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Teach Active Listening

When I was teaching social justice education full time to middle school students, I realized I wouldn't be able to teach the fundamentals of privilege, partnership, and dignity without first laying the foundatino of the importance of listening. We know that one of the most important aspects of recognizing privilege is practicing mindful listening--that is not dominating conversations, developing a posture and practice of learning and humility in spaces of color (and everywhere, really) and noticing when we are talking more than listening. To this I would add the skill of active listening, one in which we our listening is not just about shutting up, but communicating to the speaker that we are engaged, that we care, and that their words matter to us.

Active listening is a concept that is used in conflict-resolution, and I teach it to students and clients as a way to demonstrate that silence is not passive, and that when we create space for other voices to be heard, we are fully engaged in the reciprocal partnership that emerges in a dialogue. Our silence doesn’t matter if we aren’t also paying attention.

Active listening requires full body, memory, and critical thinking engagement, and it requires a practice of non-judgement, and the gift of truly offering the speaker a safe and honest place WHERE THEY ARE HEARD.

I advocate teaching this to children in classrooms alongside discussion ACTION and ACTIVISM. It’s time that we balance our focus on action—by whom and for whom and to what end, I ask—with active listening.

Active Listening Games:

Have children play Bus Stop, a standard improvisational theater game, where they are stuck with a character and have to keep the conversation going until the bus comes. Adjust the game to ask one of the players to use active listening body language and phrases such as "I hear you saying..."and "Can you say more about that?" etc.

The Mirror Game is another great game that focuses on silence and visual attention that teaches students non-verbal communication, eye-contact, connection, and alternative forms building relationships and effective communication without speaking all the time.

Have students ask three questions of each other, asking "What are you good at?" "What is your first memory of your mother or father?" and "What's something new you would like to learn this year?" and introduce that person to the room--they have to have absorbed all of this information without taking notes.

Divide students into conversation pairs. Invite one person to tell a story about their favorite holiday (or any anecdote) in the past. Invite the other person to be the "listener." The goal of the listener is to get the storyteller to continue to talk for as long as possible, using phrasing and body language that indicates that they are listening. Children will learn that lack of eye contact, dead silence, and certain body language can ruin a conversation--and possibly a productive relationship--quickly. It will also begin teach unconscious messaging and bias. Have them switch and share their experiences.

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