Teach Listening First

Teach Listening First: How to Link
Listening Instruction into your Career Pathway
EdTalk given at Cal State Poly Pomona by Scott M. Petri


I should start by saying if my wife was here listening to me talking about the importance of teaching listening skills, the laughter would be deafening. She often complains that I don’t listen to her, refuse to write anything down and don’t remember anything she tells me. It’s like she hit the lottery of clueless husbands. Fortunately, you don’t have to be a listening expert to teach listening skills. I started down this path by attending my daughter’s 2nd grade publishing party. Each child read their poem from the author’s chair and then each audience member gave them a compliment by focusing on one of the poetry terms. I really liked how you used personification. Awesome alliteration Alex. I loved your onomatopoeia. . .

I went back to my school wondering how I could implement this in my classroom without my 9th graders shouting BORING at each other. After talking with colleagues who reminded me that teachers set the culture in their classroom, we wrote an ASCD Teacher Impact Grant and were given funding to conduct a video lesson study on teaching listening and speaking skills. This experience inspired us to teach listening first.

As a history teacher working in a medical careers pathway, I have shifted my traditional instruction to skills-based instruction. It’s a simple concept. I demonstrate a skill for students. They practice it. I measure it, and we repeat. Students pursuing medical careers understand the need for strong listening skills. If doctors and nurses can’t listen during patient intakes, misdiagnoses happen and patients suffer.

So I teach skills now. Listening skills, writing skills, speaking skills, collaboration skills. Basically anything that can’t be measured with a standardized test. Practice skill. Measure. Repeat. Over the last 7 years, I have obsessively measured every academic variable in my classroom with the unwavering determination of a lunatic. This has made me popular with my students because I can show them where they are in relation to their peers. It’s only taken me 30 years, but I have finally become popular in high school.

If you have happy students, you are on your way to becoming Teacher of the Year. One way to create this atmosphere is to measure performance tasks that show student growth throughout the year. This is simple data collection. What I learned from looking at all this data is that what we don’t know is bigger than what we do know. This is especially true of our students, who are so intimidated by what they don’t know, that they often fail to engage in even the most basic of academic tasks. This is what exasperates teachers and leads to burnout.

How do we teach speaking to students who would rather take a zero than embarrass themselves in front of their peers? And how do we teach listening when as soon as you hit play, half the class reaches for their cell phones? The kids we don’t engage haunt us. How do we keep inspiring? How do teachers keep pushing that rock up the hill? Like the journey of a thousand miles. We begin with a single step. Goal-setting. This involves showing students where they are and showing them where they need to be.

We know students must leave high school with a working understanding of about 50,000 words in order to be academically successful in college. Good vocabulary teaching involves a lot of talk and practice using language. Listening to academic vocabulary being used correctly is an important first step in helping students gain confidence before they start speaking with new words.

Although most social studies teachers probably do not feel the need to teach listening, research shows that students learn 55% of their academic vocabulary in social studies classes. Listening is a key component of strong instruction and is often taught in elementary school, but fades away in middle and high school.

Speaking and listening standards have become the forgotten part of the Common Core. Few schools or districts formally assess them. A 2015 UCLA study found a majority of social studies teachers struggled to explain how they helped students develop speaking and listening skills. These teachers reported using small and whole-class discussions regularly, but rarely (if ever) assessed their students during these activities. Only 15% of these teachers spoke confidently about their speaking & listening instruction.

All of this convinced me that we need to teach listening first. Listening while reading helps people have successful interactions with text, where they read with enjoyment and accuracy. Research shows that students can listen two to three grade levels above what they can read.  Most importantly for CTE Pathway teachers like me who teach career readiness skills, listening has been identified as one of the top skills employers seek. Although most of us spend the majority of our day listening, how much time do we spend trying to become a better at it?

Very few educators provide instruction in listening. We assume that every student can listen, if they’ll just stop talking. Unfortunately, that’s just not true. Without specific instruction, students do not understand that listening is an active process under their control. If you have ever sat through a series of student presentations, than you know many students don’t listen to each other at all. We need to teach them how.

Sound expert Julian Treasure begged his TED audience to teach listening in schools. You know his wife is lucky. He’s a real listening expert. He developed a mnemonic RASA so educators can teach every student to Receive (pay attention), Appreciate (nod at the speaker, smile, make eye contact), Summarize (so?), and Ask questions (about what was said)–RASA. This is an easy poster to hang in your room and point to throughout the year.

Before I move on to specific techniques and resources that can help you teach listening, I want to remind you that just as students struggle to identify inferences and bias in text, they need practice and extensive coaching before they can learn to listen between the lines and hear the big picture. Students report greater comprehension when they ask questions, manage their interest levels, and discuss what they just heard. Mix these tasks into your listening activities for best results.

Now, let me give you three resources to help you embed listening into your classroom practices. The first is Listenwise, a service that aligns National Public Radio stories with content standards in ELA, Social Studies and Science. Listening to these stories regularly in class helps my students take this skill seriously. My high school students listened to 11 stories last semester. These were paired with assessments that tested their comprehension and tracked the results over time. This tool can help you teach listening in as little as three minutes a day. Practice skill. Measure. Repeat.

Second, I use longer podcasts to create note-taking drills that build listening stamina and focus. First, review the transcript and create questions that test how well students listen for main ideas, point of view, inferences, and academic vocabulary. Then, divide the class into four groups:

Group A: Is not allowed to take notes.

Group B: Takes notes but can’t use them on the test.

Group C: Takes notes and uses them on the test.

Group D: Takes notes, uses them and gets the transcript.

After listening, all of the students take the same quiz. Typically there is a 30% gap between Group A and Group D. This teaches students the value of taking notes and listening intently. I do not grade these activities on a traditional percentage basis. Instead, I divide them into listening proficiency bands and show students their growth over time.

I do this during the first week of school to demonstrate that the act of taking notes can move a student up three letter grades. Practice skill. Measure. Repeat. These longer listening drills have ended my least favorite question — should we be taking notes on this?  If I could only end — Can I go to the bathroom? and — How many points is this worth? I would be the happiest teacher in the world!

Students need practice listening to each other and many enjoy engaging in whole-class discussions, but this is a difficult format for one teacher to master. Monitoring who participates, how often they participate and keeping the flow of conversation collegial can be challenging. Many teachers worry classroom conversations can veer off course. The Constitutional Rights Foundation offers a civil conversation model that helps guide students discussing controversial issues like the Syrian Refugee Crisis and ICE Deportation Raids.

Regular use of these three tools: Listenwise stories, longer listening drills, and civil conversations helps students focus on the goal of listening comprehension. Understanding is the goal of listening. As teachers we need to prepare students to actively listen, avoid distractions and engage in conversations around what they just heard. Author Erik Palmer suggests before students engage in purposeful listening, their teachers should tell them what to respond to, how to respond and when to respond.

Today has been all about teacher leadership and affirming that teachers are better together. I have seen teachers across subjects and grade levels sharing lessons and ideas, but it is still too hard for us to connect and collaborate. Next year, I will be working with The Constitutional Rights Foundation in expanding Teacher Practice Networks for teachers integrating speaking and listening instruction into their classes. I invite you to join us and share what happens when you teach listening first. Together, we can work toward improving listening in all schools.

At the end of our Teacher Impact Grant, we realized that our explicit focus on listening instruction had also helped our students strengthen their attention spans and improve their collaborative skills. After reflecting, we realized that listening had a powerful effect on learning in each of our classes. I only wish my wife would tell me that I’ve gotten a little better at listening too, but I think I was supposed to pick up our kids 15 minutes ago.

Thank you for listening.

#BetterTogether Teacher-Led PD #sstlap

On Thursday, July 27, 2017 at 6 pm PT I will guest host a Twitter Chat for #sstlap on Being Better Together: Teacher-Led Professional Development. I will be delivering an afternoon EdTalk at Cal Poly Pomona. Thanks so much to Alex Kajitani, Emily Davis, Nick Salerno and Peter Paccone for giving me this great opportunity to talk about Teaching Listening First.

On Friday, July 28th, the 3rd annual Better Together: California Teachers Summit will bring 12,000 teachers to 35 locations across the state together for a powerful day of learning led by teachers, for teachers. The Summit is a unique opportunity for teachers to come together to collaborate, re-energize ahead of the new school year and be a part of a teacher network that will last beyond the Summit. The CA Teachers Summit will feature TED-style EdTalks presented by local teachers, Edcamp discussions on teacher-selected topics, and opportunities for networking and sharing ideas and resources with fellow teachers.

By bringing California teachers together, the Summit will empower teachers to support our students, protect our values as educators and set an example for the nation. The Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities, the California State University and New Teacher Center organized the Summit. The event is free to all California pre-K-12 teachers, teacher candidates, school administrators and other educators. If you are a California teacher, it’s not too late to register and choose from locations across the state at www.CATeachersSummit.com. If you aren’t a California teacher, but want to follow the events look for @CATeacherSummit on Facebook and Twitter and join the conversation using the hashtag #BetterTogetherCA.

#SSTLAP Questions

:07 Q1 Describe the most powerful professional development experience you have had in your teaching career.

:14 Q2 List a teaching tip that has helped you improve your practice and credit the person who gave you that tip.

:21 Q3 What is the best favor/teaching tip that you have ever given one of your teaching colleagues?

:28 Q4 What professional development events have you participated in that utilized the EdCamp model?

:35 Q5 How would you compare the EdCamp model to the PD you normally receive from your school/district?

:42 Q6 What professional learning events and organizations have helped you learn from teacher leaders?

:49 Q7 How can schools and districts improve teacher leadership?

:56 Q8 What role would you like to grow into as your career in education matures?











Indy Book Projects

As I start to reflect on the end of another school year, I want to focus on a couple of pieces of student work that have made me feel like an accomplished teacher. I always try to integrate an independent reading project into my history class. I am purposefully vague with students and only tell them that they need to complete a project that convinces me they have read the book. This year, I had two Gaby’s that exceeded my expectations.

The first student read Dead Wake by Erik Larson, which is a fantastic book to help students understand an important turning point in WWI history. This student was part of our school’s Teaching Academy and she decided early on that she wanted to transform this book into a children’s book. I was very impressed by the details she recorded and how she made the author’s text accessible to lower level readers.

Lusitania Children’s Book by scottmpetri on Scribd


The next student wrote a review of the book Forty Autumns by Nina Willner but responded to my feedback with at least five new versions of her review. I especially enjoyed how she included some questions for the author. I was able to contact the author on Twitter @ninawillner and she agreed to respond to the student’s questions. I love how technology has helped bridge a previously insurmountable gap between authors and readers.

Garden of BeastsInfographic Template

The-Great-InfluenzaGreat Influenza Foldable

I love doing projects like this where students have voice and choice as to the type of book they are reading and the project they are creating. The only instruction I give them is that their project should convince me that they read the entire book. The fun part of teaching is seeing how different and creative students can be.

#NotatCUE but Not for Long

For several years, I have heard the buzz about CUE’s annual conference in Palm Springs. Many of my teacher friends have gone. I have heard that 15,000 teachers attend. Instead of going to CUE, I have been doggedly close-minded about only attending “History conferences” to increase my content knowledge and get better at my craft of being a history teacher. I have enjoyed attending and presenting at conferences sponsored by The California Council for Social Studies, The National Council for Social Studies, The Southern California Social Science Association, the UC History-Social Science Project, and The World History Association, but I have realized that the speakers work the circuit and can be repetitive. Over my teaching career, my pedagogy has shifted from delivering content to increasing historical thinking.

CUE History Teacher

The influence of common core and college readiness standards have honed my focus on using historical content to teach skills. I have examined listening skills, writing skills, speaking skills, collaboration skills, basically, anything that is difficult, if not impossible to measure with a standardized test. From what I understand about CUE, their mission is to inspire innovative thinkers and bring them together. This aligns nicely with my philosophy that great teaching is teams of teachers working together, not individual teachers working alone.

For those who have never experienced a CUE Rockstar camp, this video explains their program.

Later this spring, I will attend the CUE Rockstar – History Teacher Edition on the USS Hornet. I want to shred a session on speaking and listening instruction because I have not spent enough time improving these skills in my academic program. I hope that many History teachers will sign up and join the CUE Rockstars in Nor Cal for a memorable and powerful learning experience as we host a sleepover on the USS Hornet.