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  • Writer's picturecathybelgrave

An Invitation to Listen


I recently took a workshop on field listening - consciously listening to outside sounds. I was amazed at how much sound there was around me. When I slowed down and listened deeply, there was so much information available to me. How could I take my experience and apply it to my work with children? How might we perceive the world through listening? How can we communicate our experiences?

We are hearing all the time but that doesn't mean we are listening. ~ Lawerence English

The Back Story: My Listening Experience

As we stood on the beach, our instructor Lawerence English, invited us to listen closely to the waves breaking on the shore. He cautioned that people often dismiss familiar sounds and he encouraged us to listen attentively. As I listened, I heard the waves breaking in layers - it wasn't just one sound! I was so surprised that this familiar sound had so much complexity. He then invited us to listen with deer ears - the layers were even more pronounced. We did a variety of listening exercises, each one intended to offer us a way to listen more deeply. Finally, he invited us to listen using a hydrophone microphone - a microphone placed in the water. The magnification of the sound really gave me a sense of the energy of the ocean, and at the end of the wave break, there was a whoosh. This whoosh, was the interaction between the water and sand - we were hearing the energy of the water moving the sand. I was in awe - how could I bring this awe and wonder to the classroom? How do we find the words to describe our experience? How might conscious listening influence writing?

I was in awe of the richness of sound around me

Over the next week, I practiced listening and began recording sounds with my phone. I recorded the birdsong, rain, the falling leaves. When I listened to the recordings, I noticed more of the background sounds, and similarities between sounds. I decided to use these sound recordings as an invitation to my creative writing group to listen closely and find words to describe what they hear.

Our experiences are stories worth telling - they're a way of communicating and connecting with others.

Bringing Sound to the Classroom

My creative writing group is comprised of children 8 to 12 years old and my goal is for children to see that their everyday experiences are stories worth telling - that story is a way of communicating and connecting with others. Within this particular group, most were lukewarm about writing. They struggled to find ideas, were worried about spelling and punctuation; when they had an idea, they couldn't find the words. I thought listening could be an entry point into finding the words. I thought using my sound recording would spark curiosity, bring a playfulness to the class and offer a space for conversation.

With each listening, I didn't tell them what they were listening to. We started with the birdsong, something familiar, which they quickly identified. I asked them to listen again: Listen to the sounds underneath the birds.

I hear a rumbling, said one child.

I hear a truck backing up, commented another.

Then we listened to the recording of the rain - again, I didn't tell them what it was.

It sounds like the ocean - waves.

I think it's leaves.

It has a scratchy sound.

It's the waves hitting the beach.

It sounds like a fire - there's a crackling.

I told them they had been listening to rain and we listened again. This time they described the type of rain - big rain falling heavily on the ground and leaves. Finding words to describe how big rain might fall, they came up with words like plunge and plummet. What else might plunge or plummet?

Leaves - leaves plummeting

People diving in a pool

Someone falling

A shower of leaves

We talked about the similarities in sound - how dry leaves blowing down the sidewalk sounded like the rain falling on the leaves. How the rain sounded like the ocean meeting the beach.

How might we join the similar sounds together to describe an experience?

A downpour of leaves crashing like waves on the beach

The leaves crackled down the sidewalk

Wanting the children to have their own lived experience of listening deeply, we then went outside. We listened to the sounds of the playground - here's some of what they noticed:

Children screaming muting all other sound

Screeching swings

The high pitched shout of the slide

Low murmur of adults

Thump of a baseball glove

Clap of the baseball hitting the fence

Low hum of a machine

As I watched them listen I saw moments of awe cross their face when they heard something past the obvious. There was a whole other world opening up to them, leading them to a deeper understanding of the world around us.

We are each born with a brain prepared to investigate and make sense of the world in partnership with our body ~ Susan Harris MacKay

A Teaching Space of Openness and Shared Experience

So, the children actually had the words. Their phrases included alliteration, simile, metaphor, personification - all without any direct teaching. It was the openness and the shared experience that held the teaching space. There was no 'right' answer, simply a sharing of observations, and as the children discussed their observations, they considered the contributions and found the words that best described the experience. Sometimes they didn't agree, and that was okay - each child felt a certainty and confidence in how they were choosing to describe what they heard. There was no need for consensus; instead, there was a curiosity about each other's descriptions. Our shared deep listening had sparked awe and wonder - we were not so dismissive of sound, understanding that sound has more to offer us than we initially thought.

Children are competent and capable, they just need the freedom to be curious and explore.

I encourage you to embark on a listening adventure - for yourself and with the children. Sit quietly and listen. Try deer ears. Listen for sounds beneath the obvious. Share your experiences with others. Listen to what they share - how does their sharing lead you to observe something you hadn't considered? Through listening we can connect with the richness of the world around us, the richness of being connected to the environment and connecting with others.


Deer Photo by Benjamin Raffetseder

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