How to Really Listen to Students

You have to be brave to be vulnerable. Everybody has a story worth telling. It takes courage to reveal parts of yourself and it takes courage to create the space to listen to these stories, to set aside what you believe about someone. I learned this in my career as a spoken word artist and musician. Performing pieces about your innermost thoughts and feelings is not for the faint of heart. But only after I began teaching in 2011 at Fine Arts Interdisciplinary Resource School, a diverse high school located in downtown Minneapolis, did I see how terrifying it is to tear down the distance between you and your audience. Yet if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have built a culture of trust in my classroom.

An Unlikely Candidate

The teaching job fell into my lap when my friend, Minnesota Teacher of the Year Tom Rademacher, suggested I apply to FAIR as a special education assistant. I got the job, but then without warning, a teacher backed out of his spoken word poetry class and the school’s administrators asked me to replace him. At age 30, I was an unlikely candidate for the job. But in a way, that made me the most qualified. I didn’t graduate from college because I wanted to devote myself to performing and touring. I could see myself in my students. Like them, a kid with black, white, and Native American blood coursing through my veins, I didn’t grow up with money. School felt disconnected to who I was as a person—writing songs and with a burning need for self-expression. I connected more with the music I was listening to than the teachers who were grading me. Songwriting became far more important to me than my studies, and since no one believed my passion was worth validating in school, I slowly withdrew from it. Luckily, I found the Perpich Center for Arts Education during my senior year, otherwise, I'm not sure I would have graduated from high school. If I was properly trained as a teacher, I would have regarded myself as an authority figure invested with a certain amount of power. Because of my lack of experience, I found it easier it to focus on what I would have wanted as my teenage self—a safe place to express myself and be heard. I wanted to be a resource, not the resource, for my students. When we as teachers try to see ourselves in our students, we discover we have similar hopes and fears and desires. We realize that the distance power creates, prevents us from understanding kids, and the many layers they possess.

Rising to the Challenge

My kids’ writing unearthed the painful struggles they carried inside. These difficulties were made more real when I announced that I booked a public space for them to perform their work. They were scared, telling me they didn’t think they were brave enough to perform in front of others. Truth was, I felt I was more at risk than they were. They didn’t know this was my first semester of teaching and it was a trial by fire; I learned as I went along. With an audience of at least 50 people, including the associate principal, I saw these kids come to life in ways I didn’t expect. A reserved student who didn’t say much in class performed a blazing piece about the shooting of Sean Bell, an unarmed man in New York City killed the night before his wedding by 50 bullets fired by the police. Challenge students, and they will rise to the occasion. They will surprise you. So it’s best to leave a lot of what we think we know at the door. Everybody has a story worth telling and with the right prompts, you can flesh them out. I like asking kids to write nonstop for five minutes. I ask them to write about where they’re from without mentioning geography, to tell me about their scars, physical and emotional, or to share their struggles and the silver linings they see ahead. This practice worked so well for me, I found that I related to my students better than my adult colleagues. I’m now enrolled in college with the goal of obtaining a teaching license by 2017. I’m still involved with the kids I taught. I mentor former students with writing and performance, and keep in touch through social media and encounters around town. A number of them are part of the local arts scene and continue to perform spoken word. One former student performed in Brave New Voices, an international youth poetry slam, in Chicago. I’m glad my kids were brave enough to be themselves. I’ve learned so much as a result and it led me to the career I want to dedicate my life to—teaching them that vulnerability is nothing to shy away from.
Alexei Moon Casselle is a songwriter, performance artist and musician with a combined twenty years worth of experience working in the arts, with young people and in education. Alexei is a member of Educators 4 Excellence.
Alexei Moon Casselle is a songwriter, performance artist and musician with a combined twenty years worth of experience working in the arts, with young people and in education. Alexei is a member of Educators 4 Excellence. He is a father, student and a teacher who balances his community work in Minneapolis, Minnesota with personal ...

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