It Matters What You Call Things

wordsmithbadge-ukv27tBy Peggy Wuenstel — We live in a world of “spin”.

We rename, repackage, and edit things to serve our purposes. Politicians, journalists, advertising pros, and attorneys are the high fliers of this process, but we all do it at times. We sugarcoat, avoid the difficult parts of conversation. We label educational activities as games and try to engage students by both the hard and the soft sell. We are mindful of the ways in which our choice of words impacts our students, or at least we should be.

This goes far beyond the prohibited words, the school version of comic George Carlin’s 7 Words You Can’t Say on Television. We ban words like stupid, ugly, and others which demean or damage. I remember an exchange with a kindergartner, indignant after being called what he referred to as the “e word”. When I questioned him further, he told me that his peer said he was an eediot. We laughed but he was truly hurt by the word, even if he couldn’t spell it.

It works for us in the positive as well. When we refer to kids as rocking readers, super writers, or math masters we reinforce their self-images as capable and worthy of praise. Nicknames that are reflections of regard, respect, and relationship are also ways that we connect with our kids. I grew up in a home where my parents called their children and each other by lots of names. I will confess to being confused by this practice until I stumbled upon an Eastern European proverb that says “A child who is loved has many names.” I always felt loved when my dad called me George or Virginia. I just didn’t know why until I read this explanation. As Shakespeare penned in Romeo and Juliet, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet”.

The current budget proposal before the legislature includes provisions to change the public school report card that each public school and their districts receive from the current color-coded expectations version to an A through F letter grade. Under this proposal the majority of school would receive a C grade. The contrast of “Meets Expectations” with a “C “ grade is obvious. It appears that our state government seeks to re-label schools in a way that translates doing the job we count on to average, nothing special, and less than we want for our children. This contrasts with the phrase currently in use that makes parents feel schools are meeting their obligations to students and taxpayers. And nothing about the actual performance of teachers, administration, or students will have changed.  One has to wonder if this is an attempt to increase public dissatisfaction with public schools by changing the grading system tags.

As political campaigns become longer, better financed and more dollar driven, professional wordsmiths become valuable members of every candidate’s team. Instead of corporate sponsor we get campaign donor. Multi-national corporations become job creators. Teachers and other public employees become thugs and terrorists when those labels serve a specific purpose.

In a recent course in reading methods I was introduced to the brilliant work of Dr. Peter Johnston and his books Choice Words and Opening Minds. One of the ways in which he has profoundly changed my teaching is in the use of the words and or but. (Not the “butt” that can send my group of fourth grade boys into peals of giggles over bodily function humor). When a correction is offered or a probe is delivered to a student with the word AND it reinforces the student response while asking for more. When the conjunction BUT is used, it shuts down that elaboration when the student focuses on what is wrong vs. how the response can be improved.

I witnessed an exchange between a third grade teacher and one of her students. The little girl had spent much of her recess collecting a fistful of flowering clover from the grassy playground. I had been consulting with her teacher when she burst into the room. Her first step was to divide the bunch into three, one portion for me, one for her teacher and one to take home to her mother. I gratefully accepted her gift and stood back to watch the next exchange. The teacher asked her pupil, “Do you know what these are?” hoping to extend the classroom lesson about food webs and food chains to the present moment. “Clover” replied the young voice. “No”, the teacher said, “These are producers”. I am convinced that I witnessed the deflation of this young lady’s spirit like a balloon. A simple rewording of this statement to include the “and” changes a NO to a YES, a “you are wrong” to a thank you, a confirmation, and an invitation to connect to classroom learning.

By measuring what we say, remaining true to ourselves, and telling the truth to power and to those we have power over we respect the power of words. We acknowledge that communication is a complex and ever-changing process. Those conversations are the ones that can turn into magical, meaningful bouquets for both student and teacher.

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