I have worked as a teaching artist with groups of all ages. Some of my most recent residencies have been with pre-Kindergarten teachers and their students through North Carolina Wolf Trap Education Institute for Early Learning through the Arts. My goal in this program is to use the performing arts to enhance the children’s interest in books and to pass on music, storytelling, and theater skills to the teachers so they can continue making literacy an exciting journey for their three, four, and five year olds.
Although I make up chants and songs and lead role-play and imaginary travel, I also sense that the children want to talk about their lives. So I have begun to make space for that, even if it is only a fraction of the program. I’ve learned to ask open-ended questions about what makes them happy, sad, or angry. I am always impressed with their insight about their experiences.
The adults I work with are no different. As a co-leader of a digital storytelling class, I lead story circles in which the participants talk through their experiences and perceptions as immigrants and refugees. Sometimes we work with immigrants and refugees who have stories of the worst situations imaginable. After hearing these life stories, other immigrants feel, at the beginning, that their stories are not as interesting or valid as others’ are. But by the end of class, we aim to convince all our participants that they each have had meaningful experiences, that we all have something valuable to say. They come to this realization because the listeners in the circle really hear them and encourage them to take up their own “story space”. Everyone has a chance be listened to and to listen.
Kali and a student listen to others share their experiences during a story circle.
Even when I do not deliberately make space and opportunities for group listening, children show a need for deep listening. A few years back, an adorable 5th grade boy stole a chance to tell me that his incarcerated brother was coming home and how much he missed him. This happened with no prompting from me. He just needed someone he could trust to listen. I was honored to learn what was important to him. This memory reminds me: No matter what grand plans and techniques I have at my disposal to implement a stellar residency, the most profound gift I can give is a listening heart.
I have learned from these experiences that it is as important to listen well to a person’s story, as it is to tell them my stories. I have begun to call myself a story-listener as well as a story-teller. Beyond that, it is my work to model deep listening for the groups I teach. In his essay, “Prescription for Health: Entering the Stories of Others”, Eric Booth says, “Every child should have significant early and consistent learning in the deep, empathetic listening that teaching artists are skilled at developing.” I agree with his assertion that “empathy development” is some of the most important work needed in Western society today. As a teaching artist/story-listener, I am perfectly equipped to undertake it.