February 22

Learning to Listen

Quick! Name a goal of classrooms all across the United States? Ding, ding!

To create a classroom of innovation.

Teachers and administration alike pou over the blogosphere, Twitterverse, and attend conferences en masse and on-quest for this holy grail of transformation. And while there are innumerable treasures to be found within each and every resource, one very powerful ingredient to innovation is encouraging voice and agency in the classroom.

Think about it: when learners feel safe to express their ideas and supported to take risks with their learning, we are able to transform the classroom from a place of instruction to a community of exchange, intrigue and interaction

Interested? The key to nurturing a culture of voice is establishing an environment of trust and respect. Here are some important considerations to ponder, and integrate into your classroom, at the start of the school year.


Angela Maiers’ 2011 Tedx Talk “You Matter” tells us that two words, YOU MATTER, “can change lives and can change the world.” In her work, Maiers advocates for recognizing each person as significant contributors to society; that each person deserves to be heard, seen, and cared for. With this, Maiers dares us to frame our interactions with our students by saying: “YOU are a genius and the world needs your contribution. What will you share with us today?”

At the time, I was teaching middle school English. I took this simple idea and presented it to my students. 


#BEEageniUS became our galvanizing underpinning for learning that year. We explored different ways to share genius with the world every chance we could.

Using Padlet boards, they responded to these conversation starters, including:

  • What’s your theme song? Pull a lyric or two that best describes you.
  • What cartoon character is most like you?
  • Name one skill that you are proud of. Create a #hashtag to explain its significance.
  • Name one challenge that you are setting your sights on this year. Create a #hashtag to explain its significance.

The collaborative nature of Padlet allowed students to watch as each classmate added their post. Students showcased their creativity and personality through Padlet’s built-in multimedia tools, embedding photos, recording audio responses, even drawing and creating short videos. As the responses posted, colors, fonts, images, each student’s answer offering insight into his interests and her personality, and at the same time, combining to  weave a tapestry of community.

My students began to see their peers through different lenses: they began forming new appreciations for their gifts instead of focusing on right and wrong answers. To further encourage relationships, we (myself included) commented on posts, drawing on similarities and providing kudos. 

We’re all GIFTED, some just open their packages DIFFERENTLY.

One of the important features of this activity was that it was exclusive of “academic content.” So often, we limit the interactions of our students by restricting conversations to “school.” 

This puts their contributions into a box: they’re either good at math or not; it’s a right answer or not. 

When we learn more about their inspirations, influences and ideas, we’re better able to appreciate their gifts. This is paramount to creating a culture of community

Learners need to know (and believe) that we’re not going to silence them every time they make a comment or ask a question. 

How we respond (especially in the first weeks of school) sets the stage for the entire year. 

If we continually tell them they are wrong, they will begin to “not:” not try, not care, not learn.

If we continually tell them to be quiet or ask fewer questions, they hear: your voice doesn’t matter.


My students taught me to listen. I’ve carried that lesson with me working with leaders to create equitable and empathetic environments.

Leading learners, both small and TALL, requires us to be intentional with our words and cognizant of their impact and purpose. Conversations lead to communication which then lead to relationships and then to trust.  

We encourage that which has always been done, to be approached differently. 

We look for the unheard voice to rise above the crowd of contentment. 

We turn to the young people we serve daily and ask them to lead us.


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