Here at Sounding Out! we like to celebrate World Listening Day (July 18) with a blog series that focuses on the importance of listening. This year, we bring your attention to the role of listening when it comes to the sounds of the K-12 classroom, and by extension, the school.
Any day in a K-12 school involves movement and sounds day in and day out: the shuffling of desks, the conversations among classmates, the fire drill alarm, the pencils on paper, the picking up of trays of food. However, in many conversations about schools, teaching, and learning, sound is absent.
This month’s series will have readers thinking about the sounds in classrooms in different ways. They will consider race, class, and gender, and how those aspects intersect how we listen to the classrooms of our past and our present. More importantly, the posts will all inspire assignments that educators at all stages can use in their classrooms. Our first post came from Shakira Holt, a playlist of her black girl students’ songs as philogynoir. Our second post was penned by Caroline Pinkston, and in it she questions common classroom management strategies for quieting a classroom instead of listening to students. Today’s post comes from the point of view of a student, teacher, and now researcher, who reflects upon how we listen to the sounds (and students!) in our classrooms.
Time’s up, pencils down, let’s take our notebooks outside to the playground and listen along with Cassie J. Brownell. –Liana Silva, Managing Editor
I have spent much of my life listening in schools. I essentially grew up in the public elementary school in Montana where my mother taught for over 40 years. The sounds of my childhood are those of feet squeaking on the tile floor of the hallways, the bounce of a kickball in the gym, and the slam of desks opening and closing throughout the day.
Across my elementary school years, I spent many early mornings attempting to write my name in cursive with a squeaky dry erase marker on the whiteboard in her classroom. Other mornings, I rapidly clicked the keyboard as I played Oregon Trail alongside two friends whose guardians also worked at the school. After school, I chased these same friends across the schoolyard, shot hoops with them in the gym, or discovered new worlds in the stacks of the library. The whipping Montana winds on the open playground later gave way to new sonic experiences, as I transitioned from elementary student to classroom teacher and, eventually, educational researcher.
When I later became a teacher at an elementary school in post-Katrina New Orleans, Louisiana, the chorus of sounds from my childhood reverberated around me. The delightful shrieks of children on the playground and the sounds of trays being stacked after lunch were familiar. So, too, was the daily stacking of chairs. The frequencies of childhood, both my own and that of my students, informed my entrée into teaching. The familiar rhythms of pencil sharpeners and stapled butcher paper were welcoming waves as I settled into not only my new role, but my new school community in the neighborhood of Algiers Point. Yet, with the opening bells of the school year at this New Orleans elementary school, I began to hear schooling in new registers.
On my first day of teaching, I was acutely attuned to the “noise” the second-grade children in my classroom made—sounds I had not been aware of as a student. I quickly tried to “correct” their behavior with promises of external rewards if they could only make better “choices,” including quieting themselves to listen to me. Yet, few of the classroom management “tricks” I had learned in my educational training seemed to work. After the last child walked away from the schoolyard, I crumbled in the classroom of my mentor teacher. Crying, I told her I was not cut out for such work. She laughed as she told me that to be a teacher I must (re)learn to listen to the sounds of my classroom.
In time, I learned to listen. The day-to-day sounds of teacher-directed schooling, or what I now know as the banking model of education, quickly gave way to my listening to children. I slowly learned the value of listening to the whispers of children as they read, the scuffle of their feet as they sought a different color crayon from a child at another table, and the wise words they shared with one another about how they used an alternative route to solve a given math problem. I listened to them too when they found my hand to hold during recess and the high-fives before they departed each day. Rather than hearing their sounds as unruly chatter, I opened my ears to the excitement and learning children were sharing with one another.
That semester Hurricane Gustav appeared in the Gulf Coast. The impending arrival of the storm coincided with the three-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. As the whole city of New Orleans was encouraged to evacuate, I felt the resonances from Katrina’s devastating impact in the stories and questions of my second-grade students. As Gustav approached, many of the children shared In the final days before we evacuated, we commemorated Katrina and shared hopes for protection during Gustav.
While I listened to their words, I also learned to listen to their bodies. I could hear their worries about the storm in their hugs, the intonation of their voices, and in their reactions to thunderstorms shaking our classroom windows. As a bodily experience, multimodal listening quite literally moves beyond just what our ears can hear to how sound moves across/through/with bodies, materials, and contexts. Through multimodal listening, listeners can develop their skills as both critical consumers and producers of sound. Listeners are thus better positioned to reflect on and identify how sound informs other sensations and feelings. Although I have only recently put words to what it means to engage in multimodal listening, my body was already experienced with it.
I returned to the city almost two weeks later, after the Gulf Coast suffered the one-two-punch of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike. Whispers of wind rustled art supplies by sneaking through fresh cracks in the windows. As my colleagues and I hurriedly re-vamped our classrooms, the traditional staccato sounds of schooling slowly echoed in my ears. In the quiet clean-up of the storm, new frequencies of the school soundscape could be heard. This soundscape was not new in and of itself, but rather it was the absence of the consistent beat that harmonized the everyday sounds to which I had become attuned. Without the slap of a jump rope on the ground or the cheers of children playing kickball to punctuate the silence, waves of emotion—despair, hope, and uncertainty—underlying the soundscape of schooling I thought I knew became apparent to me for the first time.
As an educational researcher in an urban, elementary classroom in the Midwest, I now find myself hearing other frequencies of schooling that remained unheard even in my early teaching. In my new role, my job is to engage in multimodal listening at all times as I participate in elementary classrooms. As a teacher in New Orleans, I was only just beginning to engage in the task of multimodal listening that Ceraso describes. Still today, I am often still attempting to hear and feel all the vibrations happening around me. Yet, as a researcher, I can attend more fully to the task of listening.
Unlike when I was teaching, I do not need to adhere to strict policies regarding the learning of a group of students, but I can instead take an exploratory approach to learning alongside children. Specifically, in collaboration with a culturally and linguistically diverse group of 3rd-grade children in Mr. Holiday’s classroom this past year, I started to earwitness the ambient soundscapes of children’s life spaces. Although I first began listening with the children at Community School J three years earlier, I entered in to Mr. Holiday’s class this year interested in considering the ways children were engaging with and drawing upon various cultural, linguistic, and modal experiences to communicate. I did so aware that, for many historically marginalized children, such communicative practices are often overlooked or unheard in standardized curricular materials.
Mr. Holiday challenged his students to think—and hear—beyond the standardized curriculum by considering how sound can be a tool to write with and through.
“You’re writing, but you can use words, pictures, you can sketch…anything you want to,” Mr. Holiday shared with his class of diverse 3rd graders one day. “Just remember to listen. When we come back inside, we will all share what we heard and then we will talk about how we could use this in our stories about our school.”
Outdoors, a low-flying plane could be heard. With little bodies quietly kicking them back-and-forth, swings creaked. On the playground, we listened to the whipping wind and felt the cool fall weather on our skin. From the slide, one child sounded out for his peers the word chilly, stretching the ls as long as he could. The mulch of the dry ground was kicked by one child as another, with her stomach on the seat of a swing, pushed the ground under her feet to glide back-and-forth.
Some children imagined the empty playground to be filled with the familiar sounds of their daily recesses. Others began to set strict boundaries for how they and their peers might begin to listen. In an attempt to control the bodies of her peers, one girl sent away her friend, suggesting that they could not hear together. Almost simultaneously, another child silently waved from the highest playground tower to the three boys from her class seated closely next to each other on a bench.
As Mr. Holiday called for all children to make a line outside his classroom door, a cacophony of cheers and groans lurched from the children as they sprinted from their observation sites.
“Look at how much I noticed!” one little boy shouted as he handed his notebook to me with a list of sounds. He included sounds heard in the moments we were outdoors like the airplane, but he also included imagined shrieks of children at play.
The sounds of elementary schooling have shown me that much of classroom teaching and learning needs to be grounded in listening. From the structured directions—like those presented by Mr. Holiday—to the daily screams of children racing across the school grounds. In other words, we must listen to children, to their experiences, and to their emotions in order to critically consider how schooling, as a space, informs and is informed by children’s bodies and sounds.
I sometimes wonder what frequencies and rhythms are unheard. With each passing observation in a school, I question whether Western schooled notions of listening contaminate the uniquely trained ears of children. As I observed in the listening exercise with Mr. Holiday’s class, children were capable of engaging in multimodal listening: they not only heard, but felt the wind; they created and felt the vibrations of the swings. They imagined the movement of bodies across the playground and cacophony of sounds and emotions that accompanied them. All of these were embodied sounds I missed as an adult and classroom teacher.
At the same time, I remain hopeful. I am hopeful because the children I came to know in Mr. Holiday’s classroom took the task of listening seriously. They understood hearing as more than simply about the cars passing by or the birds in the nearby trees, but instead engaged in listening with their bodies. Throughout the year, I noticed they were acutely aware of the sniffles or the slow shuffle of feet of a peer who was having a rough day. Their eyes grew large as they danced along with their friends on brain breaks and they often cheered with the whir of a fidget spinner balanced on their teacher’s thumb.
This hope is also based in my various sonic experiences, across spaces and places that visually appear quite different. Teachers interested in learning to listen with their students might consider how they, like Mr. Holiday, might foreground sound as a mode of primacy within the perceived constraints of the mandated curriculum. Engaging in a multi-sensory experience may be as simple as Mr. Holiday’s listening task on the familiar grounds of the schoolyard. Or, perhaps, it is starting your curriculum with the children’s stories of their lived experiences as I did in New Orleans. As others have discussed, when it comes to listening, there is not a clearly defined beginning or end as there does not exist a “blink of an ear.” I am slowly becoming more attuned to the sonic possibilities of how children’s stories and experiences of schooling may be amplified if we, as Mr. Holiday shared, “Just remember to listen.”
Featured image: “listen” by Flickr user Ren:), CC BY-ND 2.0
Cassie J. Brownell is a doctoral candidate and Marianne Amarel Teaching and Teacher Education Fellow in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University. A corecipient of a 2015 NCTE-CEE Research Initiative Grant, Cassie’s most recent collaborative project—#hearmyhome—explores how writing with and through sound might help students and teachers attune toward literacies and communities of difference.
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SO! Amplifies: #hearmyhome and the Soundscapes of the Everyday–Cassie J. Brownell and Jon M. Wargo
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SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig. You’re welcome!
Pause for a moment.
What do you hear?
Is it the quiet hum of a furnace or fan? Perhaps the muffled chatter of your colleagues or children down the hall? Can you hear sirens or birds or the passing of a car or train? Likely, these are sounds that, over time, you have learned to tune-out. Perhaps you have even complained about such ‘noise’ as something that distracts you from your work or disrupts you from your sleep.
But are these sounds really just noise? What would it mean to move beyond hearing such sounds as noise and instead (re)learn to listen to these soundscapes of the everyday as representative of community?
From February to April of 2016, #hearmyhome encourages users to play, innovate, and compose soundscapes through a series of eight sonic events. In doing so, our goal is to help users ‘tune-in’ to their everyday surroundings. By (re)learning to listen to the sounds that surround them, participants may begin to better understand community. In other words, #hearmyhome considers how hearing difference and listening to community may (re)educate our senses by attuning to the rhythms and reverberations of culture.
Currently in its earliest phases, #hearmyhome, led by Jon M. Wargo and myself, explores how choosing to ‘tune-in’ facilitates not only an increased awareness of the acoustic territories and rhythmic rituals which surround us, but also the impact of such sonic experiences on our bodies. In doing so, #hearmyhome interrogates how, with and through sound, people write and compose community.
Each of us became interested in studying soundscapes through different avenues. For Jon, his interest in sound and sonic composition emerged from his longitudinal ethnographic examination of LGBT youth writing with mobile media. Sound was a medium used by many of the young people to architect experience and write community. As a traditionally neglected mode, he was curious how historically marginalized youth (LGBT youth of color) used sound to compose counter-narratives of self and community.
Sparked by travels abroad, I first began capturing soundscapes while in Indonesia during Ramadan. Using Snapchat’s video tool, I not only captured the sounds of the call to prayer, but also sounds across Southeast Asia—from the busy streets of Jakarta to the dropping of coins into the 108 bowls within the Temple of Reclining Buddha in Bangkok, Thailand. Through these sonic experiences, I began to question how sound might be used by educators and youth to explore difference and diversity amongst local and global communities.
Developing materials on a multitude of scales—from local community asset maps in teacher education classes to the larger collaborative of networked sounds—each is created with the goal of hearing, recognizing, and sustaining community. #hearmyhome takes heed of the frequencies and rhythms of culture in hopes to architect, design, and teach towards equitable landscapes for learning. Refracted through the aural perspective, we see sound re-teaching the senses by working with participants to compose constructs like ‘home’ and ‘place.’ Geared towards PK-16 teachers and students, #hearmyhome is a pedagogical endeavor. Yet, as a research project, we are interested in examining the following research questions: What are the soundscapes of a networked collaborative? How do users and participants compose with sound, attune towards difference, and write with place?
Towards a Networked Vision for Tuning-In to Sound
#hearmyhome’s vision is guided by three central tenets: collaboration, pedagogy/praxis, and research
Focusing on “everyday” cultural heritage, #hearmyhome invites youth and adult participants to “earwitness” community through expansive personal learning networks (PLN). At the conclusion of the sonic events, participants’ soundscapes and ambient acoustics will be archived on an open-networked soundscapes map. We hope that these will be accessed as curricular resources for youth and teachers globally. #hearmyhome is an “affinity space” wherein participants share both knowledge and life experiences (hosted and inspired through their sonic events series). Through this map, for instance, a teacher in Montana may have access to the sounds of Chicago’s subway while simultaneously youth in Michigan may opt to write with the sounds of a kookaburra captured by second graders in Australia. Ideally, an “affinity space” helps to form interpersonal relationships and collaboratively create a fuller understanding of community and culture for participants. As the community expands through new partnerships and members, we hope it serves as a hub connecting participants with research opportunities, (g)local initiatives—integrating and making the more global knowledge local—and online resources and tools.
One of #hearmyhome’s larger goals is to develop curricular materials for teachers via the collaborative network and shared space on writing with and through sound. As an “open” project, resources will be shared widely via the #hearmyhome website as well as across our social media platforms as we hope to develop powerful practices of hearing, listening, and witnessing sound across communities. Interested in contributing? While our sonic events are available now, throughout the summer #hearmyhome’s homepage will be updated with additional curricular resources. If you are an educator, please consider contributing to this crowd-sourced effort. Join us by signing up for our weekly emails here or like our page on Facebook for more information on each sonic event, or simply ‘lurk and learn’ by following the #hearmyhome hashtag across Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter!
Supported by the Cultural Heritage Informatics Fellowship and the National Council of Teachers of English’s Conference on English Education Research Initiative, #hearmyhome explores the sonic possibilities of writing with sound. We use sound to amplify what Steph Ceraso calls “multimodal listening,” or attending to the bodily, material, and contextual aspects of sonic interactions and relations. Sound allows for more expansive understandings of space, place, and self. We decided to hang our research on the hashtag, #hearmyhome, to aggregate data because it allows us to index user-produced soundscapes while attending to the wider goal of exploring the multiple homes of our global participants. The research component of the project investigates how the acoustic territories of the everyday write culture. For example, how might the writing of a ‘Where I’m From…’ poem shift if one does not choose to write using alphabetic print, but instead chooses to use sound? However, #hearmyhome by its very nature is open to everyone regardless of participation in the formal “research” study. Researchers will always seek members’ consent before sharing any work beyond the online community networked collaborative. For more on this, please see our standards of research statement.
Follow Along with #hearmyhome’s Sonic Events
Joining #hearmyhome is as simple as opting in to our sonic events. To do so, visit the #hearmyhome homepage and select “Sonic Events.” Then, after reading across the prompt, use your phone or another device to record the soundscapes that are the focus of the sonic event. You can easily upload and share your recording using Instagram, Twitter, or Soundcloud. By including the #hearmyhome hashtag as well as the appropriate hashtag for the sonic event you are responding to (ex. #SE5 for sonic event 5), your response will be indexed in the #hearmyhome stream. To later be included in our networked map, it is important to also turn on the geotag to demarcate your location. Your contribution will then be accessible to teachers and youth as they explore different communities and writing with and through sound!
While there is no right or wrong way to participate in #hearmyhome, we wanted to share an example from one of our participants, sound scholar Steph Ceraso. By clicking the Soundcloud link below, you can listen to how Steph responded to the prompt for our fifth #hearmyhome sonic event that asked participants to share the sounds of the ‘in-between’ moments of their day. We chose Steph’s example as it illustrates not only the beauty of noise, silence, and everyday hearings, but also for her ability to remix these sounds into a song all of their own.
Although the sonic events go “live” during the weeks listed on the homepage (February 7 to April 1 2016), we encourage you to use these sounds in any way and to join the #hearmyhome collaborative at any time. Reading across the soundscapes of networked participation, we ultimately believe attuning towards difference and “hearing” home and community will help (re)mediate learning about culture by voicing stories of the everyday, highlighting the rhythmic resonances of ritual, and attuning towards community difference.
Cassie J. Brownell is a Graduate Fellow in the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities and a doctoral student in Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education at Michigan State University.
Jon M. Wargo, an International Literacy Association (ILA) 30 Under 30 awardee, is a University Fellow and doctoral candidate in Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education at Michigan State University. In Fall 2016, Jon will join the Wayne State University faculty as an Assistant Professor of Reading, Language, and Literacy.
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