Small Language Shifts, Big Classroom Difference

When Kari Yates and I were collaborating to write To Know and Nurture a Reader (Stenhouse, 2018), we engaged in many long conversations around the idea of rethinking how our teacher language impacts students in different ways. We often referenced the work of Peter Johnston during these discussions, always reminding ourselves that our words in the classroom must have intention and center students, not ourselves. In his book, Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives (Stenhouse, 2011), Johnston tells us

“The purpose of feedback is to improve conceptual understanding or increase strategic options while developing stamina, resilience, and motivation—expanding the vision of what is possible and how to get there.” (pg 48).

If we really think about it, everything we say to students can be considered feedback of sorts. Our language choices are a source of ongoing feedback for every single one of our students each day they are in our classrooms. These choices have the power to affect student motivation, understanding, and more.

If this idea is new to you, a few simple language swaps are all that’s needed to get you started in applying this thinking. Once you more consistently start considering the language you use in the classroom, incredible things start to happen. More often than not, small language shifts can make a huge difference. Consider these three language swaps below.

Swap #1Next Steps Rather than telling students what they are not doing, offer a next step to help them grow.

Instead of “You’re not indenting your paragraphs. You need to do that.” Try “You’re ready for a next step as a writer. Would you like to hear it?” “Each time you start a new paragraph, either indent it or skip a line to give your reader thinking space.”

Swap #2Redirection If a student’s chatting with a friend is keeping them from their reading or other classroom learning, and the chatting is not productive, consider using empowering rather than condemning language.

Instead of “Stop talking to your friend. Get back to reading.” Try “You deserve to lose yourself in this story. What is something you might try to support yourself to really get into this book you picked?”

Swap #3Decentering Ourselves Our classroom language can also send messages about pleasing the teacher or supporting one’s self to work toward solving problems. After all, a student’s education is about them, not about us.

Instead of “I like how you used a different strategy to solve that problem.” Try “You used a different strategy to solve this math problem. Perhaps you can try this strategy each time you come to a problem like this.”

Our language choices matter. They can determine the difference between a student centered or adult centered classroom. They also impact motivation, learning, and the overall school experience of our students. I’d love to hear some of your language swaps that have improved your students’ school experience!

Kari Yates and I have talked and written a lot about language! If you’re interested in learning more, you can check out our book To Know and Nurture a Reader at Stenhouse or visit our blog series from 2018 around Power Language.

Even Our Youngest Writers Are Making Strategic Decisions

In our work together, Kari Yates and I often share with teachers our belief that all readers are constantly making strategic decisions. It is our job as teachers to let students in on the secret. Many times, students are using skills and strategies and aren’t even aware they are doing so. When we recognize and name what our readers are doing, it is very likely they will do it again. Thus, they will continue to grow as readers.

Our work as teachers is to celebrate the effort, approximations, and new strategic work that our students are continually doing. Kari and I often talk about this with readers, but the same goes for our student writers.

During conferences and small groups with students, when we recognize, name, and point out the strategic moves they are making, we are intentionally offering teaching that will support them in using these skills and strategies again and again.

I am so excited to share this idea tomorrow with elementary teachers in Los Gatos, CA! In our three professional development sessions around writing workshop, we are going to practice recognizing, naming, and pointing out the strategic moves that student writers are making, and then thinking about possible next steps to help them grow. Can you name some of the strategic decisions these writers made?

As teaching colleagues, one of the most powerful things we can do to refine our practice and grow ourselves is to analyze student work together. I can’t think of a better way to spend a staff meeting, grade level collaboration session, or professional development day. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Beyond the Textbook: Using Picture Books in Our History Learning, Part 1

Some picture books make us laugh. Others tug at our heart strings and make us cry. Many support our work in studying the craft of writing. Then, there are some that just truly stop us in our tracks.

Today’s picture book read aloud, The People Shall Continue written by Simon J. Ortiz and illustrated by Sharol Graves, changed my classroom. It changed the way we are approaching our year-long study of American history. It changed our collective thinking.

Next week, we’re going to compare this text and another we read a couple weeks ago, Go Show the World: A Celebration of Indigenous Heroes written by Wab Kinew and illustrated by Joe Morse, with the chapter on Indigenous Nations in the text book purchased by my school district. After today’s read aloud and discussion, my students are eager to dive in, read with a critical eye, and ask the tough questions that many adults just choose not to ask.

In part 2 of this blog series, I’ll report back with student thinking and my own teaching notes after we dive further into this work. In the meantime, I highly recommend checking out both The People Shall Continue and Go Show the World: A Celebration of Indigenous Heroes. If you teach upper elementary, middle school, or high school history or social studies, both of these books are a must.

I learned about both of these books and many more that I plan to share during the year by reading the blog American Indians in Children’s Literature from Debbie Reese and Jean Mendoza. I’m also learning a great deal from their recent book with Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, An Indigenous People’s History of the US for Young People.

So, I took a risk…

This school year, I took a risk (which is so unlike me) by taking a slightly reduced teaching contract so I could open up more days to bring my deep love of literacy education to teachers in other schools and districts across the Bay Area and other parts of the West. I love teaching kids, but I equally love teaching teachers- I feel so incredibly fortunate to be able to do both. My schedule is already completely full for the year. Day one of working with teachers is this Monday! I am so excited for the opportunity to work with the teachers at Laurel School in Menlo Park… I’m looking forward to sharing these great books and discussing different ways to kick off and make the most of reading workshop for all students. I’m so grateful for this opportunity.  And, I’m now booking for the summer of 2020 and the 2020-21 school year!