This fall I’ve taken on a long-term substitute position teaching high school Language Arts. Every weekday I spend three hours teaching remedial English — grammar and spelling for the most part. Many of my students are learning English as a second or third language and many others have a hefty share of learning disabilities and personal challenges that I can hardly comprehend. It became clear to me soon after taking this job that I would need to work with these students on the skill of listening.
Initially, I wanted to teach listening skills for my own benefit. I needed students to listen to ME! We couldn’t get anything done if we didn’t address the volume levels and impulsive chatter in our classroom. But it occurred to me that listening is a skill that can help these students in their personal lives as well.
So I implemented weekly listening activities based on the ideas behind StoryCorps, NPR’s national effort to honor and record the stories of everyday Americans. Each story is archived in the Library of Congress, and many of them are arrestingly intimate, funny and heart-breaking. If it were possible to have a wild crush on a project, StoryCorps would be at the top of my dreamboat list.
So far, our listening lessons have involved students pairing up and taking notes on each other’s stories about something simple, like their best or worst-ever Halloween. I modeled the process by telling my own favorite Halloween story (seventh grade, when I wore a George Bush Sr. mask), then asked students to answer the 5 W Questions about my story (Who? What? Where? When? Why?). Then they did the same with each other. They were a little reluctant to share, but they seemed to enjoy having a lesson with built-in social time.
The next step we took showed me how well these lessons could work. I had them watch an animated video based on a StoryCorps piece called “John & Joe,” which is about two brothers who were killed on 9/11. After we watched the video, students answered the 5W Questions and spontaneous discussion erupted. “Can we watch another of those videos?” “Did Saddam Hussein cause 9/11?” “Was 9/11 a government conspiracy?” It was the most engaged I have ever seen them.
For me, the real proof of the effectiveness of the StoryCorps activities was when I checked in about them with one of my most difficult students. He has academic challenges that are baffling even to veteran teachers, and just sitting in a classroom can be a struggle for him. But I asked him to answer the 5W Questions about “John & Joe” this week and he recounted the story in surprising detail. It was one of the most affirming moments of my life. He showed me that, as rambunctious and reluctant as my students can be, they’re starting to understand the power of listening and the power of story.