When I first started teaching in the MACC program at Suncrest in 2016 (if you didn’t know or couldn’t tell by looking at [what’s left of] my hair, MACC-teacher years are similar to dog years, which makes me old), the school counsellor, the indomitable Ms. Tahara, gave me this card, as a tool to use with students:
I’ve had it pinned up with a magnet on the whiteboard in both classrooms, Suncrest and Cap Hill, ever since, and every once in a while I have looked at it and had a variety of reactions, ranging from inspiration to, after particularly challenging days, deep, wistful sighs. But earlier this week, as I was preparing the class for the transition into the new year, I saw it again, and it helped tie together a few things that have been floating around in my consciousness over the past couple of months, as I have lain out on a log at the high tide line in Qualicum each night, watching the stars and listening to all the different moods and messages of the ocean.
I am curious about this act of listening, MACC-sters, and it may form a big part of our learning this year.
In a classroom setting, we tend to think about listening as not talking when someone else is talking (which is a great start!), but I wonder what else is actually involved – are there different types of listening? How does listening actually help us, aside from as a performative act for a teacher whom we know gives listening a 50% weight in Oral Language assessment? How does it help us as scholars, beyond Language Arts? How does it help us as young (and old) humanoids, in our relations with others and in our relation to ourselves?
What happens when we listen to nature?
What do we have to learn from listening to the Universe?
What sounds exist in silence?
How does listening help us find and sustain concentration and equanimity? (PS: Equanimity may be one of our Words of the Year – if you want a jumpstart, look it up!)
What does it mean to listen to your inner voice? How does that actually work? How does it help us?
(BTW, one of my teachers introduced this idea this month – that only 43% of our bodies are actually made of human cells; the rest are “microbial colonists,” which is equal parts fascinating and disgusting. Given that this is true, does it make us think about that “inner voice” a little differently? Who the heck are we listening to?!?)
Master writer Ursula K. Le Guin, whose work we will explore this year, said in a talk called “The Operating Instructions” that she gave to Oregon Literary Arts, “Listening is an act of community, which takes space, time, and silence.”
How will listening help us build our class community together – ideally, a place where each of us feels deeply and truly seen, understood, and accepted for who we are? Le Guin says:
“People unite themselves and give each other parts of themselves – inner parts, mental not bodily parts – when they talk and listen. Two people talking [in this way] form a community of two. People are also able to form communities of many, through sending and receiving bits of ourselves and others back and forth continually – through, in other words, talking and listening.
Talking and listening are ultimately the same thing.”
(One tool we will use to develop and nurture these skills of giving and receiving is a revival of a longstanding-but-last-year-neglected Room 105 practice, the Socratic Circle!)
Looking at the same idea from a different angle, Le Guin tells us that “Reading is listening,” which makes me think about the tangible energy that is in the room whenever we are reading a great book together, and the fierce, otherworldly concentration you see on someone’s face when they are curled up with a good book, in conversation with the author, totally transported to a different time and place.
She also says that in order for humanity to makes its way out of the climate and tech crises we find ourselves in, we need to start listening to voices that before now have been minimalized or ignored:
And finally, she shares her experience of writing as listening:
I wonder if you have had that experience – when the words just come to you when you are writing, rather than grasping or searching for them or, worst of all, thinking hard? I wonder if we can find ways this year to make that a more-often-than-not experience?
This connects to an obsession of mine from a few years back that resurfaced over the summer (annoyingly, to play, you need to click on “Watch on YouTube”, or just click here):
The Lucerne Festival Orchestra was known as the best pick-up band in the world: the musicians came together just for the festival each year, handpicked by the conductor, Claudio Abbado, from the best orchestras and ensembles in Europe (as well as some of the world’s best soloists, like clarinetist Sabine Meyer and flutist Emmanuel Pahud), brought together by a love of the music and a love of this particular maestro.
From what I’ve read, Abbado’s vocal instructions to the orchestra during rehearsals consisted almost entirely of one word: “Listen.” To each other, to the music, to the space between the notes: “listen.”
That is something I am going to be encouraging you all to do this year: to listen. To each other, to yourselves, to the silence between things – with your ears and your eyes and your heart, with undivided attention, so that we can give and receive and build community in dialogue with each other. This will require a certain mindset, one that we spent a lot of time exploring last year and that we will explore again in the months to come. Grade 7s, remember Lynda Barry’s advice regarding attracting images – that it requires the same sense of calm friendliness one would use when faced with a shy forest animal that you wanted to encourage to come closer. It is something we do in our inner world that influences the material world around us.
If you watch the Abbado video, you will see evidence of that mindset and you will see the deep listening that is happening, both on the podium and in the orchestra. Notice he doesn’t use a score. Practice + relaxation + openness is what we are after, and real, active listening is the clearest and surest path there.
For those who have the time and are so inclined, go for it: watch the whole thing. (And if you want to go deeper into your understanding of what Mahler was intending, take a look here.)
For those of you who are not so inclined or are too busy working on your 15,788th hour of Genshin Impact or Roblox or Valiant or Super Smash Bros. (or whatever it is that you all are into these days; personally, I have been going old school), please do watch the first opening minutes so you can see what I am referring to above, and so you can also see the wonderful sense of Abbado as Prospero, the sorcerer of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, casting his spell over the ocean of those strings. And then skip to the very end (about 1:24:45) and watch how the musicians relate to each other after the performance – the joy and friendliness and pleasure they take in each other and what they have, together, accomplished. Wouldn’t it be amazing if our class ended like that? Every day?
All of which is to say, floss those ear canals…:
and get ready to listen:
Also, it wouldn’t be September if I didn’t upload this:
(Lynda Barry, Down the Street, Harpercollins, 1988)
As always, I 100% promise not to throw chalk at anyone or play my accordion; and I 0% promise that there won’t be modern dance exercises outside the library windows. Start practicing your angry tree!
See you soon.