester train” begins with me drawing train tracks across the board, and a train along the tracks. I placed myself, as a stick figure, somewhere along the middle of the train, and explained that as the semester begins, I am driving that train, but as the semester progresses, I fall further behind on the train, and sometimes, I am hanging off the end of the train. I then encourage students to come aboard the train, placing themselves to represent how they are feeling about their progress in class. As a listening activity, this allows me to gauge the temperature of the room, without directly engaging with them about coursework, which could elicit feelings of guilt or shame.
Another vulnerability practice includes my sharing “less-than-proud teaching stories.” I relate that I was a classroom teacher who punished the entire class for my inability to realize that off-task behavior was occurring. After days of frustration and anger, I realized that the children, even tenth grade students, were seeking my attention. By highlighting the frustrations that occur in my former and current teaching, my undergraduate students can accept their own perceived feelings of inadequacy. As an instructor, it is often difficult to share ongoing vulnerabilities with students. After sharing the teaching story above, I let students know that I am able to tell this story because I have come to terms with this story and that I make so many mistakes teaching that some are too difficult to express to others. One student suggested that “Your willingness to share your thoughts, feelings and experiences made it possible for me to share what was going on in my life” (Fall, 2021). Another expressed that the activity like the semester train and “real talk moments made me feel supported”, that they felt the class was “gentle, guiding us through a very hectic time” (Spring, 2022). For listening pedagogies to succeed, students must want to be part of a conversation, sharing vulnerabilities is a way to encourage students to connect to the classroom. Some students saw that teachers’ feelings and vulnerabilities “need to be shared honestly to build a relationship with students to create a positive classroom environment” (Spring 2022). Practicing vulnerability is essential for establishing trust (Curtis et al., 2016) for collaboration, therefore modeling vulnerability invite students to engage.
Listening to What Is Said
I began to strengthen and build upon previous relational practices (Cooper et al., 2019) to enhance ways to listen to my students. Embedding and practicing a more rigorous use of a dialogue protocol to confirm that students felt heard in class discussions became the cornerstone of classroom practice for all students, along with other informal and formal class components.
Dialogue Protocol and Beyond
The use of a dialogue protocol to sustain and elicit dialogue is a key tool to demonstrate ‘being heard’ by others (Hendrix et al., 2015; Gauna et al., 2020). The use of this tool is one way I modeled hearing students in whole class discussions. This technique is a simple retelling or rephrasing of what another says by repeating or rephrasing what is said or asked while adding in the appropriate academic vocabulary in the rephrasing. The point of this is to make the teller feel ‘heard’. This protocol can be an important tool for novice teachers when working with K-12 students. This technique needs to be practiced, so creating guidelines and practicing this in small groups was a cornerstone of transfer.
Another adaptation of the listening protocol was to use students’ statements or questions in exit tickets or course work to incorporate or restate in class discussions, while attributing it to the student who wrote it. One example of the use of exit tickets and the dialogue protocol was during a week we were discussing creating small groups in middle school classrooms. One student stated in an exit ticket that “I created small groups in my class, but it didn’t go well and my mentor teacher doesn’t want me to do that again” (Fall, 2021) The next class we had, I created a mini-lesson over strategies to scaffold behavior of middle school students to work in small groups. I transparently share with my students that their exit tickets are conversations, where I privilege their words, through the development of a curriculum, which is responsive listening pedagogy.
Students, overall, saw this strategy of embedding listening and being heard as one that could increase their engagement in the classroom community. One student said that using the protocol was a strategy where they ‘could build up the courage to talk more’ after a ‘repetition of what we said’ (Fall, 2021). Another stated that the protocol ‘supports learning together’, and makes the classroom a place where one can ‘confide genuinely one-on-one with another person’ and know that ‘we’re all in the same both learning together, which makes me feel not so overwhelmed” (Spring, 2022).
While building listening pedagogies, I was challenged to make sure that I was connecting with every student. I began to embed systematic listening strategies throughout my lesson planning. These included scheduled one-on-ones, longer small groups so I could check in informally, with embedded scaffolds and prompts to engage with all the students.
The first fifteen minutes of all classes was a ‘warm-up’ time where students-teachers made connections between their field experiences and the topic of the day. This has always been an opportunity for me to take attendance and check-in with students and veer the conversation in the group back to the topic at hand. This semester, forwarding listening pedagogy, I walked with a clipboard, taking running-records of students I stopped and listened to. I stopped guiding off-topic conversation back to the prompt, and only asked probing questions about their discussions, like "tell me more about that." I noticed that:
More students seem to be participating in the conversations now that I have stopped interjecting new questions and/or ideas when the group is off topic. I always thought that having them make connections to the main concepts of the course would set up deep learning, and perhaps it does, but it seems like from their body language that many more are engaged in the conversation (Instructor’s journal, Fall 2021).
By privileging their experiences, I started seeing ‘off-topic’ discussions opportunities to hear what students valued and as tools to support listening pedagogies. Other strategies used to ensure that more of my students felt listened to included marking off who I spoke to personally throughout classtime, and noting these in my attendance sheet, then making sure I attended to all students every class. I also made concerted efforts to use the words and language of those who did not seem to be as connected to the class as others more often. Other strategies to encourage all students to speak and be heard included the use of poker chips to encourage whole class participation, or require all students to tell me one great thing before or after class. These small pedagogical tasks to encourage engagement were recognized by most students. One student teacher described me as an instructor “who has engaged with each and every one of us” (Spring, 2022), and another noticed that I “made it a point to visit every single class” (Fall, 2021).
As evidenced in this article’s opening story, I started one-on-one meetings with students before this study began (for more information see Beaurdry et al., 2023). Due to the nature of this investigation, the purpose, structure and frequency of these changed. These meetings started as a way to give difficult formative feedback about their approximation towards lesson-planning learning goals. Students would submit their draft of their assignments. I would set up stations in my college classroom, where one of the stations was to meet with me. In small groups, I would give verbal feedback and suggestions for improvement for the final draft. During Covid, I added an ‘exit interview’ where the students would meet with me to receive feedback about their learning goals over the semester. I would also give ‘mock interviews’ if desired, to help them practice for real life.
During the course of this investigation, I changed my meetings with the students to three times a semester, one near the beginning of the semester, within the first three weeks. This meeting is one where my only goal is to get to know my students’ personal professional landscape. I created a journal, where I take notes about personal, practical and professional sharing that the student shares with me. Using the dialogue protocol listed above, I ask about their student teaching, their goals for the semester and their lives. Mid-term and exit interviews were also scheduled in lieu of exams. These became student, not instructor-directed and allowed for their expression of and reflection over their exams.
As an instructor, getting to know your students’ one-on-one is an inspirational journey that is not often attained in large classrooms. Instituting regular meetings to engage with students personal-practical-knowledge has allowed me to watch a struggling widow with three small children, move from unsure freshman, to a certified teacher who can now support her family. These small details that used to be ones that I would gain sporadically are now embedded into my practice. The notes I kept on students from one meeting to the next, about personal as well as academic data, allowed me to ask about students’ families, their children and pets, the things that really matter in a life. I was also able to see their growth as a through line from the beginning to the end. By placing the personal before the academic, students as well as colleagues feel more valued and can become more adept at engaging in challenging and rigorous work (Cooper et al., 2019). On challenging students, who would ‘disappear’ during the semester, said in his last reflection “I didn’t deserve the respect I got from her, but she still reached out to me personally to check on how I was doing” (Spring 2022). This student failed the class. The time it takes to set up and participate in multiple one-on-ones’ with all students is a daunting and time consuming task. Using parts of class time, office hours and final exam scheduling and benefits of the time saved to give feedback verbally instead of in writing all offset these time demands. The enjoyment of continuing and building relationships with my students and pride seeing them grow over time far outweighs any negatives, even with my large classes.
Preparing students to be listened to is a scaffolding experience that not all students come to naturally when they enter a classroom. Efforts to make my students feel cared for (Noddings, 2015) by embedding low-pressure opportunities for pedagogical listening into classes has improved my relationship with my students and allowed me to watch them grow over time.
Responding to What Is Heard
Through my, and my group Las Chicas Criticas’ involvement with the S-STEP research community over the last several years, I have become used to consistently adapting my curriculum based on research findings, as well as using my classroom as an inquiry space. I have attempted and looked for evidence of transfer of these same goals to my students as a way to engage in self-directed professional growth and improvement to counteract often time disconnected top-down directed professional development. My efforts during this study has been to share and model my practice of trying new pedagogies and creating responsive pedagogies based on students’ needs and experiences.
Modeling responsive pedagogy, or adapting classroom instruction based on ‘listening’ to students, whether verbally or in written feedback was core to my classroom practices. Goals of undergraduate classrooms are to prepare teachers to act. How well students saw my modeled actions was and is always a question. Students noticed that I would “monitor the room, writing down what we said and shared them during class discussions” (Fall, 2021). They also noticed how I “brought back students’ situations in their field placements in the lesson” (Spring 2022), and how I “consistently asked for feedback from the students in the class” (Spring, 2022). Their feedback seemed to demonstrate that they noticed these listening practices and how I used them to alter the curriculum.
Other types of responsive differentiation included modifying content, process and product. Throughout this study, an alternative text were solicited to support an individuals’ difficulty with the chosen one, another student was given the opportunity to express knowledge in bullet points rather than solely in paragraph form based on her struggle writing, final projects could be done in small group or individually to support those living far from the university. These modifications were supported and learned about through the constant requests for student feedback and meetings with students one-on-one. Students recognized that these practices were ‘appreciated’ and that I ‘took the classes’ experiences into account when making curriculum decisions.
While efforts were made to listen to the needs of all students, in a large diverse class, I did not always act to alter curriculum. In one particular instance, several students were frustrated by the fact that I did not give them enough ‘notes’ for the class. One student reflected in her final evaluation about the class, that ‘even though we kept telling her we wanted more formal notes, she refused to offer them’ (Spring, 2022). While I addressed student calls for formal notes through discussion and transparently discussed that I had student-created notes to model and engage students and connected this practice back to goals of co-construction, individualized and small-group project-based learning, this demand was recurring throughout the semester. I gave her other options and texts that she could engage with to support note taking if she preferred. She still was not satisfied. This was challenging for me.
I have discussed almost every class for the last several weeks about why this course is not set up for ‘notes’ as I model and enact differentiated instruction. I feel like she would never ask her physics faculty to create student-led lectures. I think because I say I am responsive to students, that I should respond to every demand, Cloze notes based on my direct instruction are the furthest away from my teaching philosophy (Instructor Journal, Spring, 2022).
I also faced extreme vulnerability when I tried a new-to-me method, the Harkness Method (Backer, 2015). This method is a student-led whole group discussion, in which the instructor does not participate in any way, except perhaps by assigning a shared reading or provocation.
Students create a ‘shared question’, and the instructor becomes a recorder of what occurs within the conversation. I, as the instructor, struggled with the comparatively blank lesson plan. While responsive teaching has long been a core teaching value, the cognitive dissonance of implementing an untried method that required no planning was jarring. During the class conversation, I was slowly put at ease as all but three students engaged in the fifty-minute class discussion. The questions were thoughtful, related to their student teaching practices and connected to major course goals. After the discussion I shared my discomfort with the lack of ‘control’ over the conversation and then praised all the learning I observed and discussed with students how this type of activity could be adapted for their own classrooms. Upon reflection, I was surprised how uncomfortable it was, but how much better I empathize with my students, as it had been a long time since I had felt like a ‘new teacher’, and encouraged me to find more opportunities to try new practices, or grow professionally. Adjusting my teaching to respond to students’ needs and trying new pedagogies after more than a decade of teaching college students can be both rewarding and challenging.
Goals I had going into this research was to spend more time listening to my students, in order to connect with them both intellectually and personally. I created a stronger listening pedagogy by playing with ways that students could open up to be listened to. I then created structures that privileged student voices individually and collectively in the classroom in both formal and informal ways. I then began to explore individualizing instruction based on what I heard, and tried new listening activities that would further connect to students and create stronger transfer as my students engaged in their own classrooms. Listening practices that attend to the personal, practical (professional) and academic, are not random happenings, but carefully planned events that take time and some level of risk on the part of the instructor.
The investigation into listening pedagogies has demonstrated an alignment towards culturally responsiveness (Ladson-Billings, 2021) and relational teacher education (Kitchen, 2009, Cooper et al., 2019). Students’ responses to these listening pedagogies demonstrated that they noticed some of the efforts made, and for the most part acknowledged feeling cared for (Noddings, 2015). This investigation has further demonstrated to me that being vulnerable with students or ‘walking the walk’ with them can make me more empathetic to their circumstances. Having more knowledge of their personal knowledge landscapes can continually deepen relational practice with our students (Kitchen, 2009). Through the implementation of listening pedagogy and transparently connecting these to humanizing, responsive teaching (Gay, 2010), improved my practice and can also improve the teaching of our students. Those that might find students struggling to open up, find difficulty in achieving student engagement , or want to find inspiration and joy in their teaching might try listening.
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