Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Power of Words

I went for a run yesterday shortly after writing my blog on expectations. As I ran, I thought more about what I had written. I know for certain that my students grow for a variety of reasons: the relationship we have, expectations that are high, but achievable, support given, and words. I believe the words we use in our classrooms are of critical importance. While I knew this to be true, after reading Peter Johnston’s Choice Words, I was reminded of this. I usually reread this powerful book every summer, and need to return to it again soon.

The language we use with children fills our classroom and their minds. From my perch of a lounge chair at the pool the other day, I pointed out a former student to a colleague sitting next to me. When I had him as a fourth grader, he seemed angry. He wasn’t successful in school – struggling academically and socially. I remember starting the year with him and looking to find something he was successful with, wanting to start off the year on a positive note. The first time he turned in a piece of writing, I was surprised – the insight on the page blew me away. I turned to him and said, “Wow, I didn’t realize what an amazing writer you were!” He scoffed, pointing out that he was a terrible speller, his sentence structure was weak, etc. I told him that stuff could easily be taught, but he had the soul of a writer and I could see it on the page.

That moment defined our relationship and our year. He had a few setbacks, but by and large succeeded. When I would see him in the halls as a fifth grader, he’d always stop to see me and tell me what he was writing. After he moved to the middle school I didn’t see him until the following summer at the pool. As a soon to be sixth grader he rushed towards me and gave me a huge hug, now towering over me. He quickly shared that he had been on the honor roll all year – even high honor roll a few times. He still loved writing and reading.

Watching him head towards the diving board this week, I marveled. He is now done with his freshman year in high school. From what I can tell, he still is succeeding in this thing we call school. He looked over, saw me watching, and waved before running off the board to do some crazy flip. Swimming through the diving well, he joined his friends.

What would have happened to this kid without the power of a few carefully chosen words? I ignored his prior history, his sullen behavior, and searched for the good. I know teachers do this on a regular basis – do we see the power we hold?

I am a big believer in tradition, symbols, and words. I start my school year off with the same book each year – Patricia MacLachlan’s What You Know First. I do this for the simple reason of wanting to have a book that I begin and end the year with. All year I talk to my students about reading, writing, our curriculum. But I also talk about the type of people they are and the type of people they want to become. When they leave me in May preparing to head to our middle school, I want to remind them – impress upon them – to remember this year, the lessons, and what they learned first before becoming those teens they are meant to be.

My trail was curving in the final quarter of mile before ending at my home and Phillip Phillips song Gone, Gone, Gone came through my headphones. I caught my breath. This school year came back with a rush as I listened to the words. My student, Rye, had recommended it to me. I had promised Lauren that I would buy it at lunch one day. Several students would sing it as I played it through my computer during study hall. I selected it for our final “video” (You can see it HERE) at the end of the school year. It was playing as I said goodbye to that wonderful group of kids.

Tears started as I ran by houses, fences, dogs barking. Words have impact - for all of us. They remind us. They sustain us. I want to think more this summer about the impact of the words I use with my students. I know I do a pretty good job with this, but I can always be reminded. Thinking of my student at the pool, one I taught five years ago, or of a fabulous recent graduate who just sent me this thank you note - I am reminded of the impact of my words on students – years later.