11/30/12

Listening

I make my living teaching writing to college students. It is one of the best jobs in the world, but it is tiring. You have to be absolutely present when you lecture, when you read student writing, and when you meet with students.

It is the last of these requirements that is the most important. You can blah, blah, blah all you want, and you can write comment after comment in the margins, but it's like hitting a ball against the side of a barn. The ball just comes back to you; it doesn't really sink in. What makes the ball sink it, what students get the most out of, are one-on-one conversations. Dialogue helps students understand that readers arent in their heads. Good writers anticipate the needs of readers.

Here is my sophisticated pedagogy: I read something and say, "What do you mean?"  That's it. I ask questions, and I listen.

Listening does not come naturally to me. I am, by nature, a talker, and a bossy one at that. But listening is what students need most, and so I fight the urge to butt it. Even more, I fight the urge to tell students what I think they mean. Instead, I use all my energy to just...be quiet.  It is hard work. 

Some students are unnerved by this approach, but most students are starving for someone to listen to them. "Really?" Their eyes say.  "Really tell you?"

"Yes. Really tell me."

Then they gobble up the silence between us. They tell me what they think, then what they know, and then, best of all, what totally flummoxes them. And then, being me, I can't resist, I talk too. And really, is there anything better, than sharing ideas? Then figuring out what you mean, not alone, but in tandem with someone who isn't teaching you, but just engaging with you?

But like I said. It's tiring. Four classes. That's what I've been teaching this quarter.  Three classes is considered full time. Four! What was I thinking! And next week, the slog, slog, slog of grading, grading, grading. I am day dreaming about being alone in my house, only listening to the rain.  

PS: That is daughter Mary in the picture.  It is a propo of nothing; I just like it.

19 comments:

Daisy said...

I think I would like to be in your class, Margaret! You've just made me think about what I'm writing in my blog!

Desiree said...

A have never thought of you as a bossy talker, but I look forward to spotting that. Congratulations on meaningful work.

Olga said...

I recently read an article (in a summer O mag??) about a medical doctor who urges doctors to listen to the pateient's story. Important in so many areas.

Cafe Pasadena said...

"It is one of the best jobs in the world, but it is tiring."
Ok, but, what do you mean?

(Like your original photo!)

Rois said...

I am with Daisy all the way.I have been thinking over getting a bit more serious about my blog and this tip will help.

I honestly can say that I understand the tired part.I used to teach preschool,a job I loved but man being a good teacher who is present,open and on top of things sucks the life out of you.I remember days where I just wanted to let go of my teacher face and just be me.
I suppose being a tried teacher is a sign you are a great teacher.

Jean Spitzer said...

They are lucky.

Deb @ Paper Turtle said...

I love that you love your job, Margaret. And having had the pleasure of meeting you in person, I can see that you must be very good at what you do. I think many of us struggle with listening, so I appreciate the reminder to be more mindful of that.

Love the photo of your girl and her book - perfect for this post.

Bec said...

This quarter I had writing conferences with all 60 of my writing students. It was good to sit down one on one with each of them instead of just talking at them and reading their papers. Good luck on the slog of grading . . . just finished and a scantron final left.

altadenahiker said...

Gosh, I wish I'd had you as a teacher. Well, maybe I do, in a way.

It took me years to wonder, "What the hell am I trying to say?"

Ms M said...

You sound like an awesome teacher. Your students are so fortunate to have a teacher that actually listens to them. (There are times I still don't know what I want to say....)
BTW, love your photo!

TheChieftess said...

One of the toughest and under appreciated jobs!!!

Kim Stcharles said...

Absolutely on target, Margaret! As a teacher, I learned that it was my job in writing tutorials to ask my students questions to get them talking about their ideas. It was extremely rewarding, some of the most rewarding time I spent teaching ESL, but exhausting! Four classes!! Been there! My thoughts with you as you finish the term! I have not forgotten what that feels like.

patricia said...

I feel your pain. I'm the elementary math specialist in a small school and just agreed to be department chair. I often hear myself saying to students, "I don't understand what you're saying." And then they have to explain and explain until I get it.

Petrea Burchard said...

"Then they gobble up the silence between us." What a great image.

I got to listen to your "bossy talk" last night when you read a chapter to us from "The Goddess Lounge." You guys, Margaret was a screaming hoot!

So I get that it's important to listen to your students, but it is also a pleasure to listen to you.

Margaret said...

Pup: I mean that is is just physically draining because you have to be so cognitively present.

Bec: good luck to you as well!

Ms. M: I don't always know what to say either. When in doubt, I say, "Tell me about that."

Petrea: Thank you--and thanks for coming, and you too, Pup!

Adele said...

"Bossy talker." Got confused and thought you were talking about me!

I love that idea: What are you trying to say? I think you just shaved unproductive writing hours off of my week. Thanks!

Susan Campisi said...

Good writing teachers are rare. Your students really are lucky.

Love the photo of your daughter.

Alison said...

I love hearing about teachers who actually LISTEN to their students!
Alison xx

Pasadena Adjacent said...

You are so smart. When I took an english class at PCC, I went all out writing a fairy tale. 7 or more pages - which was unheard of for me. So much was I into that story. The teacher gave me a C. No explanation. He killed a little bit of me in that moment. Thats why you matter. Even if a students paper was poorly written, full of cliches...whatever, I think you would have seen the effort.