What we say still matters

√I set my book down. Only a few pages until the end.  I thought I’d save it for tonight. But as I waited for the water to boil, I came to the final page. Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett, is the kind of story that transports the reader to another world. And as in every good story, moments arise that one recognizes.

When Holly remembered her life in California, she remembered seeing everything in terms of who had less than she did and who had more, who was prettier, smarter… She was constantly trying to figure out how to do it better, how to get it right…

This line, toward the end of the book, made me think of a conversation I had with a student this week. It was after school and the student wasn’t one I knew more than to say hello to. I have no recollection as to how it started, but this is where it went.

Student: I’m terrible at writing.

Me (shocked and saddened): How do you know?
Now I wonder why I asked how and not why. I guess I wanted a specific example like I don’t know how to …

Student; My teacher told us.

This statement was soon followed by I’m not good at writing.
I knew her teacher to be a kind person. A good teacher with no intention of making a student feel less than. And who knows what was actually said. But that doesn’t matter as much as what was heard.

I can only theorize as to why this student felt this way. I’m guessing that most of her writing has a grade attached to it. Derived from a well thought out, common core aligned rubric. That was based on beautiful lessons. All best practices intended to get students ready for career and college. While this is just my theory for this student, it also pinpoints a fear I have about the work. To get students to get smarter, “to figure out how to do it better, how to get it right…” students feel that underlying urgency to perform and take it to heart and if they fall short, they are failures.

Setting standards and expectations can prove debilitating for some, empowering for others. Knowing the different needs of students and giving a liberal dose of individualized acknowledgment of personal strength could make a difference. The teacher who told my daughter she was good at math didn’t change her abilities, he changed her perception of them. By giving her with an honest compliment, she believed and grew as a mathematician.

What we say matters.  A lot. Not a new thought, but in the middle of the school year, it’s an idea to remember, and I remind myself of regularly as the pressures of testing start to weigh me down.

What we give time for in our classrooms matters. Allowing students time to read what they want or write for themselves, not for an assignment or a grade, will promote both. Just because they do it more and by choice.

This week students had time to read or write while others finished an assessment.  Two students were co-writing a song. One that was not for my eyes. While it made me wonder what was floating around in their nine-year-old brains, the fact that it was writing without strings was something to celebrate.

This week, I asked students to leave their writing notebooks for me to look at. I wanted to see how they were developing their thesis statements for a literary essay.  Many gasped at the thought.  Grudgingly, they turned them over many with Post-its saying “look here only.” Again I wondered what in the world they were writing, but the fact that their writing notebook had things in it that were not for my eyes was something to celebrate.

This week I celebrate the difference our words and actions make. A small noticing, an honest appraisal of abilities can change a student’s perception. The time allowed for reading or writing without constraint promotes agency and potential passion for both.

Read more celebrations here at Ruth Ayers Writes.






11 thoughts on “What we say still matters

  1. First, I am so glad that you have finished Commonwealth because that means we can now talk about it! Second, I love the line of thinking that the student’s question in conjunction with that quote has inspired you to follow. I’ve always felt that our students’ insecurities about writing (and subjects at school in general) stem from the way teachers have conditioned them to think. What we say always matters – for good or for ill.

  2. Yes! Yes! A hundred times, yes! My workshop yesterday with Kelly Gallagher promoted looking a CHILD needs, not just curriculum needs. Good readers read; good writers read and write. Volume growth is necessary; grading is not, always. I wonder how the conversation turned out. I’m sure you made this child feel a bit better by the end of the talk! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Words matter for students and adults. Little frustrations need to remain unvoiced. Our sense of urgency needs to be unvoiced.

    Our students must hear more praise and positive feedback. They must also create their own lists of successes.The disappointment weighs them down and that’s a heavy burden for nine year olds.

  4. It is important to be careful & I learned that early, perhaps you did, too, Julieanne, in those portfolio conferences & other times. I heard students playing back my words, usually good things, yet I tried hard to help them be the judge rather than use me as the mirror. It’s an illuminating story!

  5. “…the difference our words and actions make.” Such a powerful reminder. Thanks, Julieanne, for this powerful piece of writing, triggered by your conversation with a student.

  6. Totally true…. parent/ teacher frustrations sometimes need to be unvoiced. Every child is different, get to know your child/student, because harsh words can really hurt.

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