The listening deficit

March 22nd, 2013

Writing at Joanne Jacobs’ blog, Diana Senechal, an English teacher in New York City, describes the importance of listening. Senechal is concerned that today’s students do not know how to listen well—“many lack the practice,” she writes, partly because “entire school systems emphasize group work and rapid activity over anything contemplative or sustained. Before they have a chance to think, or even take something in, students must turn and talk, complete a chart, or fulfill a role within a team. . . . [T]heir days are filled with rush and noise.”

She continues:

To listen to a text while reading silently is to take in its tones, textures, and shapes; its hidden jokes and ironies; its contrasts and contradictions; its rising and falling; its speeding up and slowing down. To do any of this, one must, at the outset, set aside practical tasks (such as finding the topic sentence). One must cede to the text for a while and let it show itself. . . .

How does one practice listening? First, one must have good things to listen to. Humdrum, clunky texts will tire and pain the ear. Well-tempered works will wake the hearing up. Second, one must set aside time for listening and only listening—with no other tasks or expectations. This allows one to pay full attention to whatever it might be and to put aside distractions. Third, one must do it regularly. . . .

When listening to something for a stretch, I find great freedom, because my mind has time to do what it wants. I can take the text (or music, or whatever it may be) and consider it from this or that angle, play with it, raise questions about it, follow it beyond its conclusion, go on tangents here and there, and simply enjoy it. I can find eccentricity in listening, since I don’t have to socialize my reactions right away. Listening is rarely perfect; the mind wanders and returns, but even those wanderings have their reasons.

Listening allows us to immerse ourselves in something and to leave behind the stress and frazzle. It is more than a skill; it is an encounter. Take away the listening, and we are left with little more than a closet full of clanging tools. We get things done, we walk away with a takeaway, but something is taken away from us in turn.

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And, while listening is on your mind, why not take some time to read aloud—and for others—Martin Luther King’s “Our God is Marching On!” speech, delivered on March 25, 1965, at the conclusion of the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march. (As we noted, yesterday marked the anniversary of the beginning of the march.) Speeches are, by design, especially wonderful to listen to. Listen to part of the speech here, and read it in its entirety at the King Institute.

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