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.

The Last 20 days of Literacy Learning: 17 Days to Go, Interruptions Galore is No Excuse

Post #4 in the Last 20 Days of Literacy Series… Written after a day of not much instructional time.

All posts in this blog series can be found here.

Take a look at today’s teaching schedule. As you can see there was not much instructional time. If I had absolute control over my teaching day everyday, it would probably look different than this. Alas, I teach in a school community that highly values learning outside of the traditional elementary school subjects of reading, writing, and math as much as it values learning inside of those subjects. While the lack of traditional academic instructional time irks me on days like this, when I take a step back and think about the benefits of all of these programs, I realize how fortunate my students are to receive consistent learning in the arts and physical education. It’s rare. It shouldn’t be.

Where I teach, days like this are a common occurrence. The scheduled assembly, music class, and PE class are completely out of my scheduling control. Plus, every Wednesday is an early dismissal day for students. While all the other days of the week students are dismissed at 2:30, on Wednesdays, they are released at 1:20. Our Wednesday afternoons are dedicated to staff, grade level, IEP, SST, and parent meetings. On the rare Wednesday where we don’t have a meeting, we might have a district-wide professional development afternoon, collaboration time, or teacher prep time. Obviously, my instructional time is limited on Wednesdays- even more so today due to the hour long assembly this morning.

However, lack of instructional time is not an excuse for robbing kids of precious learning moments. I’m a firm believer that we must make use of the valuable little time we have on days like these. Also, the saying that we make time for what we value is so true. If we value it, we do it.

Years ago, I made the deliberate choice to make time for self-selected independent reading every single day. Some days, independent reading time lasts 45 minutes. On days like today, we independently read for 15. Those 15 minutes of time matter.

We should never discount even small chunks of time- we must make the most of the valuable little time we have on the days where we feel like we have no time at all.

See you at NCTE 2018!

My favorite weekend of the year is quickly approaching! The annual NCTE conference feeds my literacy teacher soul in a way that is not replicated any other time of the year. There are many sessions I’m looking forward to attending, and many opportunities to spend time in conversation with friends old and new. If you’ll be in Houston for NCTE, I hope to connect!

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My NCTE Schedule

Mini Session with Kari Yates, Conferring with Readers: A Map for Decision Making, 12:15-12:35, Saturday, November 17th, Exhibit Hall, Stenhouse Booth

Responsive Teaching: The Courage to Follow the Lead of the Reader, with Kari Yates, Jan Burkins, Kim Yaris, & Dani Burtsfield, 2:45-4:00, Saturday, November 17th, Room 361 A

CEL Session with Tom Newkirk: Literacy Instruction Worth Fighting For: What Do We Advocate and Why, I’m excited to facilitate an elementary roundtable, 4:15-5:30, Saturday, November 17th, Grand Ballroom A

8:30-9:00, Sunday, November 18th: Exhibit Hall, Stenhouse Booth: Kari & I will be signing copies of To Know and Nurture a Reader

10:30-11:45, Sunday November 18th, Room 362 DEF Words Matter: Shifting Instructional Language to Empower Students, with Kari Yates, Jan Burkins, & Kim Yaris

 

Kids These Days

“I want to write about what happened at the school in Florida,” is the phrase that started the conversation today with my fifth graders.

I’ll let this email to my classroom families explain the rest.

Dear Classroom Families,
          I’m writing to let you know that we had a whole class discussion today about what happened in Florida. It was not planned- it came up naturally. 
          During our morning meeting, I asked the kids to think about an issue they care about for our argument writing pre-assessment later today, which is a regular part of our fifth grade curriculum (we call these on-demand writing assessments). The kids started to share out their ideas: Pollution, global warming, and then one student said she wanted to write about “what happened at the school in Florida.” Suddenly, hands flew in the air, and the kids really wanted to express their thinking around the topic, which turned into a talk about what they think and feel about school safety and even the issue with guns. Please know that I completely kept my opinion out of the conversation and just made sure they had a safe space to express their thinking.  We actually have a lot of differing opinions and beliefs in class, and the kids did a beautiful job listening to each other and talking out how they feel. I’m very proud of all of them. 
          I told them I was going to write to you to let you know that this issue came up in class, and that it is a conversation they should also share with you when they get home today if they still wanted to talk about it.  Please, do not hesitate to let me know if you have any questions. Again, this wasn’t planned, but I am glad we had the conversation because many kids in class desperately wanted to share their thinking.
-Christina 
Did I say and do the right things? I think so. I hope so. I’m not sure.  However, one thing I know for sure is that kids these days are just incredible. We, adults, could learn a great deal from them. They listened to each other, they actually heard each other, and when one had a differing opinion from another, they tried to understand where that person was coming from as opposed to trying to convince them otherwise. It was refreshing to listen in as they lead the honest, mature conversation.
If dialogue like this continues to happen in our schools and in our homes with the younger generation, our future as a country is in good hands. We need to start listening more to our kids rather than telling them what we think. They have a lot to teach us. I hope our present leaders take note.
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