Talk Matters

“Thanks for talking to me like I’m normal.”

At the beginning of the summer, I began to scan documents into Evernote. I knew that reducing my entire classroom’s contents wouldn’t be easy, but I didn’t anticipate how emotional I would get when stumbling across letters from students.

It’s this line from a former student and mentee that lingers in the back of my head. And it’s this line that is on my mind as I shift into a new role as an assistant principal for the following school year.

The way we talk matters. Whether it’s to our students or to the other adults in the room, our words do things. They have incredible power. Like the student I briefly mentioned above, our words can make someone feel “normal,” or they can make them feel infinitesimal. During this time in public education when we feel as if so much is beyond our control, how we talk to colleagues and kids is completely up to us. And as Peter Johnston wrote in Choice Words, “A teacher’s choice of words, phrases, metaphors, and interaction sequences invokes and assumes these and other ways of being a self and of being together in the classroom” (9).

Now that many of us are at the midway point of our summer vacations, I invite you to think about these questions that are guiding my own work this fall about language and community.

How do you want to position the person in front of you?

Johnston also says in Choice Words that “Language works to position people in relation to one another” (9). What is the power structure you want to create? Will everyone feel valued and welcomed? Are some people’s ideas more valuable than others’ ideas?

It’s not too early to start to think about how you can be intentional with your language, especially when the positioning occurs in conjunction with your position. Will you share the locus of control, or will you allow an existing hierarchy to continue in your classroom or building? Will you be the “sage on the stage” or will you take a more student-centered, constructivist approach?

In Using Discourse Analysis to Improve Classroom Interaction, Lesley A. Rex and Laura Schiller also encourage teachers to think about how they position students. They note that “Becoming aware of our assumptions about students and how those assumptions lead us to position students has much to do with student engagement and motivation” (13). They continue by explaining it isn’t simple work to reflect on the ways in which we engage and position students. They note that “we think we know our assumptions about our students… yet our words can give us away” (9).

What identities will be created, and what stories will be told?

Johnston also gets at the idea that language is “constitutive.” In other words, “It actually creates realities and invites identities” (9). We all know the student who has been embarrassed so many times because he said the wrong thing and is now entirely reluctant to participate. We most certainly know the colleague who feels as if her opinion is never valued in important conversations. I wonder about the language that has been shared with both of these people that has shaped their identities of feeling unable or helpless.

Johnston continues later by adding that “To understand children’s development of a sense of agency, then, we need to look at the kinds of stories we arrange for children to tell themselves” (30). I would even go further and say that we need to look at the arranger. Who is shaping and contributing to the vignettes of students’ identities?

How will you work to ensure that the existing identities are challenged, and create spaces where new identities can form or be arranged? Whether you start back in August or September, it’s a new opportunity to create spaces where new identities can develop or existing ones can be refined. I’m not saying this will be easy, but we have more power than we often think about when it comes to the very people forming in front of us. Our identities are always malleable and works in progress, but our language has to be open enough that it can allow this identity work to happen on individual and group levels, or our language can reinforce the very identities that exist in front of us.

And this work takes time! As Rex and Schiller also note, “It takes repeated displays for others to recognize someone’s identity” (20). They continue by adding that the same is true for students’ thoughts about teachers. Identity work doesn’t happen over night; it takes weeks to occur. But we do need to be intentional early on about the “repeated displays” that will take place in order to allow those identities to form, especially if we are rewriting old identities.

What are your iconic phrases?

“Make good choices.”

“You are better than that.”

“What are you reading?”

I polled a few students during the summer and asked about my own language. These are the top three responses that students sent back to me when asked about what I say most often.

What I like about the third one in particular is that it assumes that the student has developed an identity as a reader. I don’t anticipate that they aren’t reading; I, instead, assume the opposite.

Think about the unwritten messages that your most common language implies. Are you assuming the best of all the people around you, or are you letting other things get in the way? What’s even more important is to think about how some of the phrases you say too often negatively position others or create identities that are not as conducive to learning as you’d like.

How will you repair moments when another “loses face”?

Rex and Schiller also introduce the idea of “saving face,” when someone works to protect their views about themselves so they are not embarrassed or diminished (45). Sometimes this happens. It is inevitable. In fact, I still remember the time my fourth grade teacher told me—in front of the entire class—that I did a project “entirely wrong.” Our words can linger and the damage can last if we don’t intentionally work to repair hurt identities.

One of the best ways to notice if we need to repair and help “save face” is by reading students’ body language. As Rex and Schiller also point out, “In order to determine if we have threatened our listener’s face, we should focus not only on what we meant, but even more on the listener’s reaction” (45). So if we see a student slouched over, turning away, or ask immediately to leave the room after contributing, we know that we have done something wrong. So it is our responsibility to intervene. In my own experience, students have appreciated my intervention when things go awry. And they most certainly will! We’re working with humans here. One move that I make regularly during discussions is to act as the clarifier. I’ll use a prompt (often it’s some form of “So, what I heard you say is…) and help the student enter a position of explaining their point in different words so that everyone can better understand.

How will you name and celebrate what they have done?  

Johnston also writes that “Children, and adults, often accomplish things without any awareness of what they have done” (15). As teachers, especially within the content areas, we have the ability to name and label the specific things students do that are quite complex. They might do them automatically, but we can invite them into disciplinary specific ways of thinking by sharing the language and helping them name their moves.

 

The old saying goes that “talk is cheap.” In education, I would argue that it’s our currency. It’s where we get the “most bang for our buck.” Spend your words wisely and intentionally, and don’t be afraid to have open, honest conversations about language.

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