The Power of Language: Listening to Learn

Guest Post by TVS Parent, Elizabeth Dean, EdD

You can tell so much about a child’s view of the world just by listening to them play. And as the mother of a 5 and 7 year old, there is a lot of playing happening in our house. 

The first time my oldest daughter, then 4, proudly announced: “Mom, go away so we can play!” is still seared in my mind. The oh-so-familiar parental feelings of confliction: overwhelming joy and piercing sadness all at once. She basically told me to not let the door hit me on my way out, thrilled (as was I) about the newfound independence. Since that day, one of my favorite pastimes has been eavesdropping on my daughters’ playtime. It’s where I learn what is going on in their heads, what they are learning from me, from their teachers at school, and one another. I have learned so much about both of them when I’m secretly standing outside their doors, listening to their language of play. 

Many times during my spying sessions I spend equal amounts of time smiling and cringing. The edgy tone one of them will use when annoyed with each other, or one of my go-to sassy  catch phrases. “Seriously!?” one of them will say, mimicking my inflection and tone to perfection.  How do they do that? I think to myself. 

As an educator, I am well aware of the power of our language. Ron Ritchhart, a principal researcher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, writes extensively about the power of language in our schools. He so well articulates the way our language shapes and influences the cultures we create in our classrooms. One of my favorite questions he asks is: If we asked your students, what does your teacher always say, how would they respond? Would it be a response like: “Shh. Be quiet.” or “Where is your pencil.” or “Put your phone away.” Or, would it be something like, “What makes you say that?” or, “Let’s be curious together!” Whatever the response, the answer would give insight into the kind of culture that exists in your classroom. Research also shows how the simple use of pronouns communicate leadership, and the simple shift from closed to open questions can elicit better responses from students as well as reveal the power dynamics that exist  (Pennebaker, 2011; Stanier, 2016). 

When I think about all I have learned about language in classrooms and schools, my mind often returns to thinking about the culture of my family. How would my own children and husband respond to the same questions? The possible answers make me uncomfortable – it’s probably somewhere in between, “Hurry up,” and “Stop yelling.” or “Yes, you must wear a hat.” or “No snacks before dinner.” and “If you do what I want you to do, I’ll give you a treat, just please do the thing and do it now!?!” 

As my oldest daughter began first grade, and her second year at the large public school a few miles down the road from our house, the cringe-worthy moments that occured during my spying sessions began to occur more when I overheard the language of school during playtime.

One of those pit-in-my-stomach moments occured while they were playing music class. My six year old sang her music teacher’s song that signaled the beginning of music class. To  the tune of Row, Row, Row Your Boat she sang:

“Hello, hello, hello, hello, sit down on the floor,

Zip lips, hands in lap, and then you’ll get a four.”

I read between the lines: Hurry up, sit down, be quiet, don’t move, and you’ll get an A for compliance. The message my six year old was getting from her music teacher – her music teacher- was that the way to “success” in music class was to sit down and be quiet – not to mention that success was tied to getting a 4, or an A. The symbolism and irony nearly took my breath away. I was furious. This was music class. Shouldn’t music class be full of movement and dare I say it, children making noise? I tried to convince myself that I was overreacting. I told myself to stop thinking so much. I tried to justify the message – the language in my mind.  

And I couldn’t let it go. I couldn’t “un” see it – just like when I realized my own students’ questions about how long the paper had to be or when it was due were actually questions related to compliance not questions that reflected curiosity, engagement, and a love of learning. 

Does this music teacher’s song reflect the world we want for our students – for our own children? I am not judging this teacher – I have BEEN this teacher. It’s not her  fault – the language in the song is the language of our school system. And we live in the systems we create. 

Fast forward a few years. My daughters still play school, and I’m still spying, but things sound different. We go to a new school a few extra miles down the road, where the language is vastly different than the language of our old school. There are heroes, not students. There are guides, not teachers. There are studios, not classrooms. There are Core Skills, not subjects. There are Journey Trackers, not report cards. There are Exhibitions of Learning, not tests. There are Badge Ceremonies, not grades.

During my spying sessions now I hear my daughters refer to each other as heroes. I hear them discuss what core skills they would like to learn about during the day, and I hear them recreate “Town Hall” meetings where anyone can make suggestions on how to make their school a better place. They have “Character Call-outs” where they name and notice things other heroes did for one another: I saw one hero help another hero when she was stuck on a math problem, and I call that helpfulness. 

These sessions take my breath away – and now the cringe-worthy moments are all on me and my own language deficiencies. Language matters – we live in the world our language creates. Is our language helping to cement the system that already exists – or, is our language transforming and shaping the world we want to create for our children and their children? 

The good news? If you were to have a spying session on our family, the language of school is finding its way into the language of our home. We now have our own family Town Hall meetings, where any member of the family can bring suggestions for how to make our family better, and we often have Character Call-outs during breakfast or dinner. Both routines suggested and carried out by our kids. We are attempting to be more intentional so that our language reflects the family that we want to create – and our experience at our new school has shown us that this starts with listening to our own heroes. 

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