How do you say L-O-V-E in the classroom?

“Psychologist William James said that possibly the deepest human need is the need to feel appreciated.” – Gary Chapman, The Five Love Languages

Many of us are familiar with Gary Chapman’s Five Love Languages. He says that we express love in different ways and he emphasizes the need for each individual to become aware of his / her own love language. What’s yours? (You can take the test here.)

Since February is the month of love, one of the things I think we should reflect about is how we express love and care for our students. And because we’re teachers, I think it’s quite natural for us to express love through Words of Affirmation.

Sticks and stones may break the bones
But leave the spirit whole,
But simple words can break the heart
Or silence crush the soul.
– Herb Warren

In his book, Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning, Peter Johnston says, “Language, then, is not merely representational (though it is that); it is also constitutive. It actually creates realities and invites identities.” This means that the way we use language with our students reveals two things: how we view the listener (the student) and the kind of relationship we have with him / her.

Do I help build positive identities among my students? Do my words inspire agency and independence? How can I move students to do the right thing? How do I give praise and feedback? How do I acknowledge their feelings? How can I avoid offending them?

The trouble with words is that it’s hard to take them back once we’ve said them. Undoubtedly, there have been many times we’ve said things to our kids and we immediately wished that we could take back those moments. So how can we be Shakespeare and Neruda so that we can woo back our students? How can we say I love you to them in different ways? Here are are three tips to help you use language effectively with your students!

Language that Builds Identity

“Identity-building statements allow students to examine themselves and the roles they devise for themselves. When we refer to students according to a certain category of identity (e.g., as English scholars, historians, or expert investigators), the students are challenged to consider the characteristics of that identity and whether or not they apply to them.” (Taken from Better than Carrots or Sticks)

Language that builds identity allows our students to see themselves in a different and more positive perspective. Peter Johnston gives the following  sample statements to use in the classroom:

“That’s not like you.”
“I wonder if, as a writer (or insert another category), you’re ready for this.”
“What have you learned most recently as a reader (or insert another category).”

Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish of How to Talk So Kids Can Learn offer these examples:

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Language that Inspires Agency

“Teachers’ conversations with children help the children build the bridges between action and consequence that develop their sense of agency. They show children how, by acting strategically, they accomplish things, and at the same time, that they are the kind of person who accomplishes things… To understand children’s development of a sense of agency, then, we need to look at the kinds of stories we arrange for children to tell themselves.”  (Taken from Choice Words)

Building a sense of agency is not coincidental. As teachers, we need to give our children the opportunity to act strategically and accomplish their goals. We should pay close attention to the narratives that students tell about themselves – in a way, these narratives will shape the way they view themselves, and eventually how others will perceive them as well.

In their Book, Better than Carrots or Sticks, Smith, Fisher, and Frey suggest to use this sentence prompt: “I felt [emotion] when [behavior or event] because [reason for the emotion]. (Ex: I felt so proud of you when you left the room in such an orderly way for the fire drill because it showed me that our practice last week was worth it.”

The example above clearly shows how specific the feedback is and that the statement is not just an empty praise. Below are Johnston’s other examples:

“What problems did you come across today?”
“Which part are you sure about and which part are you not sure about?”
“You made a conscious choice with this.”

Faber and Mazlish also remind us that creating a sense of agency also means recognizing our students’ accomplishments instead of negative aspects.

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Narratives are powerful because they will reflect how our children tell stories of personal success and failures. We have to model this behavior because as Johnston says, we need to be careful when, “… [students] start telling themselves stories about their own incompetence.”

Language that Heals

“The language we use in the classroom can either foster students’ social and emotional development or tear it down.” (Taken from Better than Carrots or Sticks)

Consider this scenario:
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We’ve all fallen into this trap. As much as we believe in the good intentions behind our words, most children might not see it that way. Instead of criticism, questions, and advice, the challenge, according to Faber and Mazlish, is to listen and accept feelings:

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“How parents and teachers talk tells a child how they feel about him. Their statements affect his self-esteem and self-worth. To a large extent, their language determines his destiny.” – Haim Ginott

Before we talk about love and celebrate Valentine’s Day in our schools, let’s take a step back and think about how we talk to our kids. While it may be true that actions speak louder than words, our words can definitely affect the way we act. So before we face our students again, how about practicing those three ways to say, I love you?


References:

Johnston, P. H. (2004). Choice words: how our language affects children’s learning. Portland, Me.: Stenhouse .

Faber, A., & Mazlish, E. (1996). How to talk so kids can learn: what every parent and teacher needs to know at home and in school. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Smith, D., Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2015). Better than carrots or sticks: restorative practices for positive classroom management. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.