The Other Way to Listen, written by Byrd Baylor and illustrated by Peter Parnall, tells the story of a boy who wants to learn to listen. He knows an old man who can “walk by any cornfield and hear the corn singing,” who has heard “wildflower seeds burst open, beginning to grow underground,”and many other sounds that most people do not hear. When the boy wonders why most people don’t hear these sounds, the old man responds that “[t]hey just don’t take the time you need for something that important.” The boy notes that the old man “always asked himself hard questions that take awhile to answer.”

The boy asks the old man to teach him how to listen to such things, and the old man explains that he wishes he could, but it is something one has to learn from “the hills and ants and lizards and weeds and things like that.” He advises the boy to start with something small. The boy tries, but nothing works, and he only hears the things anyone hears. Then one day, he is walking alone in the hills, and he hears the hills singing. “I never listened so hard in my life,” the boy reflects.

When I read this story with children, I ask them, after I’ve finished reading, to sit in silence for 5 minutes and just listen. What do they hear?

The story raises many interesting philosophical questions, including:

What does it mean to hear something?
Are hearing and listening the same?

Why do some questions take longer to answer than other ones?
Are there advantages of taking more time before answering a question?
Can we learn from the following things? Why or why not?
  • Hills
  • Ants
  • Trees
  • The stars
  • Weeds
Does a teacher always need to be a human? An adult?  Why or why not?
Is it important to spend time alone? Why or why not?
The old man describes how, “[y]ou have to respect that tree,” if you want to hear it and that “if you think you’re better than that thing, you’ll never hear its voice.” What does he mean?
What is silence? Can we experience silence even if there is sound around us?
Can we learn anything from silence?

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