Learning to Listen

Danny Stock
As elected officials hurl opinions-as-fact and provocative soundbytes across the abyss of shared understanding between the parties, thoughtful listening seems a lost art, reserved for school counselors. And yet, the ability to engage across difference in order to understand another perspective, persuade others to rethink their beliefs, or find common ground is critical to the health of a multicultural society. It is therefore critical that GDS students have the opportunity to see more examples of attentive listening and develop critical listening skills themselves.

It was in this spirit that GDS 8th grade history students embarked on a day dedicated to listening and information gathering. On Hill Day this year, 26 faculty and parent chaperones led 11 groups on an intentionally designed listening tour in seven distinct tracks centered around constitutional issues: abortion, affirmative action, capital punishment, gun control, hate speech, immigration, and indigenous land rights (environmental justice). Students interviewed—and in some cases engaged in animated dialogue with—representatives of differing points of view around each topic.

Motivation to listen was high partly as the trip was a research tool for their in-progress constitutional papers. “We interviewed two people that really knew about the topic and helped us [understand their point of view,]” said Indira Issatayeva. “We needed to listen because we needed to know all the important points for our research. That made it more interesting to listen, and it helped us to focus. Also, we chose the topics we were interested in, so all of us liked to talk about and discuss [those topics].”

Indira and peers who participated in the inaugural inclusion of the indigenous land rights and environmental justice track met with two experts in Native American Affairs at the Senate and the Department of the Interior. The hate speech track continued in its second year.

To prepare for Hill Day, teachers welcomed a collection of parents, alumni, and parents of alumni who are journalists: Cecilia Kang of The New York Times, Dick Meyer, former Executive Producer with the BBC, Lulu Garcia-Navarro of NPR’s Weekend Edition, and Frank Foer ’92 of The Atlantic. The visitors gave strategies for: approaching preliminary research with an awareness of sources and biases; developing questions to stay neutral and explore most deeply the “why” of an individual’s stance on an issue; considering the arc of the interview and its parts; and conducting the interview by listening actively, keeping an open mind, asking for clarification, and using intentional language to keep control of the conversation. Dick said, “The hardest of your two interviews to prepare for is the one whom you agree with because you are inclined to ask less probing questions.” “Enter as a curious person,” Frank told them.

During the interviews, students experienced the challenge of listening. “It was hard to listen when I was trying to find the right moment to jump in to ask my question,” Theo Burns explained. “Sometimes we were more focused on getting the answer to our question than listening to the answer to the question that was asked.” What advice did Theo offer to future Hill Day participants? “Know that your time to ask will come, and rather than force your question in, listen as the conversation takes its own path.”

In many cases, these Middle School students have formed strong opinions on these issues. In the Abortion track, Madi McDaniel said, “It was hardest to listen when I felt like one of the ladies we were talking to was giving us misleading information. I felt annoyed and wanted to interrupt her.”

Kovan Smith said, “If I’m pro affirmative action and if I’m listening to someone who disagrees with the basis of affirmative action and thinks it should be gotten rid of, it is difficult to listen.” Kovan noted, however, that it was especially important to listen at those times. “I wanted them to feel comfortable and see us as open-minded so that they weren’t as protective in what they said. I didn’t want them to hide information that would be useful to me when considering both sides of the issue for my paper.”

By listening critically, some students began to notice differences in the ways arguments were presented. Victoria Agerskov-Townsend said, “In our [preliminary] research, we had the idea that pro-life [advocates] would bring more facts and say that the pro-choice people would use more stories and emotion.” Victoria and some of her peers said they found the opposite to be true. Still, Victoria expressed gratitude for the amount of time they were given to ask their questions and the attention interviewees gave in their answers. “They weren’t argumentative, and they were willing to listen to all our questions,” Victoria said. “It definitely got me thinking differently about other perspectives.”

As students reflected back at school, they described changes in the atmosphere of the room from more conversational to a “more formal interview,” and they chuckled uncomfortably as they used euphemistic language like “We heard some...interesting facts” or “Those were...creative facts” when they first began to describe some of the falsehoods as well as the more feeble or misleading arguments they heard.

Christian Charles from the hate speech track said, “Hill Day pushed me to be a critical listener and question the speakers’ answers because I need to know more information about hate speech...I was trying to understand more about the other side of the argument.”
 

THE DEBRIEF

The teachers and 8th grade students thanked the visiting journalists who helped them prepare for Hill Day interviews. In a letter to Cecilia Kang, students wrote, “We definitely needed your advice about how to stay calm when you really strongly disagree with what someone was saying.” In a letter to Lulu Garcia-Navarro, students thanked her for, among other things, teaching them how to use their voices respectfully. They wrote, “It was helpful to know how to ask follow-up questions. Particularly, ‘Why?’ We knew how to be polite while interrupting or asking difficult questions. You helped us figure out what roles we would have within our interview groups.”

Students also sent dozens of thank you notes to the interviewees who graciously hosted them on Hill Day. The teachers—History teacher and Middle School Community Engagement Coordinator Julia Blount, History teacher Perry Degener, and History teacher Kate Maloney—also extend their thanks to the parents chaperones, to Jeremy Haft and Leigh Tait in the office of community engagement and experiential learning, to librarian Lisa Fall who supported students with their research, and last but not least, transportation director Chris France who managed the transportation of 79 students to 22 interviews in Washington, DC.
  • Middle School
  • Think Critically