Own The Words You Use. And Use Them Carefully.

I’ve been reading a book that’s a bit of choir preaching for my world. But Toby reminds us that, sometimes, you’ve gotta preach to the choir in order to get them to sing.

It’s called Caring for Words, and the person who recommended it to me said she thought I’d like it.  Boy, was she right.1

The author was a professor who is concerned with teaching writing and, as she says, promoting the idea that we all need to be good stewards of language, that we need to mean what we say and use the right words at the right time in the right way.2

Particularly in times where other folks use words carelessly and with reckless abandon for things like truth and accuracy and precision and care.

You know. Like now.3

That book was on my mind when I was working this week with some of my friends in the TeachUnited Colorado cohort, a group of northeastern Colorado teachers I have been supporting for the last few months.

We’re working through what it means to teach in a personalized classroom, at a time when the word “personalized” is loaded. There are folks in Silicon Valley who want that to mean automated. Or algorythmed.4

Part of our work of late, and in particular this specific workshop, was to unpack the definitions of some words that play into such instruction. The words we were helping teachers to better understand and own are “differentiated,” “individualized,” and “personalized.” We spent some time exploring how others have defined the terms in the context of education.

It was less important to me that they left the workshop with my definitions for those words than it was that they left with their own definitions for the words. We can’t own a word until we understand what it means. And we can’t use it meaningfully until, well, it means something through our use.

It also happened to be Poem in Your Pocket Day. That’s about all the excuse I needed to start the day with a poem.5

I started the day with Taylor Mali’s “Undivided Attention.”  I’ve found different ways to read it in several workshops and conference sessions I’ve facilitated lately.  Sometimes there’s a strong pedogogical reason. Other times I just feel like the day is going to be a better one if someone reads a poem out loud in the room along the way.

This time, I had a connection to the day’s content. In the poem, Mali describes trying to teach math while there’s a piano being lowered to the ground outside across the street. Here – please go read the poem.  I’ll wait.

So many folks believe that the magical art of teaching is all in the lecture, in having the full attention of all the children while we stand at the front of the room and dispense wisdom. We pour things into the children and that’s how learning works.

It can, and does,  work that way sometimes, but it’s not the primary way, nor is it usually the best way, that learning happens.

What I asked the teachers I was working with last week to do was to not think of themselves as the first snow falling. They were not the piano dangling from a wire out the window of a building across the street. Sure, let’s be at the “edge of losing everything,” but let’s not be the center of all the action.

When we’re really killing it in the classroom, when we’re making moments that will last, we’re not the thing that has the children’s attention.

We’re pointing them at the things. We’re showing them where they are, how to get there, and what, perhaps, to focus on as they marvel.  When we’re all over the top of our work, we will get to a place where our students will notice all on their own, and we can stand back and pay attention to their noticing.

And that’s how we help to personalize education – we help our students to look at and engage with the world. With some common tools. In their own unique ways.

  1. I forgot and keep forgetting that the full title of the book is Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies. That seems important to remember. []
  2. I was going to share a quote or two with you here, but as I reviewed my notes from the books so far, I think you’re just better off reading the book. It’s well worth your time. []
  3. And in some ways, always. []
  4. Or maybe it’s algo-rhymed. Which makes me think of Al Gore rhymed. I don’t think that’s a thing. But I’d sure pay to see it on a stage. []
  5. I continue to be amazed that such a day exists. Carry poems all the days, I say. []

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