Active listening is one of the most valuable skills that an educator can bring into the classroom in order to create a successful student/teacher relationship. Active listening means that the teacher is fully engaged and focused on the conversation they are having with a student. There should be no other distractions. The teacher should maintain eye contact with the student, take account of the student’s tone and body language (their expressive nature through which they’re speaking), and be genuinely interested in the discussion that is taking place. It is important for educators to show that they’re truly listening by asking appropriate follow up questions, while being mindful not to interrupt the student or come across as didactic.
Active listening is a strategy that teachers should use to motivate students to become more socially and emotionally present in school. When educators really take the time to listen, they learn a great deal about what their students are passionate about and how they learn. More than anything else, it is important for teachers to get to know their students and to show them that they are respected for what they have to say. Active listening builds a much needed trust between teachers and students, which inspires collaborative learning environments and educational experiences that promote a thirst for inquiry and life-long learning.
So how does this concept relate to the arts? Listening is an important aspect of the artistic process too, in fact, it is an art form in itself. Artists don’t live in a bubble, they rely on the feedback of others in order to help them along with their process and the realization of ambitious projects. This is why formal and informal critiques and/or studio visits are so essential to an artist’s practice. It is helpful for the artist to be able to ask their peers questions in order to gauge how their work is being perceived and whether it is executed well. Listening is an especially helpful technique and skill for the artist whose work is socially engaged and relies on the participation of one or more individuals. This was the case for Mel Chin when he listened to the concerns of community members from Flint, Michigan before initiating Flint Fit. Artists such as Catherine Schwalbe, Pablo Helguera (whose work with oral traditions and storytelling have been written about in a previous post), and Summer Zickefoose, have each incorporated active listening into their work in a way that allows for a genuine communication and artful expression between the speaker and the listener(s). Their work utilizes playfulness, creativity, open-endedness, responsive understanding, and reflection, in order to facilitate meaningful moments of social interaction.
In her Visiting series (initiated in 2009), Summer Zickefoose invites individuals to join her in a friendly conversation over tea. In 2010, Zickefoose performed the project in Belfast, Ireland –Visiting (Belfast)– on various main streets throughout the city. Zickefoose set up a mobile tea-cart along the street and asked a passerby to join her for a cup of tea. Once the invitation had been accepted, the two individuals sat down, and Zickefoose would ask them how they took their tea. Over tea, they shared an intimate conversation. This face to face interaction afforded the participant, who was a member of the community, with a platform to talk about their day and anything else of significance that they wanted to share. The tea service, a common daily activity in Ireland, as well as Zickefoose’s role as both “hostess” and active listener, offered a sense of comfort and a mutual respect between the two individuals. The invitees were given the chance to express their personal experiences and self-identity, and Zickefoose had the distinct opportunity to obtain a greater understanding of the Belfast community and the uniqueness of its citizens. After each conversation, Zickefoose recorded from memory, the name of the participant, how they took their tea, and what they spoke about onto a tea napkin. To this date, the project has had three different iterations including Visiting (Belfast).
Catherine Schwalbe transforms the actions of listening and being heard into a collaborative art project called #FreeListening (2018-). The ongoing project, which launched at the Annual Chicago Fluxfest over Memorial Day Weekend, gives participants a platform to be heard and/or hone their active listening skills. During a #FreeListening session, Schwalbe provides her undivided attention and listens intently to whatever the person who wants to be heard has to say. At the end of the session, Schwalbe presents the participant with a hand lettered proclamation and tips about ways to enhance their own listening skills. This experience turns listening and being heard into an artful experience where actively sharing and receiving strong social and emotional feelings bestows a sense of catharsis for both individuals. It is truly beneficial for the speaker to be able to express candid thoughts and for the listener to be an advocate for the speaker’s voice to be heard. Schwalbe’s #FreeListening project asks us to reflect on how we can not only be necessarily heard, but how we can become better listeners and understanders too.
In the art classroom, active listening integrated with creative exercises can be a great way to develop strong social and emotional connections between students. This is a great way to encourage students to socialize with each other and develop a mutual trust and respect for one another. To begin, students should be grouped into pairs with someone they don’t normally speak with on a daily basis. Students will take turns talking about an issue that is important to them (the teacher should provide a few motivating questions such as “what was/is the most challenging moment in your life?”), while their partner maintains good active listening techniques. After each student has engaged in both speaking and listening, they will independently fill out a worksheet that assesses how well they listened to their partner (questions will prompt students to relay/restate the information their partner told them). Once they’ve finished their assessments, the students will get back into their pairs and create a work of art that visualizes or symbolically represents the information they’ve learned from listening to each other. For example, students can create a drawing, painting, or collage that re-presents what they remembered about their conversation, or a poem, or a script, which they can perform for the class.
Another idea is to have students set up a site-specific environment within the school (a listening station) where they can conduct one-on-one listening sessions with their peers. Students will create an artist statement describing the intent of the project and simple directions (such as sit comfortably, face each other, maintain eye contact, notice body language, respond only if asked, restate significant moments in the dialogue when necessary for emphasis and understanding) that will initiate the exercise. These listening sessions would require the student whose listening to focus their full attention to what their classmate is saying and only offering a response if the conversation warrants it (or they need to ask for something to be restated). In other words, the listening student engages solely in active listening. The students will switch roles so that each student experiences being an active listener. After they have completed this exercise, students will record what they remembered from the conversation as a listener. These recordings can be assembled and displayed on an aesthetic “listening wall” within the school.
Supporting student’s active listening skills through memorable and creative activities can have positive long-lasting results on their school, home, work, and recreational relationships. In an age where we are largely occupied by interacting through screens and artificial intelligence, it is important to develop interpersonal skills and habits of mind that can build and strengthen our real-world relationships. Active listening and face-to-face socialization without any distractions from gadgets, allows us to be completely in the moment and engaged, while developing empathy, and value for each other. When we become active listeners, we live, learn, and love artfully.