A Way (Away) With Words

I cannot stop thinking about language.

I saw a tweet this morning that resonated. I chose not to retweet because some of the word choices are a bit too over the top for my tastes but the fundamental message is spot on. The title is “How To Talk Like an Entrepreneur” and it offers a list of handy translations of typical start-up talk:

“I’m passionate about…” becomes “I’d like to make money from…”

“Change the world”  implies “make an app to do something we already do marginally faster…”

“Disrupting X” actually means “Taking market share by temporarily avoiding regulations that larger companies deal with”

You get the idea.

We who write tend to be good at finding words – words to illustrate, evoke, provoke, reveal, cover up, distract, focus, frame, shape, manipulate, determine, lead astray, pass judgment, ignore, beautify, decorate, downplay, exaggerate, say, show, tell. We find words and string them together in hopes of conveying a thought or thoughts which will make sense to someone else. We find words, we commit words, we imbue them meaning and we let them out onto the page or screen to be read by someone else, aiming for reception and resonance – sometimes hitting the mark, other times missing spectacularly.

I’ve been thinking about my own use of language, particularly in how I communicate with parents and colleagues to describe students in my class. For years I have considered this a strong point – my capacity to write specifically about each individual student. In fact, when I reread comments written 10, 5 or 2  years ago I see evidence of that expressive strength. At the same time, these comments reveal my distinct teacher values and preferences.

Here are some of the phrases which crop up fairly often:

“wanders off task”

“maintains a busy social agenda”

“is a pleasure to teach”

“struggles with listening to and following directions”

“Finds it difficult to separate from a favorite buddy”

“requires several reminders”

“shows visible progress”

“can-do attitude and strong work ethic”

“is adjusting to our routines”

There are several more and when I think about the students and the behaviors I am trying to describe, these phrases seem to fit. There is a great deal of emphasis on compliant behavior (i.e., listening to and following directions) and considerably less talk about creative expression and student latitude (although these do appear). When I teach, it’s true that much or even most of the time I want to have things done ‘my way.’ And some would argue that is the nature of the job: teacher directs, students follow. To be fair, I would suggest that most teacher direction is necessary in the gym where students’ potential for injury is entirely real. Being able to move safely in a tag game, say, requires parameters, structures, and instruction. That’s a big part of my job – providing the necessary structures and parameters for each student to be able to practice and improve safely and with both the necessary support and creative release.

Yet when I comment I usually have more to say about student behavior – how they interact with me, with classmates, with the equipment – and affect than about their specific skills. This, I suppose, reflects my desire to show parents and colleagues and the student, exactly whom I see in my class. I want to offer a window into (and my take on) that child’s experience of physical education throughout the year. I am aware of my special teacher lens and can also see, the more deeply I read, how much I wish for each child’s success socially, emotionally, physically in my class and far beyond.

Like so many aspects of education, of school, of teaching and learning – it’s a balancing act. While I wondered at the outset of this post if I was in the habit of using “code” to speak to parents and colleagues about students, I am thinking now that my comments present more than code and jargon. Sometimes I feel like I manage to get the mix almost right.

Here’s one example I think works:

“I enjoyed working with L.* this year. He may have tried my patience from time to time but he also could hardly have shown more enthusiasm for movement, sport and activity.”

And one more where I realize the truth of our teacher-student dilemma:

… Currently his greatest struggles are in keeping quiet during instructions, stopping on the signal and holding equipment still when asked to. Mainly these are problems for the teacher, not necessarily for R.* Because R.* is literally having the time of his life in the gym – he’s active, among great friends, in a big space and often the center of attention – his tremendous exuberance is understandable… (emphasis mine)

As I write about students, it’s clear that I, too, am striving for understanding, for clarity, for some sense-making, both of their behavior and my response to that behavior. My teacher lenses (yes, plural. I am sure I have more than one set.) are enduring and well worn. Seeing beyond them and without them can pose a challenge when I want to accurately interpret student behavior. What have I observed? What data do I have? What and how has this been communicated before? These are the questions I need to answer in order to insure that my interpretation and recounting have some foothold in reality.

The whole process is fraught. And complicated and challenging and rewarding.

In conclusion, and only fitting, a taste of my own medicine:

While Ms. Spelic appears to place a high value on capturing student individuality in her comments, her preference for big words may get in the way of achieving the clarity she claims to prize. Short and simple sentences can also be effective in describing how people act. In the future, perhaps we will see Ms. Spelic reduce her word count while boosting her use of concise and simpler language to achieve the same or better results.

*Names changed.

6 thoughts on “A Way (Away) With Words

  1. Kris Giere says:

    This is a great post! Like always, you do a great job capturing the imagination of the reader and allowing us to empathize and put ourselves in the situation which you describe. I have always been and hopefully always will be cognizant of word choice, so this post resonated with me a little more than some of the others. I do wonder as I read the very last comment given to you whether or not simple language as they put it will carry the nuance necessary to convey meaningful messages. While I am an equal fan of concision, I do not typically equate simple with concise. Though simple can be concise, simple does not always carry the same meanings. Just some food for thought that I wanted to share as you continue to reflect on this topic. Thank you for everything you share with us and all of the encouraging words you interact with us.

    • Thanks so much, Kris, for your insight. I agree shorter does necessarily equal simple. And I suspect that my penchant for finding the ‘right’ words, long or short, will always win out when it comes to talking about kids. I so appreciate your support and careful reading.

  2. buffyworsham says:

    This post was very insightful but more importantly honest. 😀

  3. I don’t mean to sound hyperbolic, but I had to stop reading this in the middle. The post was too electric. After taking some deep breaths, I launched back in.

    To me, this piece encapsulates one of my biggest concerns as a teacher. When I chose to de-grade and de-test my classroom during the third quarter of last year, I had to confront many of my pedagogical choices in an entirely new light. The first thing I noticed was how hard it was to no longer say things such as,

    “You need to do this for your grade.”
    “Alright, guys, get on task. This assignment counts towards your classwork grade.”
    “Report cards are coming out soon and I know how badly you want honor roll.”

    I continue to struggle with languages of compliance when interacting with students who don’t want to do what we’re doing (for any number of myriad reasons).

    Like you said, I will continue to examine my own personal response to the behaviors I work with on a daily basis. Great piece.

    • Thank you, Peter, for sharing your experience. Congrats on leaving some age-old education conventions behind and working towards a new understanding with your students. That is real bravery! Amid our teacher talk about student-centered learning and student voice, we need to be careful that we remain mindful and observant of what the kids right in front of us need right now. Their behaviors don’t follow economic or research trends. They require guidance and direction and release and always respect, among so many other things. They need us as adults, as their teachers, role models, coaches, mentors & advisers to pay them ample attention, to see them for who they are, as often as we possibly can.
      At the same time we need to insure our own health and well-being in order to be of any use to our students. Compliance has its place. we all benefit from traffic lights and stops signs and the agreements that make them effective. Our students need stop signs and green lights, too. And part of our teaching will (has to) reflect that.

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