Language Awareness In Classrooms: Teaching Writing with a Social Justice Lens

It was a Wednesday afternoon, many years ago, and I was reading aloud the book One Green Apple by Eve Bunting to a group of third graders. I had planned carefully. Sticky notes marked the pages where I planned to stop and model my own thinking and places where I planned to invite the students to turn and talk to a partner. I had even anticipated the kind of sentence-stems that would be supportive for discussing the story, fostering empathy, and understanding the character.

“The character feels…”

“This reminds me…”

“If I were in his/her/their shoes…”

On that particular day, a mentor of mine who I admire greatly was observing me. As a literacy consultant and former TCRWP staff developer, I’m accustomed to having large groups of teachers and colleagues watch me teach, but this time I was especially wanting to impress my mentor. I thought that I had planned for everything. The read-aloud went off without a hitch. Students had thoughtful conversations and developed insights into the story that most of the adults in the room hadn’t previously considered.

When I met with my mentor to debrief, she asked me how I thought it went. I thought it had been great! She smiled, nodded, complimented me on how prepared I was, and how I had facilitated a student-centered conversation about important social issues. Then she asked me:

“Do you know how many times you referred to the whole class or groups of children as ‘guys’?”

Wait. What? I could feel my cheeks flush with embarrassment. As we talked, my mentor helped me understand that when I use the word “guys” to refer to the whole class, any child who didn’t identify as a “guy” probably didn’t feel invited in to the conversation.

As she spoke, my mind reeled. I had always considered myself “progressive” and “open-minded” and “conscientious.” How could I have not known to have this on my radar? I thought that I had thought of everything. I felt a bit defensive too. I’m a good person, I thought. Doesn’t everyone use the word “guy” to mean simply “people? Sheesh. Lighten up. In my mind, I silently decided this must simply be a generational thing. My generation doesn’t assign gender to the word guy, I decided.

But time passed. Months, and even years, later I continued to keep the word on my mind and eventually found ways to kick the habit of using it in my teaching. It also became something I noticed when I observed other teachers and colleagues. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized I had been wrong.

And I wasn’t just wrong about using the word “guys.” I was wrong about assuming that my good intentions meant that I was off the hook. And also wrong about assuming I was any kind of expert on dismantling stereotypes, or on what kind of language to use or not use.

These days I realize: the more I know, the more I realize how much I DON’T know. I’m thrilled that my coauthors at Two Writing Teachers are creating this blog series. Speaking for myself, however, I know I am not an expert. I can only provide my own limited perspective on language to use or not to use in the classroom, with my many biases and blind spots.

Acknowledging your own limitations, blind spots, and implicit biases are essential steps in doing the work. In the book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, Robin DiAngelo writes:

“While implicit bias is always at play because all humans have bias, inequity can occur simply through homogeneity; if I am not aware of the barriers you face, then I won’t see them, much less be motivated to remove them. Nor will I be motivated to remove the barriers if they provide an advantage to which I feel entitled.”

The defensiveness I felt when I was called out for using the gendered term, “guys” was a direct result of my own implicit biases. In other words, since I couldn’t see the barriers some of my students were facing through my use of a gendered term, I couldn’t remove that barrier.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of ways that each of us use language each day that intentionally or unintentionally limits some of our students capacity to learn from us. Here are just a few.

Praise, and the Use of the Word “Smart”

When I was a new teacher, it was the norm to use the phrases “Good readers…” and “Good writers…” in workshop teaching. These phrases appeared in published books, video clips of expert teaching, and all kinds of instructional materials. So did the words “That’s so smart!” and teachers proclaiming, “I like the way you…” All of this was with the intent of positive reinforcement, to build kids up.

But the flip side of each of these statements is that each of them involves teacher judgment and value-laden language. If the teacher says to one student, “That’s so smart!” then the student who is not exhibiting the same behavior thinks, “I must not be smart.” Researcher and author Peter Johnston examines value-laden language closely in his book Choice Words. He states:

“Children should leave school with a sense that if they act, and act strategically, they can accomplish their goals. I call this feeling a sense of agency” (p. 29).

He recommends that as teachers, we can foster a sense of agency through the intentional choice of words we use. For example, instead of saying, “Good writers…” (implying that if you don’t fit the description than you must, therefore, be a “bad writer”), you can simply say “Writers…” and then highlight actions or strategies, rather than a judgment on the student as a person.

These simple shifts in language add up. It’s not hearing “Good writers” one or two times that has an impact on children. It’s hearing it constantly, repeatedly, daily, in combination with other value-laden phrases that diminish students’ sense of agency, or what Carol Dweck might call a growth mindset.

Instead of saying…You might say…
“I like/love the way you…”“I notice that…”“You did…”“I saw you do…”
“Good writers…”“Writers…”“One thing writers do…”
“You’re so smart.”
“You worked hard on this.”“You must have studied hard for this.”“You’ve grown so much.”

Gendered Pronouns and Other Language

Many schools I work with are in the midst of working hard to become places that are safe, welcoming, and inclusive for gender nonconforming students.

Dana Stachowiak, writing in ILA Today, provides advice for teachers:

Literacy educators have a responsibility to place gender nonconforming students at the center of conversations about gender equity and gender-inclusive classrooms. Although this centering will look different at different grade levels and will vary with context, decentering cisgender privilege is the work of cisgender educators, and that involves stepping aside and giving gender nonconforming students the lead. Because centering gender nonconforming students is not the norm, the support of literacy educators is especially important when stepping aside. To support your gender nonconforming students, you may want to ask:

  • What name would you like to go by? What pronouns do you want to use?
  • Would you like to let your classmates know? If so, to what extent?
  • What are some things that make you feel unsafe in/out of the school/classroom? How can I help make this a safer place for you?
  • Is there anything you would like me to know?

ILA Today, Aug 02, 2018, Supporting Gender Nonconforming Students, Dana Stachowiak

These small changes add up, especially in combination with changing value-laden language as well.

Instead of saying…You might say…
“Boys and girls”“Ladies and gentlemen”“Students”“Classmates”“4th graders”
“He or she…”“He, she, or they…”
“Boys line up…/Girls line up…”“If you’re sitting on a red square line up…”“If your birthday is in January…”
“I’m looking for a boy…” (when asking for volunteers)“I’m looking for a person…”

*Adapted from ILA Today, July 26, 2018, Classroom Inventory, Dana Stachowiak. Click here to read her original article.

Speaking to All Children with Honesty and Respect

In a recent article in The Atlantic, titled Mr. Rogers Had a Simple Set of Rules for Talking to Children, author Maxwell King describes the attention to detail that Fred Rogers, host of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, would take in choosing every word carefully.

Mr. Rogers, Fred, could anticipate exactly where children’s minds would go, says King. He once wrote a song called You Can Never Go Down the Drain, knowing that this was something many children worry about. In a pamphlet written by colleagues (albeit one that was written as a partial joke), they outlined nine steps for speaking “Freddish:”

  1. “State the idea you wish to express as clearly as possible, and in terms preschoolers can understand.” Example: It is dangerous to play in the street. ​​​​​​
  2. “Rephrase in a positive manner,” as in It is good to play where it is safe.
  3. “Rephrase the idea, bearing in mind that preschoolers cannot yet make subtle distinctions and need to be redirected to authorities they trust.” As in, “Ask your parents where it is safe to play.”
  4. “Rephrase your idea to eliminate all elements that could be considered prescriptive, directive, or instructive.” In the example, that’d mean getting rid of “ask”: Your parents will tell you where it is safe to play.
  5. “Rephrase any element that suggests certainty.” That’d be “will”: Your parents can tell you where it is safe to play.
  6. “Rephrase your idea to eliminate any element that may not apply to all children.” Not all children know their parents, so: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play.
  7. “Add a simple motivational idea that gives preschoolers a reason to follow your advice.” Perhaps: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is good to listen to them.
  8. “Rephrase your new statement, repeating the first step.” “Good” represents a value judgment, so: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them.
  9. “Rephrase your idea a final time, relating it to some phase of development a preschooler can understand.” Maybe: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them, and listening is an important part of growing.

We can’t all be Fred Rogers. But we can strive for being intentional in our word choice.

In the space of this blog post, I know I’ve fallen short on addressing the many ways in which the language teachers use can validate student’s identities, or make them feel excluded. Daily, every educator needs to apply multiple lenses to how we choose our words and also remember this:

It’s not just what you say that matters, it’s also your actions.

I have observed scenarios in which teachers scrubbed their minilessons free of the word “like” or “love” only to turn around and only call on white students, completely ignoring the students of color. Or teachers who have given up their habit of calling on boys to line up, then girls, but then the very next class period say “princess” or “sweety” to every girl they conferred with.

Doing this work is not easy or quick. It’s a process. You might begin by choosing one goal to focus on for a week or so at a time. Try placing a sticky note reminder on the corner of your desk. If you’re willing, let your students know that you are working on kicking the habit of using a certain phrase and ask them to (gently) remind you if you fall back on old habits.

More Resources

Peter Johnston, Choice Words

Cornelius Minor, We Got This

Jessica Lifshitz, Someone, Somewhere…

Kristi Mraz and Christine Hertz, A Mindset for Learning

Dana Stachowiak, Five Part Series in ILA Today: Cultivating Gender Inclusive Classrooms

Shana V. White, Should I Lead, Facilitate, or Get Out of the Way

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