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The Importance of Listening to Build Community

This semester I’m going “back to school” myself and taking part in a course that I guess you could categorize as personal growth. I’m learning so much about myself but I also find the themes in our readings, conversations, and homework completely relevant to the work I get to do at DSC.

In our last assignment we explored the amazing work of Paul Polak. Have you heard of him? He’s a 78-year-old psychiatrist who has focused on creating devices that will improve the lives of 2.6 billion people living on less than $2 a day. What struck me reading about his work was the importance of really listening and hearing the people he was trying to help so that he could understand their lives. Over the years he has interviewed at least 3,000 poor farming families, often for six hours at a time.

Learning about Paul made me start thinking about the dual importance of voice and truly listening to what others are saying. Over the past two weeks I have been lucky to spend time in 9 of the 19 elementary schools in a local school district who are implementing our Caring School Community program and working more broadly on building a stronger sense of community for their students. Along with school leadership teams and staff developers we observed in classrooms and interviewed students about their experience in school.

One important theme that teams identified at some of the schools was the amount of student voice, engagement, and autonomy in class. We have seen a huge range in experiences from:

  • Teachers talking the majority of the time, sometimes over students while they were supposed to talk in pairs
  • Really short Turn To Your Partners (a cooperative structure), with opportunity for only one to talk or no cooperative structures used
  • Students reporting “the teacher pretty much decides everything”
  • Students avoiding eye contact or opportunities to talk (only 3 of 24 looking at the person talking or raising hand to join the discussion)
  • Blank bulletin boards, or boards with only commercially made posters


  • Teachers asking open-ended questions such as: “What do you think?” “Why is that?” and “Can you explain?”
  • Cooperative structures being used so that students were talking in pairs, as a whole group, as pairs, etc. and being heard, at least by one other
  • Students building on each other’s ideas using phrases such as (“I agree with __ because …”.; “I disagree with ___ because…”; or asking each other questions)
  • A teacher using “Think, Pair, Share” three times in a class meeting with enough time for partners to have a real back-and-forth discussion in response to an open-ended question. All pairs talking the whole time, leaning in to talk.
  • Bulletin boards filled with students’ writing, artwork (that differed from person to person), self-portraits, and pictures of students working with their younger buddies.

Student voice and engagement are incredibly important. But teacher voice is also crucial to keep in mind. How can we help teachers truly hear their students? What might be getting in the way? For teachers it can be scary to relinquish control to students. And yet, if we let go of steering students to certain responses, we may find they take us to an ever better place than we could imagine. We collaborated with teacher leaders district-wide this week to identify concrete supports for teachers to increase student voice.

Listening to others and having a chance to be heard is so important in education this year as schools are feeling particularly beaten down with the budget crisis. Listening is one of the first things to get dropped when people feel stressed. There’s less time, the structures start to collapse, and the pressures mount. And it’s being felt at every level—from student to district office. Trust is an issue in such difficult times, and many don’t feel that anyone is “giving them an A.”

What can we all do to continue to hold that space for voice and for true listening rather than barreling through to outcomes? It’s something I continue to work on—with everyone from my four-year-old, to my husband, and to staff development. But this message from Paul Polak on the value of listening is one that I’m striving to embody. I’d love to hear your suggestions on how to increase real communication.

Ginger Cook is the manager of state and district partnerships at Center for the Collaborative Classroom. Follow Ginger on Twitter at @gingerccook.

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Comments (2)

You really captured the

You really captured the importance of student voice and choice, and LISTENING. Wouldn't the world be such a great place if we all did that better?!

So much better, Betsy - and

So much better, Betsy - and yet it's so hard, huh?  Takes a lot of energy to be really attending to those around you and hearing what is being said and what might not be said.  Something to strive for, for sure!