Cultivate Active Listening…Through Notetaking! | Steve Barkley

Cultivate Active Listening…Through Notetaking!

Guest Blogger: Liza Garonzik

I had the opportunity to record two podcasts with Liza Garonzik, the founder of R.E.A.L. Discussions. She provided great strategies around how we can have students learn the skills and value of discussion. I invited her to share more of her work in this blog.

What does active listening look like – and how can we teach, practice, and assess it in the classroom?

This is a question that keeps me up at night. I’m a former teacher turned discussion-based learning expert who studies and builds tools for communication skill development in classrooms. What I’ve found is that so often, when we talk about teaching discussion and communication skills, we focus on talking, defining what does – and doesn’t – constitute a great comment. That is important, certainly, but it’s only half the equation. And in today’s content-blaring world, it might be the weaker half!

To answer this question – among others that I had about students’ experience with discussion-based learning in school – I surveyed a few thousand students and teachers back in 2019. The results were interesting (especially now on the other side of the pandemic): over four in five students reported that discussion was “harder and scarier” than a test. When we dug into why, we learned that just beyond the predictable answers – “I don’t know if I’ll get my voice in!” “I don’t know if my comment is ‘good enough!'” was a funny lurker: “I don’t know how to take good notes.”

Not knowing how to take notes never occurred to me as a challenge – in fact, I had thrown it on the survey as a throwaway option. However, when I talked through it with my students, I realized that the root of the challenge wasn’t the note-taking, per se, it was the listening that preceded the note-taking! So, I thought: What if I designed a ritual for active listening – and then notetaking – in my classroom? I did just that: the benefits were huge.

I called the ritual In-REAL-Time Notes and here’s how it worked: three times during a discussion, children stop for a self-facilitated “In-REAL-Time Notes” break. Their job is to identify one idea that has been raised that has changed or challenged their thinking (might as well reinforce the idea that we engage in discussion to expand our minds – not cuddle in an echo chamber – while we were at it). Students write down their classmates’ name, summarize their idea, and explain how it “changed or challenged their thinking.” They then have the option to re-open conversation using these notes as a jumping off point.

The ritual was simple but transformative for several reasons. First: knowing that they would have to complete this task three times changed how children engaged in their learning. Although initially this was a challenging ask for middle and high school students alike – “how am I supposed to remember?” – within a week, all students could do it. Second: their notes got deeper and more specific as time went on, which was evidence of better listening skills. Eventually, they built a portfolio of moments when their minds were “changed and challenged” thanks to their peers: an incredible record of intellectual humility and active listening in a world that runs on polarity and content production!

IRT Notes Example:

In-REAL-Time notes weren’t just proof of individual listening skills, though. They were fodder for community building and an authentic, student-led way to elevate and revisit some of the deepest ideas. It was powerful for students to recognize the power of feeling heard – and showing someone else you have heard them. I would often ask students to “share an IRT note” to “shout out” or “thank” a classmate for expanding their minds. Time and time again, students sat up straighter and leaned in during “shout outs”: they were surprised to hear that their peers actually remembered and appreciated their comments – and feeling heard never got old. They often “shouted out” peers who weren’t their friends and voices who weren’t the loudest. For older students, I even invited them to transfer these shout-outs into their written work by “footnoting a friend” in their analytical writing – which they thought was great fun and celebrated intellectual growth.

Creating In-REAL-Time notes as a ritual for active listening – as a pathway to better notetaking, community building, and authentic student leadership – changed my classroom and our conversations for the better. The best part? It all originated with student feedback! Great things happen when you listen to kids.

Thank you, Liza. I encourage readers to check out Liza’s podcasts here and here as well as her blogs and articles at R.E.A.L. Discussions.

Consider how Liza’s work can be applied in PLCs and coaching.

Liza Garonzik is the founder of R.E.A.L. Discussion, a company with a big dream: to help Gen-Z discover the discipline, joy, and power of discussion. Liza’s background as a teacher, administrator, and trustee in independent schools helped her build R.E.A.L.®.

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