How to Listen to Young People

How to Listen to Young People

How to Listen to Young People with an image of Limarys Caraballo on a yellow background with How's School? Podcast logo

"Engaging with who we are as imperfect beings is a really important factor."
Limarys Caraballo

We think we are listening, so why don’t young people feel heard? This age-old, generational communication gap is the perfect place to begin a podcast about how to connect with young people and ask better questions. The questions we ask only matter to the degree to which we are able to listen to and genuinely hear the answers.

Professor Limarys Caraballo listens to young people professionally. Join us as we discuss where the breakdown in listening occurs and what causes it (2:57), how to back up and see if we have shared ideas of success (4:06), and making sure we’re not engaging in performative listening (5:16).

We also look at how our position in the relationship plays into conversations, and how the stakes differ for us and for our young people (7:50).  Professor Caraballo shares a story about a time she and a colleague tried very intentionally to listen to students and why their attempts fell flat (12:12).

Dr. Caraballo breaks down some steps that all of us can do again and again, beginning with identifying the goals of our interaction (14:57). Next, she recommends reflecting on our own expectations, assumptions, and implicit bias. Finally she shares tips for reflecting on the stakes, asking whose interests are being served, and looking for how power can be shared (19:33).

Listen to the full episode with the player above or wherever you podcast. 

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This series is created, hosted and produced by Joe Riina-Ferrie and Jen Lee, with audio production and original music by Billy Collins. "How's School?" is a production of The Digital Futures Institute at Teachers College, Columbia University. 


The views expressed in this episode are solely those of the speaker to whom they are attributed. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the faculty, administration, staff or Trustees either of Teachers College or of Columbia University.

Meet our guest

Photo of Limarys Caraballo with a watercolor effect added

Limarys Caraballo

Limarys Caraballo is an Associate Professor of English Education and Curriculum at Teachers College, Columbia University, and Doctoral Consortium Faculty in Urban Education at the CUNY Graduate Center. She is a faculty affiliate of TC’s Edmund W. Gordon Institute for Urban and Minority Education, as well as founding co-director of Cyphers for Justice, a youth-engaged research program that supports intergenerational participatory inquiry. Her research reframes deficit discourses about minoritized youth by amplifying their multiple voices, literacies, and identities. 

Episode 1 Transcript

[intro music]

Limarys Caraballo: I think for the most part, everyone has good intentions. 

But there are so many things that happen in between the asking of the question and then receiving the responses. I think a lot of times our own assumptions or our own ideas and the things that we think, that we come into the conversation with, get in the way of how we hear, how we listen, how we understand what young people are telling us. 

Jen Lee: Hey friends, what's up? This is How's School, a new podcast hosted by myself, Jen Lee, and my co-host Joe Riina-Ferrie.

Joe: Hi listeners, hi Jen.

Jen: And it's produced by the Digital Futures Institute, a very fancy sounding organization at Teachers College, Columbia University.

So, new podcast. Here's the story. As adults, we almost compulsively ask the question, how's school, when we talk to kids, because we really don't know how to engage with them about what's actually happening in their lives. And I remember being a kid and hating that question, especially as I got closer to my teen years and just thinking, what was I going to say? Like, I like math? That wouldn't be an interesting conversation for either of us.

Joe: Yeah. I think “How's school?” can be such a frustrating question because school is often a place students don't feel like they get to be themselves. So, the question identifies them with this place that doesn't make them feel seen at all. I mean, when I was the one being asked, I wouldn't have felt seen. And as a white male with good grades, I'd have been among the people most visible to school.

Jen: We really wanted to start this episode off and our whole show entirely by talking with Teachers College professor Limarys Caraballo, partly because you could say her job is all about listening to young people and taking them seriously.

Joe: Limarys does youth participatory action research, which means she involves young people in her research. And she collaborates with young people in programs where they do their own research projects. I should say, we've worked together on a YPAR program. She also studies how doing this kind of collaborative research with young people can change the perspectives of teachers who are in training. Thanks for being here, Limarys.

Limarys Caraballo: Thank you for having me. I'm delighted to be here.

Jen: Maybe we'll start with this. The problem seems to be that we think we are listening as adults, but young people aren't feeling heard.

Joe: Yeah. In the places and with the issues that most directly involve them, it really doesn't seem like we take young people seriously, that what they think about these things actually matters to the adults making the rules or making the decisions. Are we getting that problem right? Is that how you would put the problem or is it something else? What do you think, Limarys?

Limarys Caraballo: I think that is part of the issue. I think for the most part, everyone has good intentions. And I think when adults, teachers, administrators, think about asking students questions about what they want or what they need, I think that they intend to listen, but there are so many things that happen in between the asking of the question and then receiving the responses, whether they be in a one-to-one conversation or in a group setting, or in the context of youth research when youth actually investigate a topic and then have something to say about it. I think a lot of times our own assumptions or our own ideas and the things that we think that we come into the conversation with, get in the way of how we hear, how we listen, how we understand what young people are telling us. And I have a lot of personal experience with this, not just as an educator, but as a parent.

Jen: And I’m just curious, like, could you give us an example of what that might look like in practice?

Limarys Caraballo: I think a lot of times we have ideas about what success means, what it means for something to go well, what it means to achieve something, to reach a goal. And those really differ from what they might be for young people who are involved. It could be something like grades, for example, how young people understand what a grade means and their feelings about themselves and about the subject and about the teacher in relation to that. But, our ideas about what would be successful at the end of whatever interaction often differ, but that's not always taken up at the beginning of the conversation. So we’re sort of working sometimes in parallel and sometimes even in opposition to each other unintentionally. And then of course, when we get to the end and we realize we didn't end up where we thought, there's some frustration there.

Joe: And it makes me think of this example from one of your papers that you wrote with Sahar, one of our colleagues, where you're talking about how sometimes we perform listening to young people, but we almost use it as a hook to plug them in to some things that we already had planned. Like, in the paper, the example is using hip hop that the young people are into, but then tying that back into the English lesson, tying that back into some conversation about Shakespeare or rules on grammar. So, I don’t know, what do you think we can do to get around that almost bait and switch type of situation?

Limarys Caraballo: I think it's complicated because the intentionality has a lot to do with it. So, there isn't anything intrinsically wrong with pairing or connecting literature or music or poetry or anything that youth feel drawn to with literature that they might come across in school. But I think that the way you described it is exactly where the issue is. If it's a bait and switch, if it's a hook with the end goal being only to get to the literature, then it comes across as hollow and inauthentic very quickly. And it also doesn't lead us as educators to think about what is it about the curriculum, the conventional curriculum, that we should be rethinking. So, if we do put two pieces in conversation with each other, for example, or if we do introduce hip hop in the classroom, there should be a genuine desire to center those literacies as equally valid and deserving of critique and of space in the curriculum and not just as a means to an end.

Jen: Another thing that I'm hearing in it is this idea of what's true listening or what's false listening and false listening, or like Joe was saying, performing, this idea of performative listening, almost feels like a way to placate you. I'm going to make you think I'm listening to you, but then I'm going to deliver the agenda that I had already decided upon before your response came into the equation. 

If you could tell us a little bit about why you think we should care if young people are heard and taken seriously? What do you think the impact of it is that they're so often in this bind of being told that they're being heard, but not feeling that?

Limarys Caraballo: Yeah, I think that it's really important for everyone. I think it's important for young people to feel heard because their own development and growth is tied into so many of us around them. So we are interdependent in every context and in a lot of cases, adults have the upper hand and they have the authority. They also have the responsibility to other, sort of, hierarchies. I think it's very important to be aware of that, and for young people to be aware of the roles that we as adults have and how high our stakes are. But it's also important to recognize how high their stakes are and how important it is for them to feel like they have a voice in what is their own life, their own education, their own career path or their own life path. But I think that we, on the other end, really grow when we listen to and check ourselves and reflect on ourselves in relation to the young people that we work with. Particularly in education, this is what we do, right? We devote our lives professionally and personally. And we invest in these relationships with young people. And it's impossible for us to grow as educators and as administrators, as policy makers, as members of society, without hearing the perspectives of everyone that has a different vantage point, especially because it's related to the teaching. It's related to what's happening in the classroom. So I think it's almost a given that listening should be authentic and it needs to go both ways. And I don't think that if young people feel unheard, if they feel unheard, it's really hard for them to hear us. This is at the center, I think, of teaching and learning as well.

[interstitial music]

Jen: One thing I think about is what the experience of it is like for me to face this issue, because I notice I feel really sad that young people have this experience of feeling unheard or unseen. And then for myself as a parent and a friend and a neighbor, I can also feel really disappointed in the way I feel like I find myself falling short and thinking that I'm listening. And then, I'm just really aware of the gap between the way we're encouraging young people to speak up for themselves and then their actual experience of so often feeling misunderstood or ignored when they try and do just that.

Joe: I appreciate you sharing that, Jen. I think it's a really hard experience interpersonally and it can also be really frustrating, I think institutionally, because maybe even if we get to that interpersonal space where we know what we could do to make that connection, I feel like I've also been frustrated because I've been in situations in schools, for example, and doesn't always have to be just schools. It could be other programs. It could be other types of institutions too, where it feels like there's not an option for actually making that authentic connection. You're kind of constrained by the rules of the institution that you're in. I guess, Limarys, I wonder if you've had either of these experiences and how you've felt. Have you had your own challenges with connecting with young people and making sure they feel heard and that you're authentically listening to them and how have you felt in those situations?.

Limarys Caraballo: Absolutely. I have experienced this in every way. As a researcher, as a teacher, as a parent. And one thing that I have learned from this is that the trust really does have to go both ways and there is an engagement and an investment in developing trust that is a really important preface to any kind of authentic work with young people in any capacity.

Jamila Lyiscott and I decided that we wanted to explore youth participatory action research. And we had a connection with a school where I had been working for some time, and I thought this is wonderful. Let's engage young people at this school and see what they think about this project. And so we did. We showed up. We went to a classroom. We invited youth and we got radio silence. Nobody had anything to say. They had no idea what to make of our questions, our presence. And so we went home from that experience and learned so much and reflected so much on how that had gone and why it hadn't worked out the way that we imagined.

Joe: Yeah. I just think it's funny to imagine. In retrospect, you're showing up and you're like, "Hi, it's nice to meet you. Now, tell me your most vulnerable thoughts about what's going on in school with you." It's like, obviously the context is important.

Limarys Caraballo: So important. … 

And of course it made sense after we thought about it for five minutes after this experience. Well, they had no idea really how to trust us, how to make sense of who we were. They really had no real expectation of what our engagement was going to be beyond what we said during that initial visit. I think it's naive to say that as adults, we can just step back and say, let's hear from the young people what they want, what they need and be done with it, right, and just go with it. I think that's unrealistic. And the stakes are not the same for everyone. In classrooms, if we position youth voice in that way, then I don't think we were ever going to get teachers, for example, to be able to really engage, because teachers still are responsible for assessment at the end of the semester. They have to respond to a principal, et cetera. So there's lots that goes into this relationship.

[music interlude]

Jen: Practically speaking, I know I heard you say earlier this idea, it almost seems like reordering the conversation to say, start with, do we have a shared goal that we are both agreeing on and then work backwards to say, how do you think we might get there? Are there any other ideas you have for us on the adult side of how we can show up differently or what we can bring to these interactions?

Limarys Caraballo: Yeah. I think that there are a few things that we need to do over and over again, so not linear steps, but rather recursive steps. And I think one of them is what you just shared in terms of identifying the desired outcome of an interaction. That may not happen first. It may not be the first conversation, might be the second, but it does need to happen at some point in the context of the experience, whatever that might be.

A second thing is reflecting on our own expectations and assumptions about the interaction, if we have, let's say, a visceral response to something that a young person has said, before acting on that, if we get really frustrated or if we get angry or if we feel despair, because this doesn't seem to be going anywhere. If we step back before acting and think about where is that coming from? What is it exactly that I'm responding to? Why am I feeling this way? And what is it about my own background, my own expectations, my own learning that has informed my interpretation of what just transpired?

I think that one of the issues that is sometimes very uncomfortable for people to explore is their own experiences of race, their own experiences of gender, implicit bias, their own assumptions or attitudes or uninterrogated ideas or expectations about youth who may not be from the same background as theirs, or even in some cases who are from the same background as their own. Because there's no monolithic experience of race or gender orientation or ability, et cetera. So I think it's very possible that there are dynamics, very charged, complex dynamics that come into our relationships that we may not feel comfortable engaging with unless we take stock of our own assumptions and expectations. And I think it's really important to keep in mind that in our city, many of the educators that work with our students are not of their same backgrounds.

And there may be barriers there, that youth may perceive that the educators that they're working with or that other people that have authority over them, honestly, don't have a sense of what their lived experiences are, or they may feel like they are being judged or perceived according to stereotypes about youth of color, or youth from certain backgrounds or certain neighborhoods. And I think that that's another important element that factors into our own self examination, because I think engaging with who we are as imperfect beings is a really important factor. In what way would my statement about a student's performance, for example, be interpreted by them as a manifestation of a stereotype or of a low expectation because of their background or their previous experience in another school.

Joe: I'm really glad you mentioned that. And I know that one of your current projects is a project where you engage teachers and people training to be teachers in autoethnography, which is kind of a way of, an academic way of naming the process of self-reflection and how our own experiences and the social experiences influence the way that we interact with others and interact with the world. And it sounds to me like some of these steps we can do in the moment of interaction with young people and make things better, but some of the work of really listening to young people doesn't happen in that moment where we're having a conversation with them. It sounds to me like some of this really hard work of introspection and thinking about our positionality, that's something that’s kind of a project that is a bigger project that might have to happen on our own time as we develop and then bring ourselves back into those conversations.

Limarys Caraballo: And I think a third thing is to think about what is at stake and what might I need to give up in order for there to be more power or more agency allowed or afforded for a young person. And is that something that I can give up and if not, why not? And I think it brings us back to some of the other steps in saying, okay, let's say the interaction is taking place in a school and the students really want to change a policy. That might require a couple of rounds. Going back, what are we trying to achieve? Is it the policy itself? Is it the lack of choice? Is it about autonomy? What happens if we give up on this policy or if we go along with what the students have proposed? What happens? Who gains? Who doesn't? Whose interests are served? And that's something that we don't often see people engaging in earnestly. There's often a short, a very short distance that we're willing to move and say, "Well, that's the policy. That's the way it is." And just because we're in a position of authority, it doesn't go anywhere. And that is very frustrating to young people. So I think being able to engage in these three steps or three practices in a dynamic way can help us to see progress and to build that trust that I was talking about earlier.

Joe: If I'm hearing you right, it sounds like the three things are to identify the shared goals with the young people, so that you're on the same page about what you're moving toward, which may be easier in some cases than in others. And then it's also to do some reflection on yourself to see where you are coming from when you have these reactions to what young people are saying, or your reactions to the situation that you're in together to really think about how did I get here? Why am I reacting this way? And then finally, to have patience, to make space for this to be a longer process that's not just resolved in one conversation and to try to not go back to that default state of authority right away. But to open up a little bit of a longer timeline and more possibilities for that conversation. Am I hearing you right?

Limarys Caraballo: Yeah. I would also add that it's part of that third practice is the examination of whose interests are served in each of these decisions or positions that are being considered? Because I think often we, by default, are somewhat locked in to what we think, how things need to be. And sometimes there are policies and there are areas that are not really worth the obstacle. And finding those spaces can be a real, a place of shared understanding and collaboration. And it might just be a very worthwhile investment, to give up on something that isn't that important to us in order to convey this openness to young people who are having a hard time feeling heard. Increasingly there are more and more things that we face, obstacles, issues, concerns, stressors. It's really important for young people to feel like they have the agency to make a difference and that they would have the support of those who care for them and about them to take on all of the obstacles and challenges that are ahead of them.

Jen: It just sounds like one thing that's possible on the other side, or as we bring this different lens to it is just more richness to the interactions and more connection. And I think we all want connection. I think that's what we tend to say we want. I think one thing that happens in practice is as an adult, I feel like my attempts to connect sometimes land or are interpreted as attempts to control, but bringing this awareness, like you were saying, about all the different layers, the complexity, the positionality seem like a way to really break that down and make more connection possible. Is that the kind of thing that you're hoping for in your work that you do with young people and in their experience more widely, like we're talking about, or what else are you dreaming of for them and for us?

Limarys Caraballo: Well, I think that what you named is a very important element. I think that having upfront acknowledgement of the power differential between those of us engaged in any collaboration or relationship is very important. Just because we want to listen with young people and talk together doesn't mean that power differentials disappear or dissolve. That would be naive. 

A vision that I have is that with enough intergenerational collaborative work, I think educators can see youth and youth can see educators as individuals and as everyone having something to offer. I think often the youth researchers that we work with report to us that they experience excitement when they share their research. And in some ways are treated as if they were exceptional, that, oh, this is an amazing thing that you all did. It's fantastic. And it's a showcase and it's a one time thing. And these are exceptional students who are interested in youth research and therefore, they're not like everybody else in the school. And I think disrupting that particular veneer or that illusion is really important.

Having a context in which every educator expects for students to have that much to say about what matters to them is a vision of mine. And I think it's achievable. I think that with enough dialogue and preparation and introspection, I think teachers can, and administrators can, come to recognize that each of their students, no matter how they might present, is really capable of exercising their own agency. And each of them could and would conduct their own research project and make claims based on what they have found. So I think that is an achievable ideal that we can work toward. And I'm hopeful that it's within our reach.

[outro music]

Jen: You're making me feel hopeful too.

Joe: Yeah. I just want to say thanks so much for joining us for this conversation. We really appreciate you taking your time to talk with us.

Jen: Thanks for listening. You can find articles by Limarys and colleagues that inspired our conversation in the show notes. Follow How’s School wherever you podcast, and leave us a rating and review to support the show.  On next week’s episode we have our hope rekindled by Oren Pizmony-Levy, the director of the Center for Sustainable Futures, who talks to us about the climate crisis. 

Oren Pizmony-Levy: If we want to create citizens that go and protest and fight for this, we have to have a balance of emotions. They can't come only upset and knowledgeable, they have to have also hope and, sense of optimism.

Joe: How’s School is created, hosted and produced by myself, Joe Riina-Ferrie and Jen Lee with audio production and original music by Billy Collins. How’s School is a production of the Digital Futures Institute at Teachers College, Columbia University. You can follow the Digital Futures Institute on Instagram or Twitter @tcdigitalfuture

More soon.

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