The Art & Power of Successful Student Communication
There are moments in Listening With Their Eyes—a documentary about 11 teenagers who participate in a 10-week communication workshop with educator Gail Noppe-Brandon—that quietly break your heart, revealing a potential in young people both enormous and untapped. One is when Natasha—who almost quits the program when presented with the challenge of reading through a monologue she would eventually need to memorize—comes back to the next class and performs the first paragraph cleanly. Her smile upon achieving that success is beautiful, proud, tentatively amazed even. Natasha goes on to complete the program, ultimately writing her own two-person play, and performing in another student’s play.
Listening With Their Eyes, which screened recently to a standing-room only audience of about 75 at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, documented the progress of the class, with a focus on a handful of student’s stories. Interspersed between the footage of the workshop are screens revealing startling education-related facts, such as, “Only 30% of NYC 8th graders are proficient in writing” and “50% of NYC students drop out of high school.”
Periodically Noppe-Brandon, also the film’s director, comments on her educational approach in voiceover. Like Noppe-Brandon herself, who introduces herself to her students as one who “listens with her eyes,” the camera lingers attentively on the students, primarily in close-ups, capturing their responses to each other, to Noppe-Brandon’s instruction, and to their own self-revelation.
Noppe-Brandon first developed Find Your Voice, her experiential approach to education— in which she has trained hundreds of NYC teachers—around 20 years ago, when she taught a freshman English class while in graduate school for English and Writing at NYU. The students she was teaching, placed in a program called the General Studies division, were “very bright and in some way had underachieved in high school or earlier,” Noppe-Brandon said. “Most did not enjoy reading or writing; they disengaged from that process.”
Noppe-Brandon took a creative approach, helping them learn the formal skills of reading and written communication through a “user-friendly” approach. The first exercise involved students looking at an Andrew Wyeth painting of an empty room, done from the perspective on one looking out the window with curtains blowing. She asked her students to write about what was happening or about to happen in that moment. “They didn’t want to stop,” she said.
From there, Noppe-Brandon, who at the time was also coaching actors and directing plays, developed an approach that ultimately formally incorporated acting and playwriting.
J.B. Liu and Natasha Toloram reflected on how their 10-week experience in Find Your Voice impacted them.
“At that time, I couldn’t speak well in English,” said Liu, who is from the Dominican Republic. He still uses the exercises Noppe-Brandon introduced him to that allowed him to manage stress and communicate more clearly.
“Gail was pushing us, demanding a lot,” said Liu, who is at Brooklyn College studying to be a math teacher. “She had high standards and high expectations; she was also encouraging, and that gave me a lot of motivation.”
“The transformation you can see in the film from the beginning to the end, in such a short time is really powerful,” said Susan Petersmeyer, a board member of the Petersmeyer Family Foundation, which helped underwrite the film. “Other teachers can see it and think that they can do this.”
Noppe-Brandon, a mother of two young children, hopes the film will help educators see not what can be done in just 60 workshop hours, but what could be done if this coaching approach were used with students from an early age. “This is not an elixir—it isn’t take this and you’ll be fine in the morning,” she said. “This is a way of thinking about teaching and learning that needs to come in much sooner than the tail end of high school.”
Though she still works directly with students of all ages, Noppe-Brandon’s focus is now on teacher training. She wrote a book about the methodology, Find Your Voice, (Heinemann Press) in 2004, a methodology manual of sorts for teachers. Her upcoming teacher training workshops include an intensive week-long training in July at NYU, in collaboration with the New York City Department of Education (see www.findyourvoice.us for information). She is working to affect the system from the top, and have the change trickle down through the entire system.
“The cure is not remediation,” she said. “The cure is to educate them properly right at the beginning.”#