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.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
SO! Amplifies: #hearmyhome and the Soundscapes of the Everyday–Cassie J. Brownell and Jon M. Wargo
(Sound)Walking Through Smithfield Square in Dublin— Linda O’Keeffe
A Listening Mind: Sound Learning in a Literature Classroom–Nicole Furlonge
Fall refuses to stay put in Kansas City. The past month Kansas City temperatures have skyrocketed to 70 comfortable degrees fahrenheit and plummeted to 20 chilly degrees. I decided to partake of a wonderfully mild Sunday afternoon last Thanksgiving weekend to do another one of my Kansas City soundwalks, this time the fall edition. Fortunately the weather was cooperating, and I didn’t have to worry about how long I could resist standing in the cold.
Even though the weather was wonderful for a soundwalk, I couldn’t choose where to go. I have blogged about three soundwalks so far, and for each of them the choice seemed more organic: for my first soundwalk, in 2010, I wanted to walk around my new neighborhood and begin to understand it from an aural point of view. For my second soundwalk (in 2011) I went to one of my favorite places in Kansas City, the Country Club Plaza, and provided a snapshot of the sounds of spring in this busy area of Midtown. On my personal blog, in time for World Listening Day 2011, I talked about sounds from my own porch for a summer edition of my KC Soundwalks series, in order to think about the soundscape where I live. However, for this fourth soundwalk my only requirement was that it be a place I had not been to before. I wanted to venture out to somewhere new and encounter it not just with my eyes but also with my ears. Technically, I could go anywhere in Kansas City and do a soundwalk, but that was the one thing keeping me from doing a soundwalk: I couldn’t choose.
Last Sunday I decided I had to just get in the car and go. I had planned (and postponed) several soundwalks up until that day (I had even tweeted that I was leaving the house, in hopes of that forcing me to commit), so that day I planned to finally take some time to do my soundwalk before I went back to work. I got in the car with my daughter, destined for the West Bottoms neighborhood. I figured I’d take the long route instead of the quick and easy highways. As we drove along the side streets, I saw a park—a park neither of us had been to before, Jarboe Park—and I figured we could stop there, play for a while, and then drive off for my soundwalk. In any case, she might be good and tired by the time we arrived at our final destination, and I could put her in the stroller while I recorded and took notes.
That’s not what happened.
Once we arrived at the park, a moment of inspiration hit when I saw some musical instruments of sorts as part of the jungle gym, something I hadn’t seen before.
When we arrived, Jarboe Park was deserted. The bare trees didn’t make it any more inviting, but the park is in newly minted condition and full of bright colors. It showed no signs of life, or wear and tear; in fact, the jungle gym and the swings seemed new. (According to The City of Kansas City, MO’s website, this park was remodeled in 2011.) Jarboe Park is located in a residential neighborhood, across from Primitivo García Elementary School. During the semester it surely gets more use. Perhaps it was too early on a Sunday for families to be out and about at the park. Coincidentally, a family appeared about an hour after we arrived, but they went to the basketball court across the street.
The first thing that caught my attention at the park was the presence of musical instruments set up at the entrance. I do not remember seeing anything similar before at a children’s jungle gym. There was a set of bells, a xylophone, some rainmakers, a whistle, and a drum set. Their presence seemed to indicate that making sounds/music/noise was also part of the experience of being in the park as well as part of the experience of growing up. Sound, specifically making sounds, became part of play, in this context.
In the quietude of the noon time the sounds these instruments made felt a little sad instead of happy; the fact that there was only one child (ok, two, including myself!) playing with these instruments made their sounds stand out more, in relation to, say, the sounds of the trains and the highways (which I will discuss below). At the same time they drew attention to the fact that they were the only sounds that the park was making. If the park were busy, the sounds of the instruments would probably fade into the soundscape instead of being the loudest sound. However, the fact that we were playing with these instruments–versus playing instruments–made the park seem less lonely. We were part of the sounds, we were making sounds, and that seemed to distract me from the fact that we were the only people there making sounds. Although the plastic and metal instruments were not like traditional instruments, I wondered what their purpose in the jungle gym were. If the spider web and the swings are meant to exercise certain parts of the body and practice certain ways of socializing, what did the instruments teach? Perhaps the instruments are meant to teach children that instruments produce sounds, and they produce them in different ways. Lastly, the instruments and the act of creating sounds must use a different part of the brain–and my daughter was quite excited to play with the drum set!
Other than the sounds of the instruments, I also noticed the sounds of the highway and the train. I found a corner of the park where I could stand and record the sounds of the city:
Kansas City is intersected by train tracks, and it almost feels like if you pay close attention, you can hear a train in the distance at any corner of the city. In fact, in the dead of a lazy afternoon or the quiet of the wee hours of the night I can hear the trains’ whistles, announcing their passing through the city, from my neighborhood of Rosedale in Kansas City, Kansas. If soundwalks can be a sonic ethnography of a city, my soundwalks have so far revealed that the sound of trains are an essential part of the KC soundscape as well as a reminder of the city’s history: the Kansas City Stockyards. I could also hear the low buzzing of the cars on the highway, another sound I’ve come to recognize as uniquely Kansas Citian, or at least part of my soundsscape. The murmur of the traffic ways is like the sound of Kansas City’s blood coursing through its veins.
This spur-of-the-moment soundwalk made me think of how listening and sound can prompt reflection about the identity of a neighborhood and of a city. As I wrote down notes, I wondered: how do parks add to a community’s soundscape? The sounds add to the community’s identity as a residential area as an area that is amenable to the presence (physically and in aural terms) of other people. Soundscapes are connected to our ideas of what constitutes a neighborhood, and specifically how important common spaces like parks are, with all the sounds that may ensue. On a broader level, my Kansas City soundwalks are helping me piece together a soundscape of Kansas City, and to think through sound as a way to understanding the urban culture of this city, with its music, its fountains, its sports, and its trains, among other things. I feel like my listening practices are directly tied to my developing connection to this Midwestern city.
Postscript: I never did make it to the West Bottoms that Sunday. But it’s still on my list of KC spots to visit.
Featured Image: “Downtown from Top of Liberty2″ by Wikimedia user Hngrange, under Creative Commons 3.0 license.
Liana M. Silva is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out!