Today I wrapped up three full days of sitting with my senior IB English students, listening to their oral commentaries on a poem by Seamus Heaney and holding discussions with them about Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I sat with almost 25 students, just me and the kid, one at a time, for 20 full minutes a piece. Each time I do this activity, as exhausting as it can be and sometimes frustrating, I am struck nearly dumb with gratitude for the opportunity. It is rare that, as teachers, we have the luxury of time, not to mention the resources that make it possible to hire a substitute so classes can continue in our absence, to sit down with a single student and listen deeply to their learning. It is, likely, the most authentic kind of assessment I’ve ever administered, and one that honors student voices while simultaneously holding them to a rigorous standard. It is intense, intimate, and hopefully an inviting experience. Some students are nervous and do strange things. They talk super fast. Or they stammer a lot. Or certain things they know suddenly slip their minds: What was the name of that character, you know, the main one? Did this detail come before or after that other one? Why, despite the fact that I know this is a work of non-fiction, do I insist on calling it a novel over and over again? Or why did I call this thing a paragraph when I know it to be a stanza? Why did I just call Seamus Heaney Shameless Hainley? How do sentences work again? And then other students speak with an eloquence you’ve never been able to hear in the context of the classroom: That quiet student who likens Virginia Woolf’s speech to a chemistry experiment. A couple of students who are so excited about the material that they seem almost giddy talking about their favorite scenes and favorite ideas: who knew that Woolf’s description of the androgynous mind could have such a profound impact on an 18 year old woman’s consciousness? One student was so meticulous and thoughtful about each sentence she uttered, every one of her thoughts seemed weighty and perfectly formed. And this time through, without exception, every student spoke for 20 minutes. And I listened as deeply as I could and asked open and honest questions to the best of my ability. It was exhausting and glorious.
Two weekends earlier, at the close of one semester and at the opening of the next, I was in San Antonio, Texas for five days with Parker J. Palmer and The Center for Courage and Renewal, learning further about The Courage Way, on a path to becoming a facilitator of professional formation work. Much of that practice is also about deep listening, to self and to others, hearing and listening ourselves into speech, always respectful of silence as a guest and fellow traveler. This seems a little woo woo, doesn’t it. Well, it’s not for everybody, and I remember Parker talking about wanting it, perhaps, to sound more woo woo than it actually is–because anyone with a complete aversion to woo woo would probably not end up receptive to the work, incapable of listening deeply, untrustworthy of the inner teacher, suspicious of the silences in which our greatest wisdom often resides.
Part of my job over the course of this training program is to discover ways of making this kind of work manifest in my professional life and in my community. Over the last few days I felt it working already as I sat with my students, listening to them speak, allowing them to hear themselves, inviting silences from time to time, allowing the inner teacher in each young person to come out to play. The only drawback: it was primarily an academic exercise, and ultimately, it was my job as their teacher and as a teacher in the International Baccalaureate program, to evaluate their performance. Not really the optimum circumstances for true formation work. And always, in the back of my mind, and in light of yesterday’s horrific and all-too-familiar news of yet another mass shooting inside of a school, I knew that many of their hearts were breaking, as was mine. And yet we didn’t speak a word about that. We proceeded with the task at hand. We talked seriously about literature. It wouldn’t have been the time or place to check in with each of them about how they were doing with the news, what their thoughts were on the subject, how they were coping, how they wanted to change the world. I wish there could have been space for that. I wish there could be a space where some caring adult could sit down with every single kid and allow them to speak. We might learn something.
The study of English Language Arts lends itself better perhaps than any other discipline to this, but somehow, in every discipline, I think, we must learn to better balance the academic work we do in schools with the soul work we know is necessary for fostering in our students a move toward deeper integrity, agency and trust. Inner work needs to be on the syllabus and in the curriculum. I think our lives may very well depend upon it: our lives, the lives of our students and children, the life of our nation.