What We Say in our Classroom Matters

I recently finished reading Choice Words by Peter Johnston who completely reaffirms everything I believe about education. The biggest take away from the book is:

Our beliefs about education are reflected in our interactions with students.

In this brief professional development book, Peter provides examples of teacher talk from teachers who are choice wordsstudent-centered and teachers who believe they have the sole authoritative role in the classroom.

Here’s the kicker: If you want to build a community of learners, you have to truly believe in student-centered education, AND your language needs to reflect this belief.

I love that the book is full of real-world examples of things we can say to students tomorrow that will make a difference in their learning immediately.

The comments that teachers can say can be used for five different purposes: in whole class discussion, to develop student identity, helping students become strategic, developing problem solvers, and working with peers. 

1. Whole Class Discussion

Teaching mini lessons is crucial to an affective writing/reading workshop. However, mini lessons can also be somewhat terrifying because teachers can never predict what will transpire during the lesson. Will students be engaged? What if someone makes an “out there” comment? What happens if the students steer the lesson toward something I haven’t planned for? Here’s what I’d say to that:

  • “What are you noticing? Any other patterns or things that surprise you?”

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    CC Image Milos Milosevic

This is an excellent question when analyzing mentor texts. Not only does this question start with student observations (not the teacher’s), it also tells students that what they notice matters and it is worth bringing up in discussion.

  • “Are there any favorite words or phrases, or ones you wish you had written?”

This question puts students into the role of a writer. It infers that students want to write interesting things.

  • “Did anyone try any new or difficult words in their writing today? Tell us about it. That’s what [insert author] does when he writes – uses interesting words.”

Acknowledging risk in writing allows students to enrich their writing and enhance the curriculum. Referring to a revered author validates student risk and provides a model writer. 

  • “Let’s see if I’ve got this right…[then teacher summarizes].”

This tactic validates student voice and allows the entire classroom community to be on the same page.

  • “Can you say more about that?”

Often times, silence is best in discussion. Allowing students think time offers respect which is a centerpiece to the learning community. Asking open-ended questions allows productive and thoughtful discussion to occur, too.

  • “That’s a very interesting way of looking at it. I hadn’t thought about it that way. I’ll have to think about it some more.”

I’ve had students say some off-the-wall comments and I never want to discredit their thoughts, but sometimes it’s hard to make something of a weird comment! This dialogue is by far my favorite takeaway from the whole book. Crediting students with an interesting thought allows the entire learning community to become comfortable expressing their opinions. No more awkward silence in whole class discussion. Hurray!

  • “Never believe everything I say. Never believe everything any adult says.”

Students in my classroom will become critical thinkers for themselves. Our community won’t do things just because that’s the way it’s always been done.

2. Developing Student Identity

Building students up to help them realize they are learners, writers, and readers is my ultimate goal. Developing student identity is crucial to the classroom community. Here are a few great sayings to reiterate that students are the best versions of themselves:

    • That’s not like you.
    • I bet you’re proud of yourself.
    • What are you doing as a writer today?
    • What have you learned most recently as a reader?
    • Can I tell the other really brilliant thing that you did?

3. Becoming Strategic

It’s not enough to tell students that they have great ideas and are real writers; we have to help them figure out how to become this through strategic planning. Here are a few things to say to help students become strategic thinkers:

    • How did you figure that out?
    • What problems did you come across today?
    • How are you planning to go about this?

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    • Where are you going with this piece of writing?
    • Which part are you sure about and which part are you not sure about?
    • You really have me interested in this character in your writing because of the things she says, and if you show me how she says them and what she looks like, I will get an even stronger sense of him.
    • That’s like the story we read in class. He started off telling us his character is a lonely boy to get us caring about the main character. You made a conscious choice.
    • Why would an author do something like that?

4. Problem Solving

The learning community is made of strategic thinkers who solve their own problems, thus becoming independent learners. Here are great questions to foster independent problem solving:

  • How else…?
  • What else do you think the audience would like to know?
  • What if….?

5. Working with Peers

Community is essential in the classroom. Students will continually work with peers because that’s a real life skill. Here are ways we as teachers can help working relationships between students flourish:

  • “We”
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This is the foundation of community. We not me.

  • “Any compliments?”

A community can be a negative one, but mine is going to be positive.

  • “You guys say such important things, it amazes me you would talk while others are talking.”

What do you do when student side conversations arise? Remind them of the community and mutual respect. By saying “it amazes me” indicates that this is not normal behavior for students. The whole community expects more.

  • “Are there any other ways to think about that? Any other opinions?”

A democratic community hears all opinions before proceeding.

  • “You managed to figure that out with each other’s help. How did you do that?”

Teamwork! Relying on each other to get the job done is such a beautiful picture.

  • “You know, Sheila, that just gave me a memory. Thank you. I’ll just write it down.”

Yes, even the teacher learns from students. Teachers are part of the learning community, too. Moreover, teachers are writers and writers write things down.

  • How do you know when a conversation is finished?

This is a perfect question for a group who has moved away from the classroom learning. It allows students to reflect on past group experiences to come to a conclusion.

  • This is how you go about making a large decision with a lot of parts. You take it in parts. Discussion is now open on how to decide which ones.

A debate has just broken out about how to categories all of the books in the classroom library. What do we do? We take it in parts to come to a conclusion.

 

Although I’ve talked about quite a few of my favorite sayings, there are so many more great ideas in Choice Words. Every teacher, regardless of content and grade level, needs to read this book to fully realize the impact our words have on our classroom.

Peter ends the book by saying,

“If we want to change our words, we need to change our views.”

Do you want to create a community of learners? Start with a truly student-centered vision and your words will flow.

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