Tuesday, September 4, 2012

On Listening: Emily

When we first moved to Vermont, I had a friend who was a first grade teacher. We met cross-country skiing. I skied with our dog, Luke, as a way of exploring the territory. We usually had to break trail but one afternoon we came across and followed the woman's tracks, ending up at her house. Luke made friends with her dog, Emily saw us and came out, one thing led to another, and the four of us started skiing together.

Emily was in her mid-thirties, tall and lean and remarkably fit. I couldn't keep up with her. She was a good sport about it. She'd go on ahead, then stop and wait, and we'd have steamy cocoa while I caught my breath.

I asked her about our local schools, which led to an ongoing discussion about education, which, in turn, led her to invite me to sit in on her class. I was ambivalent about it and did so to please her more than anything, but it turned out to be an extraordinary gift.

She had 22 students in her class. I think she had an assistant, perhaps a volunteer, but she was alone the day I visited. There was no problem, the children obviously adored her and she was in complete control. I sat off to the side in her round-back spindle desk chair.

She was teaching addition. The children had their workbooks out and were earnest and attentive. Emily walked up and down the rows of tiny desks, bending over or crouching down to offer encouragement or make a suggestion. She touched every student, either gently on the back or lightly on the shoulder. Some, she touched before addressing their lesson, others afterwards as she was moving on.

I noticed that one student, a thin, dark-haired boy at the back of the room, was distracted. He slid his workbook off the side of his desk and watched it fall to the floor. When the boy next to him whispered something to him, he kicked his workbook aside, leaned back and slid down in his chair. When the boy next to him whispered something else, he said, "Shud-dup!" and turned away.

Emily noticed the boy. She tried to make eye contact with him, but he was having none of it. So, Emily returned to the front of the class and said, "All right children, put your workbooks in your desks now and take out a piece of clean paper. I want you to draw me a picture. Draw your favorite animal. This is just for a few minutes, and then we'll go back to your arithmetic. But right now, I want to talk to Henry."

That got Henry's attention. He turned sideways in his chair and put his hands under his head as if he was curling up in bed. Emily walked back to him, grabbing an empty chair as she went, moved around Henry, and sat down so that they were face to face. She was too tall for the tiny first grade chair; it looked like a milking stool under her. But that didn't bother her. Bending forward so that she was about a foot from Henry's pouting face, she smiled and asked softly, "So, what's on your mind, Henry?"

Henry didn't want to engage but he didn't have a choice because, having asked her question, Emily refused to move or speak. He looked around, trying to think of or find something to distract her, but Emily held him with her eyes until he had to look back at her. When he did, he didn't speak at first, but Emily was patient. When he finally spoke, his voice was barely a whisper, and when Emily responded her voice had fallen to the level of his, so I couldn't hear their conversation.

I could watch their interaction, though. Emily asked him questions. In the beginning, his answers were monosyllabic and he looked away a lot. But the more questions Emily asked, the longer his answers became and the more he made eye contact. Henry obviously had a serious complaint about something.

They talked for perhaps 2-3 minutes. Emily spoke the most at first but as Henry's answers grew longer, her questions became shorter and less frequent. Finally, she sat up straight and said, "Good. So, do you want to say anything else?"? Henry smiled sheepishly. "No? Okay, let's get back to arithmetic." I didn't hear Henry's response but after giving it he reached out his foot, slid his workbook back to where he could reach it with his hand, and bent over to retrieve it.

"Good boy," Emily said, standing up. "If you want to talk again, just raise your hand and we'll make a date." Then she touched him as well, and I realized that it was the first time she'd done so. She patted, then rubbed his back ever so briefly. I couldn't swear it but it seemed as if Henry straightened up slightly in his chair. She replaced her chair and returned to the front of the room. "All right, class," she said without missing a beat, "show me your animals."

Later, when we discussed the incident, Emily said she felt lucky to have such a cooperative class. "Because that's what teaching should be," she added. "Children should be listened to - really listened to. It should be a civil right, the right to be heard. Because that's when we really start becoming individuals, when we say who we are and then have to consider what we've said."

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