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Are You (Really) Listening?

By May 1, 2020July 1st, 2020Uncategorized

This week we are fortunate to have Renee Houser of Read. Write. Think. with Renee as our guest writer.

As teachers, we often feel like we need to be saying something in order to teach, but if we simplify our conferring to one teacher habit that leads to successful, responsive teaching…it’s the habit of listening.

My daughter was gifted the book The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld by our good friend Jodi who understands how much we love to read, and how much we love bunnies.

The first time I read it (and almost every time since) I cried. I cry because it’s a well-crafted story with a beautiful message for young and old alike. It has special meaning to my daughter because her friend Bun-Bun is a lot like the Rabbit in the story.  It has a special meaning to me because I think at one point or another in my life I’ve been every single character that Cori Doerrfeld has created.

The story begins when we meet Taylor, a spirited engineer who sets out designing and building a magnificent, amazing, tower built of blocks. We feel proud along with Taylor, and we also feel equally devastated when out of nowhere birds swoop onto the scene with what appears to be little regard for Taylor’s creation.  Taylor sits quietly, visibly upset, among the scattered remains of blocks.  One by one Taylor is visited by characters who try to cheer them up. Each character offering their own advice and coping mechanism eventually leaves Taylor because Taylor is unresponsive. We find Taylor sitting alone, in the rubble of blocks when we meet Rabbit. Instead of giving Taylor advice, Rabbit sits next to Taylor, quietly. They sit in silence together, until Taylor asks Rabbit to stay. Rabbit listened. Taylor talked, shouted, remembered, and laughed as Taylor processed what they needed. Through it all, Rabbit sat quietly and listened.
Yes, this is a beautifully written picture book that I highly recommend, but this blog is not about the story The Rabbit Listened. I’m thinking today about how our side by side conversations with students have a big impact on student success. As teachers, we often feel like we need to be saying something in order to teach, but if we simplify our conferring to one teacher habit that leads to successful, responsive teaching…it’s the habit of listening.  Perhaps we can all learn a lesson from Doerrfeld’s, Rabbit. If we take a moment to name what the rabbit does and doesn’t do in the story, we find they’re all transferable moves we can take to our conferring with students, whether that conferring is in a brick and mortar school or through virtual distance learning.  Let’s first look at what the rabbit didn’t do:

  • Barge in with assumptions about Taylor
  • Offer a solution
  • Make it about the rabbit’s agenda
Let’s notice what the rabbit did do:
  • Sat quietly
  • Let Taylor know they were there sitting close to Taylor
  • Waited patiently for Taylor to initiate
  • Listened actively to Taylor when Taylor was ready to share

Whether it’s a conversation with a reader, a mathematician, a scientist, or a writer…when we sit side by side with students to confer, our goal is to personalize instruction for what that individual student needs in order to be successful. By being physically, mentally, and emotionally present with students, we can be responsive in our teaching.  When we sit quietly and listen, students will often reveal to us their thinking, which in return, helps us to determine next steps in supporting them. If students are new to having conversations with their teachers, there are a few tips we can model so that students become familiar and therefore comfortable in sharing their thinking with us. If our goal is to talk less and listen more, here’s a short list of ideas to consider in your next conversation with students.

Tip #1: Talk Less. Listen More.

As teachers, we tend to talk…a lot! I think talking is our way of trying to help.  There are many times conversations are helpful, in a conference let’s make sure we’re engaged in a true conversation that is equal. As teachers, we tend to have a habit of dominating and filling in the silence (that is often only awkward to us, the adults). Instead of thinking of conferences as an opportunity to tell students what you are thinking or quizzing them on what they are reading/writing, or working on as a mathematician, let’s focus on making students feel as comfortable as possible sharing their thinking with us. If the key to a conference is truly differentiated teaching, we need to know what students are actually thinking. In the research Gravity Goldberg and I conducted to write Teacher’s Toolkit for Independent Reading, we found most students are so worried about “getting the answer correct” that they spend all of their time trying to figure out what the teacher wants them to say. When students spend their mental energy “trying to get it right – for the teacher” we as teachers don’t actually get the information, we need to support them. What would happen if we shifted the mindset of conversations between teachers and students away from a getting it right process to more of a conversation about thinking process. This is why schools are often accused of stifling creativity. To help silence the internal editor that many students switch on when they sit next to their teacher, one thing we want to do as we teach students the roles of a conference is avoid the pressure of “right” or “wrong” scenarios, and instead model a “figuring it out and problem solving” mentality.

This image might help us as teachers to remember one of our main goals in a conference with a student is to set them up to discuss their process and thinking about their work. This is not a time of quizzing or catching students up on missed work, but rather, a time of discussing and thinking through ideas together.

Tip #2: Teacher Language that Invites Thinking

Language is powerful. Think of all the ways we communicate with one another:

  • Facial expressions
  • Gestures
  • Tone
  • Words
  • Images
Check in to make sure that all the above are set to invite discourse! Conversations are a two-way street. The fastest way to a one-way street conversation is language that might actually be silencing students. Thomas Newkirk in his book Embarrassment writes that embarrassment is the true enemy (silencer) of learning. Let’s make sure that our tone, our gestures, and are words all model inquiry, curiosity, and advocacy. In the chart below are a few sentence starters to help us with teacher language that is student centered and invites them to open up about their thinking.
Instead of… Try…
“You didn’t change your voice when there were quotation marks on the page.”
An Inquiry Stance
“Hmm. I wonder why the author added these marks around these words? What do you think the character was thinking?”
“Do you know what this word means?”
Invite Curiosity
“I wonder what this might mean…it might mean…let’s think about what it could mean based on what we know in the story….”
Teacher Driven
“I think you need to add a sentence here, and then add an end mark here.”
Student Driven
“What do you think will help the reader understand the idea you’re writing about?”

 Tip #3: Strategic Starts

The way a conversation starts often sets the tone and direction for how it will develop. Consider building a repertoire of ways to start conversations that lead to discussions that reveal the multi facets, complexities, quirks, and brilliance of students.  Schools are designed for linguists. So much of our teaching is centered around language, but what about students who are working on  their language? Who is without verbal speech? Do we have tools to engage all students? The chart below illustrates a few examples of ways we can strategically start conversations in ways that invite students to open up and share their thinking.

Use Visual Tools to Support Communication Ask About the Process Ask About Goals Follow Up on Previous Conversations
  • “Describe your process for…”
  • “What’s the first step you took to…”
  • “Show the steps you use to…”
  • What are you working on that we can think through together?
  • How can we be thinking partners today?
  • Last time we met we talked about…how’s that going?
  • Let’s look at a place where you tried…from our last conversation.

Tip #4: Work on our Stamina for Understanding Productive Struggle

Out of the goodness of our hearts, as teachers, we often steal the chance for students to experience a real learner’s high, we’ve inevitably become professional helpers. We take all the joy out of learning by doing all the learning for them! We’re quick to answer our own questions, we move on to another strategy without time to linger, think, and figure things out! My friend Katie Cunningham in her book Start with Joy writes that the act of learning something new brings on jolts of joy to our lives! Friends and colleagues Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris in their work ask us, Who’s Doing the Work? Have we stolen all the opportunities for students to work through the experience of productively struggling through the ups and downs, the ebb and flow of real learning? Gravity Goldberg and I in our latest resource from Stenhouse Publishers, Teacher’s Toolkit for Independent Reading give tools to teachers to help increase our stamina for understanding productive struggle and the role it plays in learning and becoming independent. Listen in to Gravity explain a bit more about productive struggle in this video. The following is a tool from our toolkit to help walk the line of setting up students with a just right balance of struggle so that learning is addictive and engaging but not frustrating and silencing.  

Tip #5: Non-Academic Conversations

If students are new to the idea of having conversations with their teachers, you might consider the first few conversations as nonacademic opportunities to get to know students first as human beings, and second as students. A few examples of non-academic conversations:

  • Talk about what you like to do when you’re not in school?
  • What do you want your classmates to know about you?
  • What do you want your teachers to know about you?
  • What type of music do you listen to?
  • Who’s your favorite musician? Author? Artist? Athlete?
  • What are your goals you want to work on this year?

Non-academic conversations take the pressure off both teachers and students. The goal itself is to figure out how to coexist in a conversation, how to be humans together. When we figure out how to understand one another as humans first, we cue up the space for feedback, and then we can move onto conversations that coach, teach, move the needle forward.
I get it. I understand. The pressure IS on to get the test score, to score on the evaluation. In my experience, when teachers take the time to listen and figure out how to teach the humans in their classroom, students respond with true growth and strong test scores. So take a few minutes to reflect on your conversations with students; are you listening enough? Are you really listening?


Burkins, Jan, and Kim Yaris. 2016.  Who’s Doing the Work? How to Say Less So Readers Can Do More.  Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse.

Cunningham, Katie. 2019. Start with Joy: Designing Literacy Learning for Student Happiness. Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse.

Goldberg, Gravity, and Renee Houser. 2020. Teachers Toolkit for Independent Reading. Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse.

Newkirk, Thomas. 2017. Embarrassment: And the Emotional Underlife of Learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Renée Houser is a literacy consultant and co-author of the What Do I Teach Readers Tomorrow series of teacher resource books. Previously, Renée taught in the New York City public school system, worked as a staff developer at the Reading and Writing Project, and an adjunct professor at Teacher’s College, both at Columbia University. She also co-founded Growing Educators, a literacy consulting company in Los Angeles, CA.
Now living in North Carolina, Renée has started a new literacy consulting practice and is excited to launch her next project, the Teacher’s Toolkit for Independent Reading in collaboration with long-time friend and colleague, Gravity Goldberg. She holds master’s degrees from both Old Dominion University and Fordham University and is currently studying the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood through the University of California Los Angeles.

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I always love a good reminder of how important it is to really listen.