Thursday, February 18, 2016

Sarah Lahm - Learning to Listen

Sarah Lahm is a Minneapolis-based education writer, who blogs at She previously taught composition and literature courses at Normandale Community College to students from all walks of life and has a lifelong passion for studying, practicing and promoting project-based, progressive education.

In January, I was fortunate enough to attend the Minnesota Humanities Center’s day-long education-centered “Absent Narratives” training—Increase Engagement Through Absent Narratives workshop. I am a lover of all things education, and therefore, getting to spend a whole day talking with others about what we know, what we value, and what we have yet to learn—about everything—was richly rewarding for me.

I had first heard of the Absent Narratives approach just months before and was immediately drawn to it. The framework is built around relationships and human connection, asking participants to consider the stories that are “absent” in their lives, as well as in our public discourse—not to mention in our public education systems. To me, this is a beautiful chord to strike. I have been a classroom teacher, and I am a parent. I know—through practice—that how we relate to one another, and whether or not we give students the benefit of the doubt, is immensely important.  

But there is more to it than that. During the Humanities Center training, the participants, including me, were asked to share our own personal stories and ideas. Who were we? What did our names mean? Where did we come from? I mostly sat and listened, and was struck by one woman, who said she lived in a rural part of the state. She was white, Lutheran, and therefore absent, blank. Why? Because our collective story about what it means to be American is set to “white,” as our neutral, invisible jumping off point. If you are white, middle class, healthy—you just “are” you don’t have to explain yourself. You are not asked where you are from or how you got here. You don’t have a story.

I had been used to strenuously listening in for other’s stories, in a way that confirmed this “neutral” narrative about being white in America. They have struggles. They have histories, trauma, painful baggage that I am somehow responsible for, but not capable of handling. Is that what it means to be white? In a small group breakout session, a fellow group member—a white, middle- class man—and I shared this feeling of absence. Our own histories were muddled and indistinct; our roots faintly traceable back to northern and western Europe and our names given to us simply because our parents liked them. We just “are.”

It is this lack of knowing my own story, I think, that can make me feel like I have to have an answer for things, or a way to bear the stories of others. At this Absent Narratives training, I encountered a friend of mine, whose worldview I cherish. At our lunch break, she and I discussed the discomfort not so much of hearing other people’s stories, but of feeling as though there had to be a way to ‘fix’ the issues surfaced by those stories. There was that weight in the training room. There was tension between providing space for absent narratives—of Native people, Asian people, African-American people, Veterans, and so on—and, for some of us, feeling as if we had to fill that space with insights or hopeful notes for the future.

It was a relief, at that moment, to take a step back and let go of that feeling. My friend and I both agreed that trying to resolve the issues surrounding other people’s stories was not our purpose. Instead—because I cannot speak for my friend—I took a leap forward, and gave myself permission to just listen, and to make space for the absent narratives of others. In so doing, I might just discover my own.

For educators who are interested in engaging deeper with the Humanities Center’s Absent Narratives approach, visit our website for details about the upcoming weeklong Summer Educators’ Institute: Transforming Education Through Absent Narratives

1 comment:

  1. To “… listen, and to make space for the absent narratives…” leads to learning, learning to human understanding and empathy!