The One Thing You Might Try . . . blog series is back! In this week's post, social studies teacher, Neema Avashia, writes about some critical and practical ways we can connect with students through listening.
Preparing for the Pressures of September
Given all the emphasis on “learning loss” in the education discourse this spring and summer, there’s no doubt that when we begin school this fall, there will be tremendous pressure to measure, to remediate, and to accelerate learning. Urgency and pressure, already such familiar, painful feelings in schools, have the potential to reach all-time highs.
I’m going to ask you to resist that pressure. And to move slowly in a moment when many people are demanding that you move quickly. Many of our young people will be returning to school for the first time since March of 2020. During their time away from our buildings, some have gotten sick themselves. Some have lost family members. Some have been evicted from their homes. Some have struggled to engage with learning. Some have had to navigate learning from home while also caring for younger siblings. Some have had to take on jobs to provide additional financial support to their families.
In short, our students are going to be coming into buildings carrying a lot of pain. And if our response to that pain is to ignore it, to push it to the side, to plow forward with academics without attending to students’ socio-emotional needs, we risk losing young people from our schools altogether. To be clear, what I’m suggesting here is not an either SEL or academics approach, but rather, that we must plan for supporting our students’ emotional well-being with the same level of intentionality that we apply to planning for students to learn grade level standards.
No matter what subject you teach, or what grade, the one thing I believe all teachers must try to do this fall is to slow down and make space for student voice in our classrooms. The pandemic has changed all of us, and it changed the way we all understand teaching and learning, and even our basic ideas about schooling. One significant adjustment I made to my practice this past year was to incorporate regular restorative justice circles--opportunities for students to respond to questions in rounds, and to share their thinking without peer or adult interruption--in order to better understand what students were experiencing. Students in my circles expressed that they do not want to return to educational environments where their bodies are perpetually policed, where the connection between what they learn in school and what they need for life is so obscure, where they are required to leave their full humanity at the door instead of being certain that their school can hold--and appreciate--the fullness of who they are as people. Listening closely to them has caused me to make significant changes to my own teaching practice, but also to realize how much we have to change in our entire approach to schooling.
If young people are going to re-engage and re-connect to our schools, we must create a continuous cycle of opportunities to listen to young people, and to shape and re-shape their educational experiences based on their feedback.
How do I incorporate intentional listening into my classroom instruction?
This sounds heavy, I know. But listening to students doesn’t have to be a heavy lift. Based on my experiences in the past year, it can be as straightforward as building in an opportunity for a restorative circle once every few weeks, where students have the opportunity to share with one another, and with you, about how things are going. Starting with a quick temperature check. Asking a series of questions that elicit student thinking and feedback. Once they start talking, your only job is to listen with openness and humility. Take lots of notes that you can refer back to later. End with an optimistic closing quote or video.
The questions you ask students don’t have to be complicated or involved. I’ve given you some samples to start from in the table below. You can repeat questions, especially ones that get you substantive answers and provide good insight into what students are experiencing. The circle doesn’t need to last more than a class period. And the gains, in both your understanding as an educator of what young people are experiencing, and in young people’s sense of connection to one another and to you, make any time spent well worth it.
|Week 1||Week 4||Week 6|
|Round 1 Question||What's one thing you're excited about for this school year?||What's working for you during this first month of school?||What's an area where you feel like you are making progress or growth so far this school year?|
|Round 2 Question||What's one thing you're nervous or concerned about in being back at school?||What's not working for you right now?||What's an area where you feel like you continue to struggle?|
|Round 3 Question||What supports do you want from me as your teacher to make this school year go well for you?||What do you wish teachers and staff knew right now?||What is one thing that you would change at our school that would make it easier for you to succeed?|
Too much of what we’ve done in our schools up to this point has been done to students, and not done in response to what they are expressing that they need. And because of that, our efforts have often fallen flat for the students who’ve most needed them to work. We can build schools back in a way that is more responsive, more effective, and more humane. It just begins with listening.
About the author
Neema Avashia is a social studies teacher and activist in the Boston Public Schools, where she has worked since 2003. When she’s not teaching, she writes personal essays, and has an essay collection, Another Appalachia, coming out from WVU Press in 2022. You can connect with Neema on Twitter @AvashiaNeema.
Go here to see the complete One Thing You Might Try . . . blog archive.