Pillar 3: Choice Words
1. What role does school play in building students’ agency and identity? With the majority of crucial developmental years spent in school, this makes school a great part of building students’ agency and identity. The home environment shares in this influence on agency and identity, but each offer a different role. School offers evidence for students to see the fruits of their labor and expand a diverse options of exploration of interests as well as relationships. School teaches them about the important role they play in society, the opportunity to identify with it and how to navigate with a gradual release of responsibility to the student from kindergarten to high school.
2. How aware are you and your colleagues of the impact our choice of words have on developing students’ agency and identity? Can you give examples? “We had a class meeting.” These words are often heard when teachers are discussing current topics, solutions, concerns or conflicts in and outside the classroom. As a school we have come to use class meetings as the primary format to build students’ agency and identity. Students can request a class meeting or the teacher facilitate class meetings to have discussions about everything from challenges with new curriculum and exciting new technology to bullying incidents and controversial political news. My daughter is a fifth grader at the school where I teach, she came home and reported a discussion they had in class during the presidential campaign. My daughter has been very concerned with the outcome of the election because she feels very strongly about some of the hot topics, immigration is one of them. She reported to me that a classmate shared a perspective that helped to understand the opposing perspective and I swelled with pride as she elaborated. She explained, “a girl in my class is in favor of Trump because her parents are immigrants from Canada and worked really hard to become citizens and she doesn’t think it is fair that other people don’t have to do that. I can see why she feels this way, that’s what Vovo [Portuguese for grandpa] had to do. But I still don’t agree with what Trump wants to do.” In response I said, “that was very brave of that student to share her opinion and I am glad you have class where it is safe for her to do so and for you to discuss both sides.” My daughter agreed. The following week she told me that she loves politics, she finds it fun and interesting. I know as a parent I could not give her that opportunity, sure we discuss opposing views, but she experienced it, in school and discovered that she loves it. I cringed. (She would not have learned that from me.) With these opportunities school plays a role in developing a respectful and tolerant diverse group of students as they build agency and identity.
3. What would you do, if anything, to make using choice words a more conscious and accountable school wide practice if you were the school leader? The power of positivity: While class meetings offer a framework for using choice words, I find that it is usually used to discuss and address issues around negativity in a healthy way. As a leader, I would like to expand choice words to expand to offer more positive language. The focus on language has come a long way as you rarely hear teachers use the word “smart” anymore. However, for students to know all the positive things they do, language needs to move from generic praise to behavior specific praise across the campus. In his book, “Transforming the Difficult Child, the Nurtured Heart Approach” Howard Glasser describes the approach as offering “video moments.” For all children, despite challenges, to learn exactly what great things they can do and do often, giving students a positive picture of themselves from the educator’s perspective demonstrates that no matter what mistakes they make, adults see them in a positive role doing great things often. I would train teachers to set a goals to increase their positive to negative/redirection feedback to students.
4. What could you do, if anything, to make the use of choice words a more conscious and accountable personal practice as well as one embraced by others on your site? Are those things within your sphere of influence? As a Special Day Class teacher, I teach in a sensitive environment and I calculate my word choice, timing, strategies, movements, etc. to create a safe positive learning environment for students with specific learning disabilities, mental health disorders and high functioning Autism. While I am careful to word choice in my classroom, I haven’t been as mindful when it comes to colleagues. I am buried in paperwork during my lunches and rarely share time with my peers in conversation outside of the Special Ed team. I need to make efforts to because it is within my sphere of influence.
5. Commit to 5 things you are willing to do this semester that will make your school choose words wisely?
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