The Art of Listening

“Alright, 10 more seconds!” I shout back to the bus of excited 7th graders. The bus erupts into a crescendo of laughter, singing, and incomprehensible noise. 10 more seconds to be noisy and loud before total silence during our evening with the elk. “9, 8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1! Quiet!” The bus becomes calm (minus a few muffled giggles). We had a great evening and heard lots of loud, clear bugling. But perhaps the most magical part of the evening was when darkness fell and the stars began to poke out. We had a few minutes left before we had to head back, and I wanted to close the evening on a reflective note. We sat in a circle in the darkening evening and I read “The Other Way to Listen” by Byrd Baylor. The little girl in this story meets an old man who is quite skilled at the art of patience and listening. He can hear wildflower seeds break open and a rock talking to a lizard. A friend of his once heard a whole sky full of stars. The old man advises the girl to slow down, take her time, and get to know one thing as well as she can. My group listened intently and thoughtfully reflected on the story. One student commented, “I want to learn to listen like that too.”

Listening has been important for me as well. Throughout my past few weeks as an AmeriCorps intern, I have had the opportunity to work with a variety of school groups: 4th graders from the Crow and Cheyenne reservations in Montana, 9th graders from Arizona, 7th graders from Salt Lake City. I have played silly games with them, taught them about how cool lodgepole pinecones are, made sand glaciers alongside Taggart Lake. But one of the most important things I learned is to listen. Just listen. Let your students do the talking. As an educator, sometimes we shape our lessons the way we think things ought to be communicated—sometimes with a little bit of lecture or prompts. But what I have learned from the kids that I have worked with is that sometimes we need to let the 11 year olds do the teaching. Yes, that is correct: the youngsters. Remember what it was like to be a kid again? You scraped your knees, licked something you shouldn’t have, weren’t afraid to get messy sometimes, and said things the way you saw them without reservation. Children have such a creative, untainted perception of the world. The ways in which they express and describe the environment around them has both humored and astonished me. For example, I posed a question to a group of 7th graders, “Why is this hill covered in trees and this hill covered by sagebrush?” One student replied, “it’s because trees are thirstier than sage.” What creative assessment.

The perspective of a child is not only humorous and imaginative, but often remarkably insightful. By connecting and fostering this creativity, we can create an environment where the communication barriers to education can be broken down. By listening to those young teachers, and us ourselves getting in touch with that inner freckle-faced skin-kneed child, we can better our approaches and creativity in communicating science. Albert Einstein once said “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Sometimes kids can understand things best, and it is clear through their simple explanations. Listening to their thoughts, feelings, and passions sometimes we can learn from a new, if shorter, angle.

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