We Become Whole When We Are Heard
Last fall, looking to escape the insanity of 2020, I picked up a copy of The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab. In the past, I enjoyed disappearing into the worlds created by Schwab but never before had I gotten so lost in one of her characters. Not until I met Addie LaRue, that is.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is a Faustian tale – the titular character makes a deal with the devil that allows her to live forever but there’s a catch: she’ll be instantly forgotten by everyone she encounters. The logistics of this cursed immortality make for a fascinating read (as do Addie’s attempts to find loopholes and love). But what kept me turning the pages was Addie herself: a woman longing to be heard, to be remembered.
I’ve felt that longing. And I’m betting you have too.
Growing up, my family read at dinner. We each brought our own dog-eared books to the table and mastered the art of holding them in one hand and a fork in the other. Yes, we caught up on our day and discussed current events, but we also spent a considerable part of our meals in comfortable silence. It wasn’t until high school that I learned not every family set the table with plates, utensils, and paperbacks.
For my husband, an energetic optimist from a big family of lawyers and artists, dinner time was a boisterous affair, where vegetables and volume levels were equally disregarded. When I first met them, I felt like I was watching one of those old TGIF sitcoms. I was enchanted…and I was also totally out of my depth. I didn’t realize it then, but I was Addie LaRue: someone eager to feel a part of a community but unable to find my voice.
Eventually, my husband and I devised a way to navigate our different communication styles. Here’s how it works… say the code word (for us, it’s “pterodactyl”) at any time to indicate “I need the floor; no interruptions, please.” We figured blurting out a random word was a disarming way to realign the attention of the room when needed. This silly little system has been a game-changer for us and has altered my approach to teaching as well.
Though an introvert myself, I spent most of my early years as an English teacher leaning heavily on the extroverts in my classes. Their eagerness to answer questions and initiate discussions were signs of their engagement and ability. Then, a dear friend lent me Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. In her book, Cain unpacks the traits and stereotypes associated with introversion and suggests that her audience be more intentional about inviting those whose ideas are overlooked simply because they’re quiet into the conversation. She addresses educators specifically at one point saying, “If you’re a teacher, enjoy your gregarious and participatory students. But don’t forget to cultivate the shy, the gentle, the autonomous…they are the artists, engineers, and thinkers of tomorrow.”
My heart ached when I first read that line, and not just because it challenged my teaching practice. Cain’s words spoke to my own childhood pain of sitting in countless classrooms, wanting to share my thoughts but feeling like there wasn’t enough space for me to do so.
Since reading Quiet, I’ve been looking for ways to lift up all student voices while still respecting different learning styles and comfort levels. I believe that cultivating a community where we listen earnestly to each other is one way we can show every student: you matter here.
Daniel Kahneman says in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, “Emotional well-being fluctuates…[but one of the] best predictors of the feelings of a day is whether a person did or did not have contacts with friends and relatives. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that happiness is the experience of spending time with people you love and who love you.”
If we want to support our students’ well-being, we need to create a loving environment. And we can do so by showing each student that their experiences and insights are worthy of our time and attention.
There are two activities that I return to again and again in my classroom because they not only lead to deeper analysis than I can convey in a lecture but also ensure that everyone in the room has a chance to hear from others and be heard themselves.
Bonus: both activities are super flexible and can be adapted easily for different texts, grade levels, and lesson timeframes!
Activity #1 - Dialectical Discussion
***The materials for this activity are simple: a chart for each student (can be shared with students via any online learning platform, handed out in class, or drawn by each student in their own notebook).
Step 1: In the first column, students begin by analyzing a text
***You can go free rein and let them dive in however they want or provide a prompt that connects to specific topics/literary devices.
Step 2: In the second column, students read and respond to a peer.
***If working with a printed chart or physical notebook, students pass it to a peer. If working online, students respond in a shared collaborative space online.
ADD-ON: You can repeat the “peer response” portion multiple times so students respond to multiple peers
Step 3: Students return to their original writing and see what their partner has said in response. They then reflect on new insights they gained from reading their classmates’ writing.
Activity #2 – Thought Chain
***No materials needed for this activity! Works best when students are seated in a circle.
Step 1: Students begin with a quick write about a text
***Similar to the “dialectical discussion” you can provide as much or as little guidance here as you feel is needed
Step 2: One student reads their writing.
Step 3: The next student in the circle responds using this phrase: "What I hear you say is ___________, and/yet/but/so _________________.
Step 4: A third student in this growing chain of ideas responds to the last person who shared last with the same phrase. The activity continues like this until everyone has shared.
Step 5: The students return to their opening quick write and add some reflections about ideas they heard that were compelling.
With both the “dialectical discussion” and “thought chain,” I like to save a few minutes at the end to let students share what intrigued or impressed them about their classmate’s analysis. It’s always lovely to see the quiet smiles or satisfied blushes when a student hears a peer mention their ideas.
These two activities are neither my own innovations nor are they the only methods for soliciting input from every student. But they’re effective at getting us closer to that vision of the classroom as a community in which we learn from and listen to one another every day.
In this endeavor to find wellness through writing and sharing, there’s still some room to grow. But for now, I return to Addie LaRue. In her journey to feel whole and heard, she realizes that “a story is an idea, wild as a weed, springing up wherever it is planted.” Let’s tend to our students’ stories and ensure they have the sun and air and space to thrive.
Cain, Susan. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. Broadway Books, 2012.
Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011.
Schwab, V.E. The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. Macmillan Publishing Group, 2020.
Sarette Albin holds a BA from Iowa State and an MLS from Southern Methodist University. She’s worked in a variety of educational spheres, including: Title I schools, performing arts charters, and private institutions. Her entry into the world of education was Teach for America and ever since she’s been committed to educational equity for all students. Sarette is also a published poet. She is a nomadic writer who enjoys a good fork in the road or turn of the phrase; she’s currently searching for her muse, as well as a cure for fernweh.