When a prospective parent or a guest walks into one of our classrooms, an adorable student stops his/her work and walks over to the guest. S/he looks him in the eye, sticks out his/her hand offering a handshake, and says “Welcome to Grade “x”, my name is “y”, and we are working on our “z” unit right now.” This never fails to startle and impress visitors. Impressing guests is a by-product.
There is serious pedagogy in this greeting. The greeting, connected to the social-emotional objective of learning empathy, is also connected to a core Jewish value about welcoming the stranger “for you were once a stranger in a strange land” (Exodus 18). The greeting is linked to another important pedagogic goal - attending (listening). The student needs to be aware of people entering their space, and then needs to listen to that person for cues about how to make them feel welcome in this space.
Every day our students say the “Shma” which I often call the “listening prayer”. This prayer asks us to listen...to be present and to attend to what we might hear if we just stop to listen. It is the one prayer that is universally known by Jews. The translated words are “Listen Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One”, and traditionally it is recited at every service, at night before going to bed and on one’s death bed. Irrespective of one’s theological position, the universal question raised in this prayer is about listening.
This seems like a simple task, but it is one that many contemporary educators believe is in short supply. Listening is a skill that we tend to assume happens naturally. Listening is not a major part of any curricula, yet, we know that listening in order to learn and in order to build relationships is critical to future success in school and in life.
Listening is in fact rather complicated. It is complicated because the words we hear are filtered by a myriad of interpretations. If we marry multiple interpretations to weak communication skills, we may never be able to clarify a puzzling or hurtful communication. When you hear something, the following is possible – what you heard, what you think you heard, what the speaker said and what the speaker meant to say. There are so many places for misinterpretation . The conflicts that emerge from failed listening are the grist of great literature and movies, they also are the fabric of children’s altercations throughout a typical school day.
At Wornick, we help children become skilled listeners through practicing the following: a) listening without judgement, b) listening empathically, c) listening for feelings d) listening for needs, e) and listening with maintained eye contact. Each of these has several dimensions, and each leads us in different directions in responding best to the communication we are receiving. This is what is really behind our student greeters.