It started as a lesson to prepare my students for book club discussions. In my early years of teaching, I noticed that kids always seemed so preoccupied with saying what they wanted to say during a discussion that they hardly seemed to pay attention to what others were saying. If I’m honest with myself, I know some adults who are like this. (If I’m really honest with myself, sometimes I’m like this! Hah.)
So I prepared a lesson to teach my fourth graders to be better at these discussions. While my original purpose was to improve book club conversations, our class conversation soon morphed to focusing on the importance of showing courtesy and respect when conversing with anyone, anywhere! In the years following, I made sure to teach conversational skills early on so we could practice all year long. The kids always loved this lesson, because it was real and it was a social skill they could tell was applicable to all of life.
I usually started it off like this:
“Today, we’re going to talk about how to communicate effectively. Usually, we think of communicating as talking, but there are lots of ways to communicate with others. For example, you are always communicating with your body. Think about what your mom looks like when she’s talking with another mom. When she’s listening, she’s usually nodding her head, looking the person in the eye, and says, ‘Uh huh… yeah! Oh, totally…’ and other things to show she is listening, right?”
I can see, as I’m imitating mothers, that my students are envisioning their own moms showing these excellent listening skills.
“It’s not just what she’s saying, but it’s the way she is furrowing her brow, looking intently, nodding, and holding her arms still that shows she is interested and engaged. What if, instead of all those things, she did this?”
I repeat the same words- “Uh huh… yeah… Oh, totally…” but this time while rolling my eyes, sighing in the middle, tilting my head away from the speaker, and using bored inflections in my voice.
The kids laugh.
“It’s funny, right? I mean, I said the same things, but it was clear from my body language and my tone of voice that I was not really listening well. Body language sometimes communicates a lot more than your words, so when we are in conversations, we should be sure to use good body language that says, ‘I’m listening!’ to show respect to the other person. That means you’re sitting up, making eye contact, your mouth is closed and not talking over them, and your hands are still.”
Even as I’m saying it, I see all their backs straighten, their eyes fixed on me, mouths shut, with perfect little snowball hands. How darling. (Sigh, I miss those kids!).
“Oooh, I can tell you are all listening to me very well right now.” I pause for effect, and the room is silent. They stifle giggles and give each other sidelong glances, trying to maintain the solemn atmosphere of respect.
“Thanks. I appreciate it. I want you to give each other the same kind of respect when you’re talking with one another, and when you’re talking with your parents, too! With anyone, really. But let’s start by practicing with each other.”
In the course of the next few days, I cover basics of how to communicate effectively. We practice and do role play and then actually do it during book discussions. It’s always amazing to see the kids change from slumped-over, self-centered, and passive, to straightened up, others-centered, and intentional in their attempts to be better listeners and communicators. For many kids, these are skills that are not always taught (or modeled) at home, so I think it’s a lifelong skill that needs to be explicitly taught at school. I usually divide my lessons into the three main areas below.
Body Language and Tone of Voice
I already touched on this in the example above. It’s easy to demonstrate to kids the importance of body language and tone of voice. I just take the same phrase and say it in drastically different ways. For example, I say, “Imagine your dad comes home and says, ‘Let’s go out to dinner!’ and you respond, ‘GREAT!’ all smiles and excitement. It’s clear that you’re excited about this. Your words, tone of voice, and body language all communicate this. But what if he suggests going out to dinner, and you looked away, bulged your eyes a little with a sigh, and then said, ‘Greeeeeeat….’ like this? What does that say?”
The kids quickly pick up on the opposing messages given, even when using the same word.
“As a teacher, I’m picking up on your body language all the time. Sure, you might say you’re listening to me, but if you’re holding your head in your hands like this, looking out the window, and your eyes are glazing over, your body language clearly says, Bored. Not engaged. Not listening. And I need to ‘listen’ to that, too!”
We review what a good listener looks like, and ways to show you are engaged, and then pair up to discuss our weekends while showing good listening skills. I swear, they look like a room full of mini-adults when we do this, and it’s the cutest. I can see them doing their best to channel their parents as they nod like little adults chatting over coffee.
Being a Courteous Conversationalist
The next day, we’ll usually talk about ways to be polite and courteous in conversation. Some suggestions I offer:
I usually emphasize this as one of the most important skills in conversation- and one of the hardest.
“Let me tell you an important truth. Everybody wants to feel understood. People pick their friends because they feel like that person understands me. People gravitate towards others who seem to care for and understand them. And I’m going to let you in on a secret. There is one simple thing you can do to make someone feel understood. It’s something you can ALL do. It’s something that would probably save marriages from divorce if people tried doing it more. It’s something that would make the world a better place if we all did it more. Want to know what it is?”
“When you’re talking with someone, repeat what they say. That’s it! Repeat their words back to them. Sometimes, you can actually say what they said, word for word, and they’ll feel understood. At other times, it’s good to rephrase it a bit, but still show that you understand what they’re saying. It’s an art, but you’ll get better at it with practice. It feels SO GOOD when someone is able to show they were listening by repeating what you said. It’s as simple as saying, ‘So are you saying, ‘blah blah blah blah blah?’ or ‘I think you’re saying, ‘blah blah blah blah blah.’ And as soon as you’ve said that, the speaker will feel SO GREAT!”
Of course, at this point, a smartypants kid will raise their hand, “So, are you saying that you want us to repeat what you just said?”
“YES! YES! That is PRECISELY WHAT I’M SAYING! I LOVE IT WHEN OTHER PEOPLE REPEAT WHAT I’VE SAID!”
A second hand goes up, “So, you’re saying ‘YOU LOVE IT WHEN OTHER PEOPLE REPEAT WHAT YOU’VE SAID!’ ?”
“YES! YES! It’s wonderful when someone can repeat what I’ve said! Even if it’s word for word!”
A third hand goes up, with more giggles around the class, “Do you mean, you like when others repeat what you said, even if it’s word for word?”
“Ha ha, so funny. BUT YES. EXACTLY. I mean, that’s three times now that I feel like someone was really listening to me- so well that they can repeat my words. Bonus points if you can do it without using the exact same words as me. That’s called paraphrasing or rephrasing. When you can reflect what someone has said, but say it a littttle differently, it’s pretty great. It takes a little more thought, but it’s worth practicing!”
Smartypants #4, “Hmm… so when I can say the same ideas without saying it exactly the same way, that’s even better?”
I usually offer some more examples, and this often spills over into a conversation about how to improve their conflict resolution skills, showing empathy, etc. The kids eat it up. Because this stuff is real. This stuff they can relate to.
We revisit this idea pretty frequently, because I think it’s such an important skill. We practice it in pairs, in book clubs, in class conversations, and I make them use it with me. I encourage them to practice “reflecting” with their parents, to show good listening skills, and to see how it works out for them. I even offer them hope that if they get in trouble, their parents will feel a little less angry if their child is able to rephrase what the parents are saying to show they’re really listening and understanding. All reports back have been positive :D.
I think kids learn great conversational skills best when they are modeled at home, but some explicit instruction at school doesn’t hurt! It improves the overall feel of our classroom community, and lends to the feeling that we are here for each other, not just ourselves. I think everyone benefits from improved communication, and it’s such a fun lesson to teach your students!