Which Words Have Impacted You as a Teacher and Learner?

If you deal with kids as a parent or educator, you’ve undoubtedly been advised to check out the latest viral video on YouTube, shown images on Instagram accounts, or peruse Twitter feeds.  The ideas, power, and ubiquity of digital images, text, and video aren’t going anywhere.

But let’s not forget to model the power of ideas springing from words.

We’re all charged with helping to develop students’ critical thinking ability, and I’ve shared some of the following reflections with students, modeling read aloud, think aloud, and explaining how the words have impacted my own life and teaching.  I’m a teacher, but I’m a learner as well, and it saddens me to see so many students lacking curiosity when so many ideas are literally at their fingertips.  I strive to show students texts that have challenged my own thinking and piqued interest.  Here are some passages that have stuck with me over the years, and the reflections are adapted from posts on my Mindful Stew blog:   

Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What The Internet is Doing to our Brains:

“The internet, as its proponents rightly remind us, makes for variety and convenience; it does not force anything upon you. Only it turns out it doesn’t feel like that at all. We don’t feel as if we had freely chosen our online practices. We feel instead that they are habits we have helplessly picked up or that history has enforced, that we are not distributing our attention as we intend or even like to.”

  • Think about your own habits with technology.  How do you teach students to be mindful technology users?  While reading this book, I immediately became more cognizant of how little control I felt I had when it came to attention span, checking e-mail, etc.  It takes discipline to step back and think about how technology tools are affecting us for better or worse, and then take action.  Technology tools aren’t going anywhere, but let’s be honest–it’s a lot easier for well-educated adults to ruminate on the virture of incessant connectivity and one-to-one classroom initiatives if they haven’t been raised themselves in an era of constant cell phone and internet use.  Our students deserve to be taught to step back and critique their own habits in the digital world.

Alfie Kohn, “Feel Bad Education:  The Cult of Rigor and the Loss of Joy.”

“That so few children seem to take pleasure from what they’re doing on a given weekday morning, that the default emotional state in classrooms seems to alternate between anxiety and boredom, doesn’t even alarm us. Worse: Happiness in schools is something for which educators may feel obliged to apologize when it does make an appearance. After all, they wouldn’t want to be accused of offering a “feel-good” education.”

  • School shouldn’t be all about fun, but it is truly pathetic that many students toil through a school day without smiling.  Kohn’s argument offers me a constant reminder to inject joy in the classroom whenever feasible.  I sometimes have to remind myself of this if I’m having a frustrating day.  Have you had to deal with scowls or disapproval when joy manifests itself in your classroom?

Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals:

“If we don’t say no to something that systematically abuses 50 billion animals, if we don’t say no to the number one cause of global warming, and not by a little but, but by a lot, if we don’t say no to what the UN has said is one of the top two or three causes of every environmental problem in the world, locally and globally…if we don’t say no to something that’s making our antibiotics less effective and ineffective…just what to we say no to?”

  • What a powerful way to argue against agribusiness and meat consumption. I’m trying to drastically cut down on all non-locally sourced, agribusiness-“raised” meat.  These words remind me that we can make an impact with what we put on our plates.  This type of conversation can start an endless stream of critical questions.  What have you read that you couldn’t wait to share with students to challenge their thinking or the staus-quo?  

Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less:

“When people have no choice, life is almost unbearable. As the number of available choices increases, as it has in our consumer culture, the autonomy, control, and liberation this variety brings are powerful and positive. But as the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear. As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize.”

  • Massive consumer choice might seem like a trivial issue to some, but if you step back and realize how much time and effort is placed on making decisions regarding material things, you wonder how much that has affected many people’s skewed regard for consumption and material choices over intangible joys, feelings, friendships, and experiences.  This is an idea I haven’t yet shared with students, but I look forward to starting a discussion.

Stephen King, On Writing:

“One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little ashamed of the short ones.  This is like dressing up a pet in evening clothes…Make yourself a solemn promise right now that you’ll never use “emolument” when you mean “tip” and you’ll never say Josh stopped long enough to perform as act of excretion when you mean John stopped long enough to take a shit.”

  • I think my command of vocabulary is fairly strong, but when I write I take King’s words to heart.  Flowery adjectives and complicated “show-offy” language does not get the point across as effectively as simpler word choices.  Concrete nouns and strong verbs are always, in his opinion, more useful to effective writing than adjectives and adverbs.  I concur.  As an English teacher, this is a tricky lesson for students who often struggle getting any words down on paper or screen, which leads me to my last quote…

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

“You get your confidence and intuition back by trusting yourself, by being militantly on your own side.  You need to trust yourself, especially on a first draft, where amid the anxiety and self-doubt, there should be a real sense of your imagination and your memories walking and woolgathering, romping all over the place.  Trust them.  Don’t look at your feet to see if you are doing it right.  Just dance.”

  • When you write, you put yourself out there, especially if you are attempting to write for publication or any other audience.  This is a great reminder that you need to trust yourself and take risks as a writer.  I remember my high school prom–I was on crutches from a recent knee injury–but I decided to get out there and attempt to dance on one leg.  Had a blast.  Within the realm of writing, nothing good comes from standing on the edge of the dance floor leaning against your crutches.  Do you write with your students?  Do you tell them that it’s ok if your writing isn’t polished during the first dance?

With the amazing power of Twitter as an incubator and curator of ideas, imany of us can model this same process with digital sources.  But on a personal level, most of my philosophy as a teacher and learner has been initially shaped by longer form traditional texts and essays.  Let’s continue to bring our own “ah-ha” moments into the classroom, modeling the power of words for our students, regardless of what subject we teach or where the ideas come from.  After all, we’re teaching people first, and content second.

What have been impactful words in your personal and professional life?  How do these seep into your classroom practice?

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  • JustinMinkel

    Teaching as a “thought profession”

    Paul, you’re a powerful example of what it sounds like teachers in Finland have become–an exemplar of teaching as a “thought profession.” 

    Kohn’s piece resonated with me most–I think we sometimes confuse rigor with penance.  Kids can be working hard, thinking hard, AND laughing all at the same time.  As Philip Pullman (author of ‘His Dark Materials’) wrote, “Responsibility and delight can co-exist.”

    I recognized myself in the Carr quote.  I have had more than one Saturday morning ruined when I woke up in a good mood, stretched and yawned, prepared to take my kids to our Farmers Market, then compulsively checked email on my Iphone only to find a stressful work-related message in my inbox. 

    I teach 2nd grade.  Here are three examples of texts I have read to kids that pushed their thinking.

    1. Heather Has Two Mommies.  Seeing a kid with two moms or two dads makes some of my students recoil, while others are just confused.  But they see all the ways that Heather’s family is like theirs–the abiding love, the daily rituals, the parting for school/work and the coming together again in the evening at home.

    2. The Fantastic Mr. Fox.  After the first few chapters, I ask, “Was it OK for the fox to steal food from the farmers?” The kids clamor, “Yeah! Those mean nasty farmers deserved it.  Plus, the fox family had to get the food to survive.”  Next question: “Is it OK to steal?” The kids clamor, “No!  Stealing is bad.”  Conversation ensues.

    3. Maniac Magee (with a 3rd grade guided reading group).  The book deals with racial conflict.  The kids insisted that our school (mostly Latino) doesn’t have the type of racism depicted in the book. I pointed out the shoddy way the kids treated the one white student in the class when she first came, and Ben Menendez rubbed his chin and said, “Ahhh, yeah.  You have a point there, Mr. Minkel.”

    Thanks for this, Paul. I would love to see CTQ develop a library of anchor texts/excerpts like those you include in this list, along with teacher commentary of how each teacher uses them in the classroom–questions/activities/experiences to accompany the text.

    Braden, VCO’s, if you’re reading this…whaddya think?