Easy to Judge, but Hard to Listen

Into the Woods of Perspective

Read on to find a Classroom Exercise in Listening to Another’s Perspective

If you pay attention to the news, and especially to social media platforms like Twitter or Facebook, you are likely seeing a world that looks pretty divided. You might be seeing a lot of fear, or anger. You might be seeing a lot of finger-pointing or pleas for many disparate individual rights, from gun rights to religious freedom, from economic liberty to marriage equality.

Through all of this you might be asking yourself, as an educator, “What’s my role in this? What role does all of this play in my classroom? Certainly my students are aware of it. Certainly my students are impacted by it.”

Whether they feel that their causes are finally being taken up, or they feel scared for their safety, they are impacted by the rhetoric. Emotions are running high. So, do we ignore it in the classroom and continue on? Or do we find a way to acknowledge and discuss what’s happening? I’m not really sure what the answer is, because there are a lot of laws and mandates out there that dictate what material you have to cover in a year. There’s also the fear that certain topics are taboo or downright illegal in the schoolroom. I don’t know for sure what the right path is, but my hunch is that right now, our students need the adults in their lives to model for them. My hunch is that if we ignore what’s happening, our students will find other models for interacting with each other and a lot of those models are violent, and intolerant, and divisive.

There is a wonderful musical written by perhaps the most genius lyricist of all time, in which important lessons about nearly every aspect of life are hidden: Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. One song in particular — “No One is Alone” — expresses beautifully the concept I’d like to focus on: before passing judgment on others, we should try to understand other perspectives; it’s harder to vilify people when we really hear their experience.

The song is sung four-ways between Cinderella, a Baker, Little Red Riding Hood, and Jack (of beanstalk fame). Red and Jack are now both without parents, theirs having been killed by a female giant who climbed down the beanstalk. Reasonable, perhaps, to want to kill the giant. But as Cinderella and the Baker try to remind the children, it’s never so simple.

As we often hear, the manner in which we consume our news today makes it possible for each of us to stay in our bubbles. Just as liberals are waking up to the fact that a large portion of the country thinks differently and hears different information than they do, it can be shocking to discover that people living just down the street from you experience a different reality. It doesn’t mean those people are wrong, stupid, evil, or misinformed; it means they have a different lens and a different reality.

In the song, Cinderella and the Baker try to help the children see that everyone has their own story and perspective, and that those people are not alone. They have people too — people who will agree with them, who will protect them, who are impacted by their presence or absence. They sing:

Just remember:
Someone is on your side.
Someone else is not.
While we’re seeing our side-
Maybe we forgot: they are not alone.
No one is alone.

Let us also remember that the female giant has descended into this world because Jack stole her gold and killed her husband. No one is alone. Every action has a repercussion. Nothing is black and white.

Witches can be right,
Giants can be good.
You decide what’s right,
You decide what’s good

Cinderella and the Baker do not know, or pretend to know, what the right thing is. They recognize that they all have to make a choice about the right thing to do, but that right and wrong are not absolutes. They might make a mistake. The giant has a valid perspective, a different lens.

As educators, we can help our students look beyond their own bubbles and try to see through another lens. We can help them, not in trying to win or beattheir opponents but to hear — really hear — what others are saying and why. We can help our students strip out hyperbole and invective to make a true human connection with people who have a different experience.

Exercise

This activity is not about debating or arguing. It’s not even about putting another idea into your own words. It’s about hearing, as accurately as possible, what the other person is saying. Here’s what to do:

  1. Open up this Pear Deck. You’ll see several example Drag the Dot questions with different prompts on them. Students will be able to Drag their Dots on a spectrum to indicate their opinion (and how strongly they hold that opinion).
  2. You can edit these prompts to choose topics more relevant for your class. I recommend only presenting one or two of these prompts at a time.
  3. Start Presenting and let students answer the first prompt.
  4. Display the answers so students can see the range of opinions. If most everyone agrees, I recommend moving on to a different prompt — this might be an indication that you picked something too easy. The idea is to get students hearing opinions different from their own.
  5. As students look at the spread of opinions, ask them what questions they have for each other. 
    What do you want to know? 
    Why do you think someone might think differently than they do?
  6. Next, pair students up with someone from the opposite end of the spectrum. Or, if you think they can self-organize, ask students to mingle and find a partner with a different opinion.
  7. Once everyone has a partner, the listening begins. Ask Partner 1 to explain to Partner 2 why they put their dot where they did. Why do they hold that opinion?
  8. Next, Partner 2 repeats back to Partner 1 what they heard as accurately as possible. If Partner 1 thinks that Partner 2 missed something or somehow altered the viewpoint, she clarifies. Partner 2 repeats the words back again, and they continue like this until Partner 1 agrees that Partner 2 got it right.
  9. They switch roles, repeating steps 9 and 10 above.
  10. Ask students to return to their devices and click the “Ask Again” button. This will make a duplicate of the question without erasing their original answers. 
    Ask students: “Now that you’ve talked with someone with a different point of view, where would you place your dot?” 
    You can now move the slides back and forth between the first and second answers.
  11. Ask students questions like:
    Did your opinion change?
    Does it look like the overall opinion of the class shifted (to one side or the other? To the middle)?

    What was it like to just try to repeat back what you heard?
    Did you feel like your partner understood your point of view in the end?
    Did you feel like you better understand your partner’s point of view in the end?