Is there anybody out there?

The oddest thing I ever learned after standing in front of the classroom and talking until my throat was sore, was that the most important thing for me to do when students were at that sensitive, critical point in their lives, was to listen. To listen when they wrote about themselves in the journal. To listen when they talked to me in private. To listen when they responded spontaneously in the classroom.

Sometimes there were little phrases I could use to encourage an extension of what was said, to expand the topic and add detail. “Would you say that again?’ “What do you mean by _______?” (The teacher nods his head, broadens his gaze to invite the class into the conversation.) “What do you think?” (Some classmates offer their responses. One seems particularly relevant.) “Would you say that to her?”

Another technique might be called the unfocussed gaze. If for example the students are in a circle, they should be encouraged to focus on the speaker. By habit students get used to having everything go thru the teacher. This is what matters, they are saying. But by shifting your focus to not be the object of attention, the class is free to address each other. Curiously this gaze must be focussed on nothing. As though you’re not there. Though your ears are.

In a dialog journal it is different. Here the writer expects some response to her content. She may be open to suggestion or a question. And it’s hard for the teacher not to be concerned about the quality of the writing. I suppose you can do a bit of both, but in my experience it is the content that is the daring part. And it matters more than grammatical correction. More than grades. (I judged only if it was energetically done. Use the margins well. It’s important to acknowledge that this is a being talking to you. Do that and he may engage you the next time. He may even trust you with some piece of his life. And at some point along the way students get excited to get their journals back, and rush to see what you have had to say.

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