Listening With Someone Else’s Ears

The following activity is part of a series we created to support students, teachers, and caregivers, during this unprecedented time. If you try this activity with your student(s), we’d love to see what you do. Share your journey via the #Inspired2Learn hashtag on your preferred social platform.

Created by: Jenna Fournel
Discipline:  Social Studies, Language Arts, Performing Arts, and Social and Emotional Learning
Age level: Elementary through High School
Time:  30-45 minutes
Materials:  None

We often ask our students to imagine what it’s like to be a character in a story or a person in a particular period in history, but these exercises can often just be a roundabout way to see if they can summarize events in a plot or features of a historical moment. 

This activity pushes the act of empathy further, inviting students to step into the role of someone (or something!) else, imagine what they would say, and listen to what those around that person are saying too. In this way, students are not only deepening their understanding of context but building their speaking and listening skills and practicing scene building with their peers. 

What to Do: 

Provide students with an image that depicts at least two different entities. These can be people, animals, or objects, but each must hold significance in the image. You can choose an image that fits the larger context that you are teaching. For example, if you’re teaching about the Great Depession, you might choose a photograph from that period in time. If you are teaching Shakespeare, you might choose a picture of actors in a scene from the narrative. But you can also just choose a compelling image outside of your content area and use the activity to exercise students’ imaginations and speaking and listening skills. Here are examples of images that would work well. 

(The New York Times does a wonderful weekly feature called: What’s going on in this picture? Which almost always offers images that would work well for this activity.)

  1. Give students 5 minutes to study the image (and any accompanying material if you have it such as text that tells more about who or what is in the picture) and jot down responses to the following questions as they pertain to the figures in the image. Be clear that they are working from their imaginations and if you are using this activity in the context of your discipline – recommend they tie what they imagine to what they know from the content they’ve been learning. 
    • What do they long for? 
    • What are they afraid of?  
    • Where do they want to go? 
    • Whom do they care about? 
    • What do they need right now?
  2. Now have students find a partner or partners (depending on how many figures are in the image) and with their group choose which figure they will play in an imagined dialog. Talk to students about building on each others’ contributions rather than blocking them. For example, “If a partner says they like or despise something, your character should not tell them this is not so.”
  3. Explain to the students that they will engage in a 5-minute conversation with their scene partners while another group observes. The observing group listens to see if they can hear answers to those original questions through what is revealed in this dialog. So the observers are listening to understand the following about each of the characters in this scene: 
    • What do they long for? 
    • What are they afraid of?  
    • Where do they want to go? 
    • Whom do they care about? 
    • What do they need right now?
  4. Pair up groups. One group will present to the other, while the listening group takes notes. After the dialog concludes, listeners share what they heard.
  5. Groups switch roles, talking and listening, then offering feedback.
  6. Come back together as a whole group and debrief with questions like: 
    • What did it feel like to imagine yourself in these roles? 
    • What did you learn from listening to the other people in your scene? 
    • What did you learn from watching your peers perform these scenes? 
    • What did it feel like to be listened to in this way? 
    • What did you notice about how different groups interpreted the image and the roles within it? 
    • Did you view your character differently after watching and listening to someone else in that role? 
    • Would you play your character differently if you were to have this dialog again? 


  • Run through the scenes again with new partners after the debrief. 
  • Try on different roles within the same groups. 
  • Write a diary entry in the role of their character after this activity, reflecting on what they experienced in the dialog. 
  • Invite students to draw or bring in their own images for a “part two” of this activity either extending the story they started or looking at it from a different perspective.
  • Try starting with something non-visual, like lyrics from a duet that students build out from in their dialogs. 
  • Consider images of objects rather than people. For example, a cell phone and a landline, competing soda brands, living organisms in a food chain, or random puzzle pieces. 

Inspired Teaching Connection 

Any time you have students improvising, you’re engaging all 4 I’s: Intellect, Inquiry, Imagination, and Integrity. But this activity also involves several of our 5 Core Elements. Students are positioned as Experts as their voices and ideas are at the center of the experience. Depending on the context in which you situate the activity (a history lesson, analysis of a text, theater study) this activity can also offer a unique approach to Wide-Ranging Evidence of Student Learning as students are displaying their knowledge through speaking and listening rather than the more conventional but limiting modes of written assessment. An activity like this also requires Purpose, Persistence, and Action as students are all intellectually, emotionally, and physically engaged.

See our instructional model here.

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