Organization What Kids Can Do, Inc.
Kathleen Cushman, Writer and Author
Barbara Cervone, President, What Kids Can Do, Inc. and Next Generation Press
First Ask Then Listen
First Ask, Then Listen is a technique masterfully used by What Kids Can Do (WKCD) to draw out and document youth voices around compelling and important questions that affect them. As Kathleen Cushman of WKCD explains, the method is highly intentional as a pedagogical practice and yet fundamentally simple to execute. According to Cushman, anyone can create these conversations with youth as long as they value and respect the opinions of young people.
Rooted in Inquiry
WKCD's practice — First Ask, Then Listen — is rooted in inquiry. In other words, the entire project of publishing a book in collaboration with young people depends on the process of generating questions. These questions are shaped through, by and from the experiences of youth.
For Fires in the Bathroom, author Kathleen Cushman began with a preliminary inquiry inviting teachers to identify the questions they would most like to ask their students, particularly about their perceptions of teaching and learning. As Cushman explains, many teachers hesitate to ask students these questions, since the answers might reflect negatively on their own teaching. "Or teachers already have an answer in their head and, as with many of us, it is usually a knee-jerk response," she continues.
Yet when Cushman began engaging youth in discussions on these questions, she learned that few adults came up with answers that matched the students' responses, which were often quite complicated. For example, she discovered — by asking and then listening — that students were deeply afraid of being judged or humiliated by the teacher. "Once teachers know this, they have to take that question back into their soul," says Cushman. "They have to see how their own actions might be prohibiting that kid from producing in class." In this way, the pedagogical approach of First Ask, Then Listen seriously pursues what youth have to say and makes sense of it in a way that views their experience, rather than the adult experience, as paramount.
Cushman cites Sophie Haroutunian-Gordon's book Turning the Soul: Teaching through Conversation in the High School as a primary resource for understanding the power of inquiry in learning. "What I learned from Sophie Haroutunian-Gordon is how much time it takes to form questions that are in fact deep and thoughtful and worth our time to think over together." To this end, Cushman invites the youth to participate as collaborators in the formation of questions to ensure that they are the "right questions" and are based in students' concrete experiences. In this way, the students make the questions their own and become collaborators rather than subjects in the inquiry, research and discussion.
Tips for Leading Discussion
First Ask, Then Listen as an approach understands the practice of education as discourse. "Kids' ideas develop when they are in serious conversation with others, but to limit it to gripe sessions with other kids is disrespectful and counterproductive," Cushman warns.
According to What Kids Can Do, small groups of students who are willing to express their views work best. Cushman stresses the need for quiet, comfortable environments marked by mutual respect and unconstrained by adult-driven power relationships. Often this means conducting conversations outside of school. "Many schools, I believe, act more as a place of confinement for students than a place that is truly theirs, that is their home," says Cushman. "We want them to feel at home intellectually and emotionally at school, but so often, that is not the case."
The role of the adult in facilitating discussion is that of an active listener. For Fires in the Bathroom, Cushman pushed youth to give examples to support their positions and asked clarifying questions in order to reconcile one declaration with another. For example, on the question "What makes a good teacher?" Cushman and the teens had long conversations about whether a good teacher is one that students like or one they respect. In their conversations together, youth came to the conclusion that these are not mutually exclusive ideas. "These aren't black and white discussions," says Cushman. "The kids are not experts doling out recipes; they are thinking hard about what they know and coming up with new meanings."
Role of Adult Leader
In leading discussions, Cushman is careful to remain neutral and refrain from using her role as an adult and a producer of the project to slant the questions in any way. She takes pains to avoid anything that might elicit answers drawn from what young people think she may want to hear. Yet Cushman does not just sit back and passively listen. "My role is not to pontificate — it is to probe and go deeper. I am more than a facilitator; I am a journalist. My role is to listen to challenging perspectives, to clarify and then recognize the new meanings that youth can bring to adults."
While Cushman says that it is sometimes quite painful for her and other adults to hear what youth honestly think, feel and believe, it is essential work in the effort to create new wisdom and understanding across generations.
Fires in the Bathroom shows that when educators truly listen to students, it absolutely changes the way teaching and learning are understood. In this way, First Ask, Then Listen is not just a pedagogical approach, but also an operative strategy for social change.
Powerful Learning with Public Purpose
Created with the technique of First Ask, Then Listen, Fires in the Bathroom became an invaluable and best-selling resource for parents and teachers. Its success led the organization What Kids Can Do to launch its own publishing arm, Next Generation Press, with two more books providing advice from kids to educators and parents: Sent to the Principal: Students Talk about Making High School Better and What We Can't Tell You: Teenagers Talk to the Adults in Their Lives.
In these and numerous subsequent publications, WKCD strives not only to listen to youth voices but also "to push and professionalize the products so that they will be ready for a critical public audience." As Cushman explains, "We diminish the voices of youth when we don't do that." This signature pedagogical approach is described by WKCD as "powerful learning with public purpose" (PLPP). Cervone elaborates: "Learning is powerful when it connects to real interests that students have but also connects to the broad interests of adults in a community."
For example, at the onset of the Fires project, Cushman let the participating students know that their conversations were for a "serious purpose." All sessions were meticulously documented and recorded. The material produced was jointly analyzed and assessed in order to produce constructive advice, rather than frivolous complaints. The contributors understood that their work would result in a printed product or as Cushman describes it, "professional production for a critical audience."
In carrying out this work, Cushman and Cervone approach the youth as respected collaborators. Even as they frame the conversations into a publishable format, they keep their own voices very neutral. "I want to more or less disappear. The book belongs to the students — the point is to listen to the students. My place is to moderate and clarify and push the questions so that their best thinking comes out," says Cushman.
More recent publications produced through Next Generation Press are a series of stunning youth-produced photo-essay books of exceptionally high quality and visceral impact. In the projects carried out with youth in New York, San Diego, Africa and India, the curricular process begins to look very similar to the professional editing process Cushman and Cervone used to create Fires. "It involves a whole series of steps," Cervone explains. For example, in the photo-essay books, students must determine what the story is about, who the best sources of information are, and why the story matters. The youth must then conduct and transcribe interviews, then analyze, interpret and reshape that information to create a first-person narrative.
"This is really the idea of engaged learning, as youth themselves identify what they want to explore. And they do so not through a textbook, but rather through their own research and investigation. They then have to make sense of it and deliver it to an audience in some kind of compelling way," says Cervone.
Guided by "powerful learning with public purpose," Cervone and Cushman ensure that youth voices and experiences are seriously contemplated rather than relegated to the sidelines of history and change.