Language is Power

HawthorneQuote_finalI have just begun a new graduate course, entitled, Reflective Literacy Teaching, which according to our syllabus is “based on the idea that the best teaching occurs through an understanding of the processes of reading”. One of our course texts which I will be blogging about this semester is Choice Words by Peter H. Johnston.

images-20Before starting this book, I would agree wholeheartedly with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s notion that words are powerful depending on the person who is wielding them. However, Johnston has challenged me to think that words hold power, whether the person uttering them understands how to use them or not. Johnston focuses specifically on the power words hold in classrooms. “The language that teachers [and their students] use in their classrooms is a big deal” (pg. 10). This, Johnston argues, is true whether or not a teacher has come to that realization.

In his first chapter, Johnston has some key points that are important to consider before getting into more specific types of language used by educators. Here are some of the takeaways I had from chapter 1:

1. We need to carefully consider the words we are using (and don’t use) and the effect they have.

“Some of us have to think more carefully about he language we use to offer our students the best learning environment we can (pg. 1). “Apparently ordinary words, phrases, and uses of language are pivotal in the orchestration of the classroom” (pg. 2).

2. Language can make or break our relationships with students.

“The most humbling part of observing accomplished teachers is seeing the subtle ways in which they build emotionally and relationally healthy learning communities” (pg. 2). “Language works to position people in relation to one another […] Although language operates within relationships, language practices also influence relationships among people and, consequently, the ways they think about themselves and each other” (pg. 9).

3. We can learn about our language from the kids we teach.

“Children, in their own ways, teach us about the language of our classrooms” (pg. 3).

4. Language effects not only what is happening in the present but everything that comes thereafter.

“Each different response has the potential to alter the subsequent interactions in the class” (pg. 6).

5. We must get to know students deeply and place ourselves beside our students rather than over them.

“The greater the gap between teacher and learner, the harder teaching becomes” (pg. 7). “It is especially easy for mainstream teachers not to notice how difficult it can be for students from a different culture to figure out how things are done here” (pg. 7). “Deciding what to be explicit about requires some knowledge of our audience – and responsive teachers do have that knowledge of their students” (pg. 8). “Recent research has shown that most accomplished teachers do not spend a lot of time in telling mode” (pg. 8).

6. Children learn the language of their environment.

“If we have learned anything from Vygotsky, it is that ‘children grow into the intellectual life around them'” (pg. 2). “Teachers play a critical role in arranging the discursive histories from which these children speak” (pg. 4).

7. We, as teachers, have an important role in allowing language to empower our students.

“If a student can find something our for him- or herself, explicitly providing the information preempts the student’s opportunity to build a sense of agency and independence” (pg. 8). “By representing him as a poet, the teacher had opened the door for this student to entertain the possibility of becoming the kind of person who reads poetry and would welcome further interactions based on the premise that he is a poet. Language, then, is not merely representational, […] it is also constitutive. It actually creates realities and invites identities” (pg. 9).


Chapter 2: Noticing and Naming

In this chapter, Johnston talks about the importance of helping children to “notice language and its significance” (pg. 12). He explains that language can be learned without any awareness of what is going on. Children come to school able to utilize and manipulative language for many different purposes but “many children graduate high school with little change in their level of awareness, leaving them unprepared to manage the effects language has on them and others” (pg. 12). We, as educators, must help children to notice and become aware of what is happening in language so that they can observe the underlying assumptions and hidden agendas of “advertisers, politicians, authors, and so forth” (pg. 12). It is important that we share the responsibility of noticing with our students. “The more they notice and bring to the class’s attention the better, and the less the teacher needs to wear the mantle of the one-who-says-what’s-important” (pg. 12).

We can enable children to explore new possibilities by asking such questions as…

  • “Did anyone notice…?” (pg. 13)
  • “What are you noticing…Any other patterns or things that surprise you?” (pg. 17)
  • Write down a line you wish you had written (pg. 16)

We can also show students their own learning and thus potential by making statements like…

  • “I see how you know how to spell the beginning of that word” (pg. 13) – focusing on what is right, even if the rest of the word is wrong
  • “Remember the first week when we had to really work at walking quietly? Now you guys do it automatically.” (pg. 14)
  • “You know what I heard you do just now, Claude? Putting yourself in her place. You may not have realized it.” (pg. 15)

Even as I write this post, I am rethinking the way in which I want to articulate my thoughts and the way I am expressing them. I am excited to utilize this thinking in my teaching throughout the semester.

I want to end on a quote from Johnston about naming and our understanding of how things are named. “Through our noticing and naming language, children learn the significant features of the world, themselves, and others. These understandings influence how they treat each other and their environment. For the sake of a just society, I am particularly concerned about children’s naming of themselves and others and their awareness of the sources and consequences of those namings” (pg. 20). If I have learned nothing else through my graduate studies, it is that effective teachers often leave their students with more questions than answers. My job as an educator is not to give my students more knowledge but rather to help them unlock a world of asking why. Questioning the way we name and notice things is a key part of that.




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