Even Outspoken Students Struggle to Listen in English Class

By Esme Laster


For most students, the importance of listening has been tactfully drilled into our minds by teachers, administrators, parents, and even some deceptively instructional television series. In kindergarten, you begin to hear catchy phrases you never forget instructing you to put on your listening caps, and to stop, look and listen–to which you respond “okay!” with a blind enthusiasm so that you can earn points on the leaderboard or win over your teacher. The message of these idioms seems to follow you throughout elementary and middle school as you face increasingly difficult academics and listening becomes a more necessary skill. By high school, listening should be second nature to us. Yet we still struggle to listen to each other.

It’s puzzling that a lack of listening becomes apparent in the class that is theoretically sustained by students’ ability to listen to one another. English class is based on sharing thoughts, questions, and analysis. It relies on discussion, or as Beacon English teacher Liz Kaufman puts it, on “building off of what the other person has said and through [that] deepening your understanding of the topic” at hand.

However, some students view English class an “echo chamber” rather than a truly interconnected experience. Why? Is it the innate competitive nature of Beacon students that inhibits us from listening and “building off” of one another? Or do we tend to think that it is more necessary to listen to a teacher or figure of authority rather than an equal, such as a peer? Or maybe, do we tune out for others because we suspect that we are not truly being heard ourselves?

It is no secret that Beacon students are an impressive show of NYC high schoolers, which generates both a highly competitive and a highly stimulating academic atmosphere. It seems English class is where these two characteristics collide since English class requires students to curate original and sometimes abstract thoughts. Unlike other courses such as Math, Science, or even History, there is rarely an objective or fact-based way to participate in an English discussion. It is this uncertainty that can shift the classroom dynamic to a more competitive and intimidating one.

Beacon student Helena Milburn believes that “people tend to judge how smart someone is based more on how they speak or how confident they are when they speak, rather than by…what they’re actually saying.” Judgment by peers is always intimidating. However, judgment by peers in English class can feel especially personal. Sophomore Simone Kyle adds that English is “the most emotional class. It’s about life–what you say in English is about the way you perceive human nature.”

Therefore, it makes sense that students struggle building off of one another or making entirely authentic contributions to class discussions since it can feel like there is more emphasis on presentation than on substance. Whether this is a result of needing to “sound smart” or of feeling vulnerable and judged, this phenomenon can hinder the enjoyment and participation of Beacon students in English.

Although this may sound inevitable, there are ways to change the English class dynamic–specifically, by establishing trust. This is one of Ms. Kaufman’s primary classroom goals. She’s “invested in creating an environment where students trust [her] and trust each other.” Establishing trust among students and faculty enables us to share our ideas honestly, take interest in each other’s insights, and truly listen to one another.