Questions, Invitations, and Classroom Languages

by Harmony Button

My last two posts have been about using questions in the classroom.  Sometimes, the best kind of question isn’t a question at all, but rather, an invitation – to think, to explore, or to raise your own questions. Here are a few ideas on how your phrasing and language in the classroom can really influence student perception of their learning experience.

The Thinking:

An invitation needs to meet a student where they currently stand, and then illuminate the path towards another place, stance, or state of being. In this way, the questions we ask students in the classroom are implied invitations, requiring students to reflect on their knowledge, apply their skills, and synthesize a response. But some students might perceive direct questions as more of an “invitation” to scale a hot brick wall than wander a lush path of leisurely learning – and so, they see a barrier, instead of a path forward.

Inquiry-based learning and Question Formulation Technique are both teaching models that are driven by student explorations and inquiries, but sometimes, teachers feel like they don’t have time for what sometimes feels to them like the kind of wandering and floundering that results from misdirected or ill-formed student inquiries, and so they lean heavily on their own use of leading questions to guide students toward the most efficient paths of learning. Many teachers respond to this dilemma by trying to scaffold up the questions, starting with simple, fact-based questions and then stretching student thinking from there. This strategy can be effective in the same way a trail of breadcrumbs is effective – it is a scavenger hunt that builds towards higher thinking. But this strategy can imply that students should really know the answers along the way, and if they don’t, that they’ve been ejected from the trail of learning and are now lost in the woods, in the dark, without the “right” answer, and little hope of discovering the path again.

An alternative to asking leading questions as a way of building common ground is to help students assess what they know, what they wonder, and what their avenues for exploration might be.

The Practice:

Consider how the language of your introductions set your students up to anticipate the actions they are expected to engage in through the lesson. Take these two lessons, for example:

A) In one lesson, a teacher introduces a new lesson by saying, “Today you’re going to learn about inverse functions and I’ll show you how to find them algebraically.”

B) In another section of the same course, the same teacher frames the discussion by saying, “Today we’ll explore what it means to be an inverse function. First, we’ll think about what it means to be inverse, then, we’ll going to figure out how to represent these situations mathematically, and what kind of steps you might take to find the inverse of an equation. By the end of class, we’ll be able to describe why those steps work. Let’s start by listing examples of inverted things in the world around you. What might an inverse relationship look like?”

The content of these two lessons is basically the same, but the framing language is quite different in the ways that it accesses student initiative. Take a look at how the two lessons compare, based on types of language. (For more reading on classroom languages, check out Ron Ritchhart’s Classroom Languages and Project Zero through Harvard Ed, or the Community of Learners model).

Classroom Language

Lesson A

Lesson B

Absolute vs. Conditional Language:

I’ll show you how – suggests that the teacher is the source of information and solutions.

What might…? – many different responses are appropriate under the umbrella of “might,” and students are responsible for generating these possibilities.

Language of Initiative:

If a student successfully completes this lesson, they will know what steps to take to a solve a particular problem. Their greatest task is to memorize processes provided for them. They have very little agency inside this description.

If a student successfully completes this lesson, they will be able to see inverse relationships in the world, describe them mathematically, and justify the processes necessary to find solutions. This task asks students to take agency: they will need to make choices and apply problem-solving skills.

Language of Action (verbs):

Learn about: suggests that students will be passive recipients of knowledge. Students will be learning about something, instead of actually doing it.

Solve them algebraically – defines the process students should use to solve the problems.

Explore / Think about / Figure out / Describe – these are verbs that students can successfully engage in, even if their processes don’t result in the correct answers.

The process here is based in the actions students will take: think, figure out, describe.

Language of Community (pronouns):

You: treats each student as an individual and makes solution the end goal of the lesson.

I’ll: makes the teacher the center of the action. Students are observers.

We / Let’s: treats the class as a community that involves the teacher and values participation from all members.

Language of Pacing:

Today – no pacing language present, so the students see the lesson plan as focused on this one end goal.

Today: First, Then, By the end of class – this language creates a three step path the students can expect to follow in their thinking.

The Habit:

Think about the language you use to frame lessons or build a foundation for the day’s work. Try to avoid using leading questions to create a common ground, but be equally wary of teacher-centric statements. Experiment with signals of inclusion (community), possibility (conditional language), and engagement (active verbs). Invite your students to participate by describe the pace of the process, as well as the kinds of thinking that they will be engaging in throughout the lesson. For more ideas on how to tinker with your lesson plans to meet students where they are, check out this article. For more discussion about the languages of learning in the classroom, here’s a new teacher’s blog I’ve found that grapples with these concepts.

And if you’re just feeling a little bit overwhelmed by everything at this point in the year – treat yourself to this reminder about coping with stress and developing healthy habits.

Posted in Classroom Culture, Languages of the classroom, meta-cognition, open and closed questions | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A Question of Questions, Part II: How to Respond to Wrong Answers

by Harmony Button

If you want to encourage curiosity in your classroom, you have to create an atmosphere that rewards intellectual risks and celebrates “good” mistakes. This doesn’t mean that you need to sugarcoat every failure. In fact, trying to salvage a truly wrong answer can sometimes just make the student feel worse, and it often comes out sounding patronizing… but there are ways of making students feel okay about getting answers wrong. 

The Thinking:

If you’re asking truly open questions, then it’s unusual to get completely wrong answers – they’re probably just responses that started on the right track and went skiwampus somewhere along the way. If you walk the students back through their stages of thinking, you can usually find where they took a wrong turn.

In order to re-trace these steps, however, you have to be able to notice and name the types of thinking that are happening in your classroom. One way to do this would be to ask your students to list the verbs that describe the actions they do inside the classroom, and then classify them into levels of thinking. Chances are, any type of thinking they come up with could fit into this Map of Understanding.

The Practice:

Remembering that a student’s answer is an example of a problem-solving process can also help you validate every response, however wrong-headed it might be. Here are a few common ways that teachers might respond to wrong answers, and a few reactions to each. When a student gives a wrong answer to a question you’ve posed in discussion, do you…

A. Say, “I just answered this question! You all need to be quiet and listen!”

You should probably immediately read this blog post about what to do when you get that yelling feeling. And then forgive yourself, and apologize to the students who aren’t being loud (remember, they’re also the ones who are often the most distraught and hurt by blanket-criticism of a class, or the anxiety of a yelling teacher). When you’re feeling frustrated in a classroom, remember that speaking your frustration can be healthy (ie, “I’m feeling really frustrated and unsettled by how hard it feels to concentrate right now, and I can only imagine some of you are frustrated, too”) – but acting out of frustration is probably not going to help anybody learn better, including you as teacher.

B. Say, “No,” and move on to another student.

This tactic usually backfires in terms of the student’s willingness to take risks, as well as the health of your classroom culture. You’ve just turned your classroom into a game show, and this contestant got the sad-trombone. What’s it going to take to get that kid to play again? There are many students who will never risk this kind of rejection if they see it in your classroom. Any student struggling with a fixed mindset regarding your subject will be especially vulnerable to this kind of response, since it will confirm their worst suspicions: they are, and always have been “bad” at (your discipline). A blank stare, or other ways of putting students on the spot, often have the same effect. And while “no,” is the most blunt response, slightly more tactful phrases can be equally counter-productive: “not quite,” “hmm,” or any other ultimately dismissive responses are just gentler ways of saying “no.”

C. Say, “Good try, but you’re probably thinking about / forgetting / confusing this with…”

What you’re telling the student in this situation is that you acknowledge and empathize with the difficulty of the problem, and you’re starting to break down the stages of thinking necessary in order to respond to it. This kind of comment often ends with an invitation to the student to give the question another shot, or to respond in some way, even if it is with a “Yeah, that was confusing,” comment.

If you’re not careful, though, students will quickly come to read “good try,” as just another way of saying “you’re wrong” – so don’t overuse this phrase. Ideally, you’ll want to make sure you’re praising the response specifically, whether it is the effort, the creativity, or some process of thinking. Try phrases like, “interesting theory,” or “that’s a good observation,” or “I see you trying to make a connection,” instead of just “nice try.”

D. Say, “That’s totally wrong, but thank you for making that mistake! I’m so glad we got that out there – this is a really common one.”

What you’re doing is normalizing the mistake, celebrating the risk, and praising the student for being a valuable member of the learning community. The mistake becomes a praise-worthy part of the learning process, instead of a set-back. You’ll want to make sure you use this one on a student who will be able to get past the “you’re totally wrong” part and hear the praise of the “thank you” part of your response. This response is best used on the most outspoken students, but it speaks volumes to the least outspoken students who hear you use this language… and who will be more likely to take similar risks, themselves.

E. Say, “How did you get there?” (or some version of the “why?” question).

This response is a way of avoiding telling the student that they are wrong – but setting them up to come to that realization, themselves. Asking a process question has the built in possibility of the student self-correcting (yay!) or looking to another student for support (also a positive moment of potential growth). This tactic puts the class on the same footing to “solve” the problem, instead of in competition with each other to be the first to the “right” answer. Just be sure to use this “what made you think that” question in response to answers that are correct and on the right track, as well as odd-ball or incorrect ones… otherwise, it quickly also becomes code for “you screwed up and now you’re on the spot.”

If you’re working on developing a classroom in which students validate their own work and look to each other for confirmation, instead of always seeking your approval, it wouldn’t hurt to make this response your go-to… and then, after the student describes how s/he “got there,” turn the idea back to the class to react to, instead of immediately validating or contesting it, yourself. What you lose in the time efficiency of being able to quickly let a student know if they’re on the right path, you gain in cultivating transferable thinking skills and deeper engagement from the whole class. When you respond in this way, you are teaching the speaker to reflect and articulate on their own thought processes, and you’re training the rest of the class to listen, because they’ll be asked to react, next.

The Habit:

One way to know how effective you’ve been in responding appropriately to students who are wrong is to listen to how your students start to speak to each other. If they really want to one-up each other, or “get” the point, or if they lose interest if they’re not immediately praised for getting the right answer, you might want to think about what you could do to shift the culture of the classroom. But if your students start to identify the level of thinking where someone went wrong (ie, “I think you’re assuming that….. but maybe….”) and if they are able to correct each other in respectful, productive ways, then chances are, they’ve learned it from you.

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A Question of Questions, Part 1: Open and Closed Questions

by Harmony Button

The answers you get from literature depend on the questions you pose.
~ Margaret Atwood

The Thinking:

As teachers, we all know the pleasure of curiosity – that spark of interest that isn’t driven by the promise of a grade – and more than anything else, we want our students to experience that kind of pleasure in our classrooms. We strive to create that buzz of curiosity, whether it manifests in a sharp, collective inhale, or a moment of potent silence, or an explosion of chatter that actually tears the conversation into splinter-groups and questions. However it shows up in your classroom, you know the feeling of collective curiosity when you’ve got it.

But as teachers, we also know how hard it is to maintain this kind of raw energy. We know the feeling of an apathetic class, one that scowls and drags its way through lessons, that tangents at every opportunity, or that tries desperately to regurgitate the correct answer, without really caring about anything except the reassurance of having been right.

Following our discussions of Carol Dweck’s Mindset, I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between celebrating what students already know, vs. what they want to know. So often, it seems that student frustration, resistance, and apathy are driven by a feeling that they don’t see the path to the right answers – that the particular discipline is closed off to them, that they just don’t have access to this kind of thinking. In order to encourage the growth mindset, we want to take our focus off of performance, and put it on process. But how do offer up invitations into the process of learning that get students excited, that make them feel capable and included in all of our disciplines?

When it comes to getting a class on board with learning, it seems like we are all chasing the same elusive element – genuine curiosity, the kind that sparks active engagement, that promotes independence, that drives a student towards perseverance in the face of difficulty and adversity. So the question is, how do we get our students to become curious, to want to know more? How do we get our students to ask the right kind of questions?

The Practice:

When it comes to getting students to ask productive questions, we need to start by looking at what kind of questions we ask them, and how we respond to their answers.

There are two basic kinds of questions – open questions, which invite exploration and accept various possible answers, and closed questions, which elicit a limited range of correct answers (often beginning with “yes” or “no”). Open questions tend to use conditional language – “how could…,” “what might…,” “what’s one way to…”. etc. Closed questions tend to speak in absolutes: “who is, how should, what’s the answer to…” etc.

When you ask questions that have set answers, you are asking your students to perform, rather than to process their learning. This isn’t always a negative tactic – quizzing students with closed questions can be an effective way to pull individuals back into a lecture or presentation… but answering these kind of quiz questions more often solidifies existing knowledge than it opens new curiosities. Closed questions can offer students a sense of reassurance: when a student gets the answer right, s/he feels smart and validated. But closed questions can also promote panic, instead of curiosity: when students get closed questions wrong, they can develop fixed mindsets about their abilities. Closed questions are opportunities to demonstrate and reinforce past learning, but they are not often moments of growth.

So why do we reach to closed questions so much of the time? Sometimes teachers default to closed questions as a way of building in quick, easy student participation in their lessons: if a teacher can toss out a closed question and get a quick, correct response, then that teacher knows that the student is listening, has mastered that particular skill or bit of information, and that it has been reiterated for the rest of the class. Closed questions are also completely in the control of the teacher: they tend to fit neatly into ongoing lecture-style classes that need to move through a lot of information pretty quickly. And in these contexts, they seem to work, pretty well.

But the problem with using too many closed questions is that they tend to be answered quickly, and they’re right or wrong. Closed questions guide students down a cognitive path that a teacher has predetermined – and so, students judges themselves against their ability to “keep up” with the questions. Students who get questions correct are the smart students. Those who get them wrong should let someone answer next time. Or that’s how students start to see themselves reflected in the mirror of the questions.

These assumptions are exactly what we want to avoid – but how else do you get through a content-heavy unit? How else do you teach a student the difference between a right and wrong answer?

Rephrasing Closed Questions:

If you find yourself frequently quizzing students with your closed questions, think about other ways to engage their participation, keep them on their toes, and reconnect with the “so what?” question that drives student curiosity. Sometimes, this comes in rephrasing the question. Sometimes, you might realize that although your question sounds open, you’re really fishing for a certain kind of answer from your students. Often, when this is the case, your students can tell.

Here are a few examples of closed questions, which have been revised as open questions:



Closed Question

Open Question


In Comedy of Errors, does Adriana end up in the kind of marriage that her sister approves of?

This sounds like an open question, but it’s acting like a closed one – because even though it begs for qualification, it is still a yes or no answer… and it sounds like the teacher is fishing for a specific answer.

Let’s talk about Adriana’s marriage. What seems important in her relationship?

This is a more open question because the teacher probably doesn’t quite know how the students will respond, yet a range of responses might lead to interesting discussions.


What are the three branches of government?

This is an obviously closed question because it is based on vocabulary and factual recall.

What are some of the things that people expect the U.S. government to do?

This question will elicit all kinds of responses, which can then be organized. It will lead to the question of what kinds of things ‘go’ together, which will hopefully draw some student to offer up the legislative, executive, and judicial branches.

Foreign Language

Who can conjugate this verb in the present tense?

This is asking for a performance. The volunteer is asserting confidence, because the question forces them into making a claim about their own abilities.

This is the verb “to want.” What are some things that you want, right now?

There is clearly a right and wrong way to conjugate a verb, but the grammar is not framed as an essential ability, but rather, a practice of usage.


Solve for X.

This directive suggests that there is a preferred way to solve for X. It also kicks students into performance mode, before it reminds them to note process.

What do you need to know, in order to solve for X? What might you do first, to solve for X?

This is the kind of question that sets students up to think about process, rather than result.


What is happening in this experiment?

The verb “is” is absolute, and it cues students not to answer unless they’re sure they are right.

What do you see happening in this experiment? What might be causing this reaction?

This asks for observation and hypothesis. The conditional “might be” allows for greater risk-taking in student responses.

For a more in-depth look at open vs. closed questions, you can check out the Question Formulation Technique, see this abbreviated article on QFT from Harvard Ed, or come borrow the slim little book Make Just One Change that you could easily browse in an hour or so.

For a deeper look at types of questions in the classroom, check out this typology of classroom questions (and then notice how frequently you find yourself focusing your classroom around each type of question).

The Habit:

Begin to pay attention to the type of questions you ask, and begin to work more open questions into your teaching habits. Think about using observational and conditional language to help reframe closed questions as open ones. Observe how students respond differently to open and closed questions. Encourage students to also ask open questions and make sure that you, as teacher, also model the kind of intellectual curiosity that leads to the most interesting (if occasionally ill-timed) open questions.

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Speaking of Discussion

by Harmony Button

If you tend to slip into the same old discussion strategies every day, check out the following ways to shake up your classroom dynamics:

The Thinking: 

We know that students are creatures of habit — just like we are.  It shouldn’t be surprising to us that if a classroom establishes a certain participation dynamic (say, the same three or four people do most of the talking), then it can be difficult to change that dynamic without also changing the conditions under which the habit was set (which is often your go-to teaching practice).  It can be shocking to see how quickly these dynamics of participation can be established — and how quickly others feel expected to norm to them. The good news is that you can re-align the participation dynamics of your classrooms through reflection and awareness (asking students to track and measure their levels of participation) or by upsetting the current norms with a variety of alternative discussion techniques.

But what if there are students who aren’t verbal contributors? How is it more fair to force them to speak? Not all students are naturally extroverted — should we force all students to speak up in the same ways?

Absolutely not. But unless we vary our discussion practices, we’re teaching our students that there is only one “good” way to participate: by verbalizing your thoughts, on the spot, in front of a big group.  And while we want all our students to feel safe and confident enough to participate in this way, there are many other very valid ways to be dynamically engaged and interactive inside a discussion setting.

The Application: 

Frequently, a teacher’s default for “discussion” is to gather a whole class’ attention (eyes on you), ask a question, and then call on raised hands for answers, shaping and guiding the discussion with your own comments as you go.  The teacher-centered discussion is by far the most common form of discussion I see happening around our school. And it can be a very effective form of teaching. But it’s not the only form of discussion, by a long shot. Check out some of these ideas for alternative discussion formats.

Socrative: a free online teaching tool that provides a specific amount of time for students to respond to a question that you write.  This is an excellent way to hear from everybody in the classroom, not just those who raise hands. You can also choose whether you want your responses to be anonymous, or have names attached.

Chalk Talk: a silent, low-tech version of discussion that allows students to respond to others’ comments on a white board or other communal text.

Socratic Seminars or other student-run discussion formats: these types of discussions teach students to analyze the architecture of a conversation, and will help students to learn to self-validate, instead of immediately looking to the teacher for cues (a great growth-mindset building technique!).

Collaborize Classroom: online free platform to host inquiry-based discussions. You can create your own or browse the options already created.

And of course, you can punctuate your traditional discussion strategies with various activities that ask students to engage and express themselves in different ways: the pair-share, the minute-paper, a jigsaw project, a round of QFT, a thought experiment, or a metacognitive moment (my favorite is the “why are we doing this?” question).

The Habit:

The goal of a discussion is not to iron out air time to the point where everyone must speak the same amounts, nor is the goal to motivate students through fear by always cold-calling or pulling names from a randomizing source (a deck, popsicle sticks, what-have-you).  Not that pulling names or cold-calling are bad practices — but if your verbal participation in the classroom is imbalanced, you might want to think about ways that you can moderate the air-time without silencing anyone or demanding attention with the threat of being put on the spot.

The best advice I seem to find out there (and that I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in classrooms in at Waterford) is just to make variety part of your practice: try new things, reflect on how they went, and include your students in the meta-conversations about habits of participation, distribution of air-time, and how various forms of discussion play to different people’s strengths and preferences.

Do you have any other discussion practices or protocols that you use? How do you shake up classroom dynamics and invite various forms of participation?

Happy teaching,

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The “Write” Game

by Harmony Button

Why do people love games? What makes something a game? If a game is merely a structured activity in which there are set objectives and clear parameters, where a player’s success is measured by demonstrations of skill, luck, or perseverance, then why don’t we call homework assignments “games” instead of “papers” or “problem sets?” Why do educators and students alike see games as moments of lesser learning, a Friday afternoon concession or a pre-finals last-ditch effort at broad-based review and crowd control? Are games always based on competition? Is it a deep human desire to know our place in a perceived pecking order, or to try our abilities against those of the other individuals in our community, that drives our love of games? Or is it something more philosophically meaningful — do games offer us an immediate invitation to engage, and a path to participation that doesn’t always have to be reductionary and gimmicky?

The Thinking:

As educators, we actively resist the idea that school is a game of any kind.  We take learning seriously, and deep learning takes time. By their nature, many games tend to ask players to skate along the surface of a topic, to learn by trial and error, or to rehearse specific, measurable skills until the player achieves the level of mastery needed to accomplish a (usually fairly arbitrary) task. But there is something about the energy of games — their immediate appeal, their playfulness and micro-reward systems, that we shouldn’t overlook or always look down upon as a teaching tool. The power of games is not just in their tendency to reify a student’s sense of what s/he is “good” or “bad” at — this is a dangerous side effect of games that usually comes from poor design or execution.  Any game can become cruel; any game can lose its sense of fun. In a healthy classroom, I’d argue that the power of games lives in their ability to get students to play: to take pleasure from a sense of process, to collaborate and coordinate with peers, and to be delighted by quirks of luck or chance or opportunity. In other words, the goal of a good game is to shift the focus from the noun “game” to the adjective — to be game is to be open-minded, flexible, and eager to take on new challenges.

The Practice:

Anyone who has taught Middle School knows how the word “game” is a game-changer inside the classroom. You call something a game and suddenly, the energy of the room changes. Students perk up. Bodies shuffle. The volume rises. Students who previously expected to be passive learners suddenly assume that they will be physically, mentally, and communally engaged. Of course, we’ve all seen this physical, mental and communal engagement go wildly awry during “game” time. Many teachers refuse to ever indulge their students by playing “games” for exactly these reasons: they feel like students focus on performing, rather than learning, and that competition trumps collaboration. Also, the shouting and waving and squealing and howling and rule-arguing and whines of “that’s not fair!” have a way of giving teachers headaches and making us reconsider our career choices.

But there ways to harness game-like energy in structures and activities that don’t necessarily set up clear winners or losers. There are ways to design games that reward players for their ability to play, rather than their ability to win. Maybe this is why my students have learned to look at me sideways when I say that we’re going to play a “game” today — because what I mean is that today we’re going to set up structures and then explore them in non-linear, playful ways. Dice and scores and shouting are usually not involved, but teams often are, and there is frequently a sense of chance or luck, and there is likely to be passing of some sort: of papers, of players, of roles or rules.

To be game is to be ready to have your world-view shifted — which is why I so often find myself drawn to games that require the player to discover the rules as they play. I love the kind of games where you start in the dark and slowly feel your way into a map — either literally, or metaphorically. Often, the games that I design for my students have a sense of unfolding: what will happen next? They stay engaged with what they don’t know, as well as what they do. Where is this game going? How much of this sense of direction is under student control, how much is in the teacher’s control, and how much depends upon the whims of the game?  This sense of wonder can drive even the most simple of games, revealing our most basic values: what it means to play, to participate, to preserve, or to push for change.

Maybe this broad, philosophical approach to “game”-ness is why my games often include things like the You’re Writing On The Whiteboard! game, or the You’re In Teams Of Four To Think Better! game. These would not make very good board games. But game-ness lives in attitudes more than practices — and the nature of a game is that it provides immediate and meaningful feedback, based on a player’s choices and performances — and so, I maintain that even these games can be entertaining, rewarding, and engaging.
Here are some other structures that can spark game-ness in students:

1. The “Randomizing Anything” game: anything that involves random selection is a game of sorts. How exciting!

2. The “Connections” game: anything that involves physically representing mental connections. This can include making lists on a white board and then drawing lines between elements on each list, or it can manifest in Post-Its or signs that students wear. Bonus fun occurs when the students can’t see what kind of sign they are wearing and they have to figure it out based on who/ what “connects” to them.

3. The “Teams” game: anything that involves dividing into groups, preparing as a group, and then doing something with the ideas and information that you’ve prepared.  Anything that asks teams to purposefully shuffle mid-“game” adds another layer of intrigue.

4. The “My Paper Is Not My Paper” game: anything that involves putting ideas on paper and then circulating that paper through someone else’s hands, especially if that person continues to build on the ideas that the original paper-owner began.  This is the heart of the “exquisite corpse” game that we sometimes play in Creative Writing.

5. The “I’m Physically Embodying Anything” game: anything that asks students to demonstrate their engagement or learning through non-verbal, physical forms. This can be as simple as raising hands, as active as asking students to move to various corners of a room, or as abstract as interpretive dance.

6. The “Tell The Story” game: this is a game of Summary Plus. This is anything that asks a student to practice empathy and engage in story telling while they demonstrate knowledge.

7. The “Your Teacher Is Also A Player” game: anything that puts the teacher on the same footing as the students, whether in terms of having access to “answers” or inside the constructs or process of the game.

8. The “And Next!” game: anything that has multiple steps that students don’t know about ahead of time.

9. The “Pass It On” game: anything that requires students to teach other students, especially when the success of the “team” is based on the performance or presentation of the last student.

10. The “Do Your Homework” game: is a dirty, dirty trick. But sometimes it still gets a laugh.  This is the only game Tyler Waterhouse will play in Cross Country: “Can we play Red Light / Green Light?” the students begged. “Sure,” said Tyler.  “Ready? Green Light.” And then they just went running.

The Habit:

When they’re done right, games can teach resilience, dedication, collaboration and grit. Encouraging your students to be game is one more way to teach them the joy of learning. Shifting your own attitudes towards your teaching and pushing yourself to be more “game” for games in the classroom can push you to recognize how tightly you want to control the sequence of events in your classroom — and how much you might want to bypass or quickly get over the messy process of learning. Games are messy because they involve missteps and mistakes, and in the good ones, even the teacher doesn’t quite know how they’re going to play out.

If you’re still not sold on gaming in your classrooms (and I fully acknowledge that to game or not to game is a matter of personal pedagogy), at least take a look at some of the exciting things that are (finally!) coming out of the actual gaming industry: video games don’t just have to be mindless ways to indulge in violence while practicing minimal hand-eye coordination! There are some really interesting discussions on the future of the video game as a story telling device, and there are plenty of games that aren’t marketed as “educational” that can still have intellectual benefits. These games are popular because they put the learner in the driver’s seat: you have to be game to learn to play a game, and the best games are the ones where you feel as if you’re not quite in control of your fate, yet in control of how you might respond to it.

Most importantly, just because something is a game doesn’t mean that it is always comfortable — a universal truth in the world of sports.  To take a line from Coach Henrikson which I’m sure all his rowers know well — you should not confuse ‘comfortable’ with ‘fun.’   The best games, even while they are fun, build that sense of satisfaction from a sense of process and participation that doesn’t have to be immediate or even comfortable.  The best games are not the ones that become obsolete once students have mastered them, but the ones that ask students to grow inside of them, to push their boundaries of their structures, and to alter them through their participation.  Innovation is always a kind of winning, even when it doesn’t always work.

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Your Brain Moves By Train While Your Hand Is Still On Foot

by Harmony Button

This post is about the practice of freewriting — a style of brainstorming that writers frequently practice in both creative and critical pursuits.

The Thinking:

One of the most frequent complaints that I get from students about their writing is that they don’t have anything to say. They come up with a few sentences, and then they flatline: they face the white-noise of nothingness in their minds.

In these situations, what I suspect these students are experiencing is a kind of mental traffic jam — a bottleneck of cognition that makes them feel as they have nothing to say, when actually, what’s happening is that they have nothing that they think I want to hear. I’m sure there are plenty of other words up there, including a few choice ones for the particular assignment that is frustrating them at that moment. But if the mind is a highway of cognitive traffic, the reluctant writer is mentally setting up their own roadblocks in hopes of catching the elusive idea that will earn them an A on this assignment. It’s as if they were lining up all their thoughts at a police check point and searching them for some kind of insight; but instead of appropriate ideas, the writer interrogates car after car of their own self-doubt and frustration.

At this point, the best thing a writer can do is to break down the road blocks and send the mental cops away. Before they can produce interesting ideas, students need to stop berating themselves for not having interesting ideas. One of the ways that we can encourage students to explore their ideas without frustration or judgement is to practice freewriting on a regular basis.

The purpose of freewriting is to open up a few more lanes in the mental highway, to clear the roads, and get the cognitive traffic flowing again. As a practice, it goes against what we often teach about writing: to proof read everything, to check your spelling, to always write in complete sentences, to stay organized and on track, to control your voice and cultivate an academic tone. Instead, freewriting is about letting go of format, convention, and even an expectation of clarity.

You can read about freewriting in many different writing books, but I first encountered the idea in Anne Lamott’s classic Bird By Birda witty, honest, real-person’s guide to authentic writing. The rules that I have come to use with students are mostly based on the guidelines that Lamott outlines in her chapter on brainstorming.  Lamott encourages freewriting as a means of combatting perfectionism, which she describes as “a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are an artist’s true friend.”  I first encountered the idea of the beautiful mess from Lamott, who writes that “we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here — and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.” Read an article on Anne Lamott here, or just go ahead and buy her books. All of them.

The Practice:

Here’s how I explain freewriting to students: if your brain is a train, chugging along at a decent speed, then the act of writing is usually like watching your mind whoosh by in one loud, clanking blur. You can’t run along side the train — it’s moving too fast — so instead, you try to take a snapshot of the train at any given moment, and write down that static thought. But what if you tried to keep pace with the brain-train? Instead of grabbing one idea from the stream of your mind and then wrestling it onto the paper, what if you tried to sketch out exactly what you were thinking in each moment, one second at a time? What if your hand could move as fast as the train of your mind, and capture all the ideas, relevant or not?

Whoa, students say. That’s impossible! And at this point, I usually make some kind of joke about wishing that we had USB adapters for our brains, so that we could just plug in and download a minute’s worth of data to the computer, but we don’t. We’re still stuck with ancient technology: our hands. But there is something about speaking through our hands (whether at a keyboard or clutching a pencil) that makes us receptive to the idea of breaking linear thought: we can use the tactile nature of writing to help keep ourselves in the moment, rather than feeling the linear pressure of speech (although we naturally break that, too — just listen to someone talking through an idea. It rarely comes out in complete sentences). In writing, we can leave a sentence, start a new one, make a list, repeat the same word over and over… and nobody judges us, because it’s all still contained in our own quiet, private paper. Even though the brain is the speeding train and the hand is metaphorically on foot, if you do it right, you can have the amazing experience of feeling yourself suddenly running, as fast as you have ever run before, through words, past words, leaping through your thoughts to keep pace with the engine of your mind. And this, for a reluctant writer, is a transformative experience.

To use a different metaphor, the experience of traditional composition vs. freewriting is akin to the difference between looking at a ceiling fan and seeing a blur of movement, and focusing on one specific blade, tracking it with your eyes, and keeping it in focus while you follow it around, around, around. It takes an intense kind of focus to stay in the moment, to keep the single blade in the mind’s eye, and to keep pace with the motor of the fan. So it is to keep your hand moving in pace with your mind.

So what does freewriting really look like? Here are the guidelines:

1. Keep your hand moving — even if it means repeating the same word over and over until you find a new one. You are always writing, as if you have stepped onto the treadmill of thought, and you must keep moving. Pausing, even for a moment, is not an option.

2. Only look forward. Stay with the current thought and don’t look back at what you have written. This means that you will only generate new material, but not mark up or change anything you’ve produced. Don’t cross out, or erase, or edit. If you want to say something differently, just write it — don’t go back and change anything that you have already written. Stay in the moment.

3. Embrace the tangent. Feel free to go off topic as often and widely as you want, as long as the association is authentic. Recognize that linear thought is a construct of communication, not a natural means of generation: the brain rarely moves in straight lines. Instead, it loops, it stutters, it leaps. Follow it, wherever it goes. Hang on for the ride.

4. Turn off the Internal Editor — you know, that little voice that says that you’re doing it wrong, that everything you’re saying is dumb, that your handwriting is bad, and (all those other hateful things internal editors can say). You don’t need an editor right now. There is plenty of time for that later.

5. Trust that this is private. Because you are asking students to produce unfiltered text, they need the security of knowing that they will not be forced to share any of the raw material of the freewrite. You can solicit volunteers to share if they like, but collecting freewrites, grading them in any way, or requiring students to read their freewrite to peers will compromise the authenticity of the experience.

If your students have computing devices available, try getting them to dim the monitor on their screen, so that they can’t even see the words they’re producing as they write. It’s a magical kind of event, to turn a screen back on and see a block of text that you produced, without having seen it come out, word by word. This ability to separate production from product (along with the increased speed of typing vs. handwriting) accentuates the difference between freewriting and traditional composition — and students tend to really enjoy it.

Once you explain the practice of freewriting to students, give them a chance to try it out — but only for a minute or two. They do best when you give them a prompt of some kind — a starting point that is specific enough to spark immediate responses, but open enough to allow room to roam. Remember that freewriting takes an incredible amount of focus, and it’s easy for student to mistake freewriting for ranting if they get fatigued. In order for them to get a sense of the mental sensation of running with the mind, let them drop in for a few short sprints. It is the rare and practiced writer who can freewrite for extended periods of time.

When you begin a freewriting session, use time to measure completion, not quantity or length of writing. Time them exactly, and tell them to stop mid-sentence or mid-word. It gives them the feeling of leaping out of the steam of cognition, and getting out of the way of all the traffic of the mind.

Next, let them read back through what they’ve written, and underline anything that surprised them. This could be an idea that they didn’t know they had, or an image, or a memory. Next, you can either have them freewrite again, using this idea or image as their focal point, or you can move them into a more traditional mode of composition where they start to polish and explore this idea.

Lastly, it’s a good idea to debrief on the experience of freewriting. Some students find it transcendent and liberating. Others find it painfully uncomfortable. (Funny, I have had the same experience with all kinds of things that are good for me — running? Meditation? Hiking the Wasatch?). Let them talk about what kind of voice came out of the freewrite. Let them compare notes on the experience — does the handwriting get sloppy? Did their writing hand cramp up? Did they feel smarter than normal, or less articulate? Did they abandon punctuation? How close to linear was the text they generated? Remind them that this is a technique that they can use for any situation — to explore a problem or concept from school, or to process an event or conflict in their personal lives. Freewriting, at its best, reveals to the student the ideas and insights that they might not otherwise have discovered. In this way, it can be quite empowering for teenagers, who often feel as if they lack the voice or the context to really understand or express themselves. Combine the feeling of being voiceless with the sense of Big Things Happening all the time, and it is no surprise to me that adolescents can be chronically distracted, angry, and anxious.

The Habit:

Freewriting is a highly effective brainstorming practice. It can be used to start a discussion, to process a problem, to think about meta-cognitive functions, or to combat so-called “writer’s block.” I suspect that it is also just a really healthy thing to do, as a human being: asking students to check in with their own minds, to set aside judgement, and to practice mindfulness for a brief period of time could set them up to develop greater self awareness and an increased ability to express their ideas in their day to day lives.

Posted in brainstorming, finding your voice, freewriting, meta-cognition, Writing Across the Curriculum | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Writing About the Arts

by Harmony Button

It’s Arts Week in the Middle and Upper Schools at Waterford! We take this week to celebrate our rich performing and visual arts programs through gallery openings, special assemblies and performances — and as always, we should prepare to be impressed. As a school, we invest a lot of time and energy into the arts: we require a significant number of performing and visual art credits as part of our path to graduation because we believe that training our students in the arts makes them better students in their academic classes… not to mention, better citizens and happier, more fulfilled people in general. The arts teach discipline, empathy and joy — and what more do you really need, to live a fulfilling kind of life?

The Thinking:

Now, as astounding and impressive as these artists’ showcases are, this is a week that can feel disruptive to other courses. Even when you know of the students who will be missing your classes (or need to leave early or come late), your classes can sometimes feel as if you’re sailing a ship with a skeleton crew for a few days. The adjusted daily schedule impacts typical lunch hours, which can also contribute to feeling that school life has accelerated to a frenetic pace. We do these things because we value and celebrate the performing and visual arts — and because it is important that the school at large get a sense of how these arts also cultivate community. But just because your students may come back to class in full dance-bun hair or wearing bow ties from their photo gallery openings doesn’t mean that you can’t also embrace the spirit of Arts Week in your own classes. That’s why I wanted to dedicate this WAC post to re-framing Arts Week as an invitation to all teachers to think about their own work as a kind of art.

Every discipline is an art in that it can be applied to create art, or appreciated through the eyes of an artist. Every teacher, then, is also a kind of artist. Now, I don’t want that to come across in a cheesy, “you are simply an artist of math!” kind of flat-souled pedantic rhetoric. But I’m pretty sure that anyone who can balance great idealism, optimism and ambition against a sense of purpose, practice, and application, is actually an artist. Dear teacher, does that sound anything like something you’ve been wrestling with, lately?

The Application:

Here are some ideas on how to bring Arts Week into your classroom in ways that might enrich and enliven your teaching:

1. Consider taking some time to appreciate the artistic elements of your own discipline. Find examples of times when your coursework has enabled an artist. Share your findings with your students and your colleagues in and out of your discipline. If you have a project that crosses over into art, ask about ways that you might share this with the greater community. Math classes doing origami? It’s happening. Architecture? Fractal prints? Poetry generated by mathematical formulas? Drone photography? Please share!

2. Look for resources that can be shared with students who miss your classes. Consider posting TED talks or online articles as events or assignments on your Canvas accounts. I have been really pleasantly surprised by the number of students who actually take a look at links that I share as optional “events” on their Canvas calendars. Never underestimate the power of a catchy tagline as educational click-bait.

3. Take a little time to reflect on the performances and assemblies that you attend with students. Invite them to draw connections or see parallels between artistic performances and your discipline. These connections could be figurative ones (see the post on the Power of Metaphor) or they might be more meta-cognitive: how does a student’s experience of music (playing it or listening to it) parallel their experience of lab work in science, or editing work in English?

4. Give yourself a few minutes to think about your own teaching as an artistic practice. If art is a manifestation of an intangible experience — if it’s meant to make us think or feel beyond ourselves, in some way — then how do you do that, in your classroom?

5. If you can’t arrange an artistic detour in your curriculum plans, think about spending some time with your advisees to debrief Arts Week. Invite them to participate in ekphrastic projects: can they write about what it feels like to watch dance? Can they dance about their memory of photo exhibits?

6. If you find the space or time, ask students to teach you something about an art you don’t know anything about. Not only is it great fun (and weirdly amusing) for students to try to teach things to their teachers, but it is also a really feel-good kind of thing to do.

7. Ask your students to reflect on the role of art in their lives by participating in the hashtag #WhatArtMeans on Twitter and social media. Let’s see what happens!

The Habit

Art lives inside of attitudes and perspectives, as well as practices. Remember that as a teacher, you don’t have to be an expert in everything you ask your students to do. In fact, it’s probably a good practice to hope to be out-grown: the master teacher is not the one who has mastered all material — instead, s/he’s the one who takes risks, and who opens doors to possibilities far beyond personal mastery. Let your students out-shine you. Let them show you what art means to them, inside your discipline.

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Listening is a Part of Speech

by Harmony Button

“We can learn a lot about a person in the very moment that language fails them. In the very moment that they have to be more creative than they would have imagined in order to communicate. It’s the very moment that they have to dig deeper than the surface to find words, and at the same time, it’s a moment when they want to communicate very badly. They’re digging deep and projecting out at the same time.” — Anna Deavere Smith

The Thinking:

This week, I can’t stop quoting Anna Deavere Smith, on the art of listening. Maria Popova’s excellent article “How to Listen Between the Lines” has reminded me that listening is implicit in the nature of language — and that, at its best, communication is a team effort between speaker and listener, or author and reader. Deavere Smith describes the moment when language fails a speaker as a moment of immense opportunity — a breakthrough, rather than a breakdown. It is in feeling as if we are lost for words that we are forced to find new words, new habits of speech, new ways of communicating what we’re trying to say. It is through this intense desire to communicate that language stays alive — without this, we would all fall into flatness, and every exchange would be banal.

In these moments of struggle, the speaker will be most successful in achieving communication and finding ways to express an idea through words if they also feel the supportive silence of their listeners. We know that there are qualities to silence, and that it can be as potent and powerful as speech. The kind of silence that the struggling speaker craves is the kind of silence that author Paul Goodman describes as “the silence of listening to another speak, catching the drift and helping him be clear.” In this way, the act of listening pulls at one end of communication, even as the speaker pushes at the other end.

An interesting thing happens inside a classroom when someone cares deeply about what they are saying — and I mean “cares” as in, experiences a kind of emotion that goes beyond a desire to perform for the teacher, and enters into the realm of need: a need not just to express themselves, but to do justice to an idea that currently lives inside them that they need to get out. It feels, to the speaker, like it is not just about them — it’s almost as if the idea itself needs to speak, needs to be expressed. It’s a magical feeling for a speaker, to suddenly feel like host and conduit to something larger and more important than themselves: the idea, a kind of truth, a new version of reality.

So this big Idea-Thing has a student bursting at the seams, and the teacher calls on the student, and they have the floor, and they open their mouth — and then, everybody does this part differently. Some students speak haltingly, slowly, picking each word one at a time. Some speak recursively, repeating their efforts over and over until they feel like they got it right. Some revert to hand gestures and universal signs of empathy — “it’s like, uhh!” they say, or, “at first you’re like (hand on heart) and then — (small flitting gesture).” And if I (the teacher) am doing my job right that day, I get it, because I’m listening very hard, to all the things that student is saying and not saying. And if they’re doing their job right that day, the rest of the students in the room also get it, because listening is also an act of being vulnerable, of being open to the rawness of someone else’s need to speak. And then we all feel as if something valuable has been done that day.

From an objective perspective, the interaction described above is not an example of the most articulate communication. But it is the most important communication, because it is where language has failed the speaker, and where the greatest opportunity for revelation has revealed itself. Now, as teachers, we know that there are elements of classroom chemistry that are outside of our control, and that students can be impatient and, dare I say it, unkind to individuals who make a habit of verbally floundering in class. There are all kinds of social issues in play — some students are too cool to ever let their friends see them reduced to this kind of wordy-wordlessness, and others are too acutely aware of their low coolness-quotient to reveal their vulnerabilities any further. So how does a teacher foster the kind of classroom where it is okay to struggle, verbally, because a student feels the classroom pulling through their listening, even as they push through their speaking?

The Application

One of the hardest lessons I am still learning as a teacher is the power of naming the thing that makes you uncomfortable. By identifying and labeling the condition or feeling, you A) acknowledge it as a real thing that can be measured, instead of a personal emotional response and B) allow others to also stand back and study it, alongside you. This is a lesson that my colleague Mary Powers, guru of being human, continues to remind me to practice, every day.

This practice of naming the problem is a facet of meta-communication that allows groups of people to calibrate their dynamic without defensive emotional reactions — by naming the behavior, event, or social habit, you are just noticing it, not judging or even responding to it. This is the tactic you use with the impulsive student: instead of waiting to the point of frustration and then snapping, “STOP interrupting people!” you make a practice of predictably and reliably identifying behavior, saying, “you’re blurting,” or “off topic,” — or even better, you can set up a non verbal signal (a touch on the desk, a hand in the air) to cue the impulsive student to tune back in to their behavior. This puts the power to avoid a negative response back in the hands of the student, who can take the observations and choose to revise behavior accordingly. This way, they are not just silenced: they are invited to understand the role they play inside the classroom community, and alter it for the betterment of the conversation.

The best way I know how to teach listening skills is through modeling my own attempt to listen, and validating courageous attempts to communicate important things. I try to flag the moments in which something important is at stake, recognize the struggle that is taking place, and remind students that communicating is most difficult when it is most important — when there is something significant at stake.

And, of course, if you want your students to listen to each other, you have to set up conversations that emphasize group listening skills. If you’re not careful, a classroom can revert back to a teacher-centric circus in which students perform in turn, then tune out or energetically disengage. It’s easy for a teacher to feel as if the energy in the classroom is high, and that all students are engaged — because the teacher is basically engaging with students one-on-one, in turn, with each hand that they call on. The students, however, may be having a very different experience inside that classroom.

One step towards building a class of supportive, active listeners is to help students identify different types of discussion roles that they might play. You can describe discussion roles in lots of different ways, and if you ask around, you’ll find that your colleagues have their own favorite roles they name and encourage students to practice. Here is a list of discussion roles that I compiled with a particularly discussion-challenged (and by the end, discussion-savvy, if not skilled) set of English students:

Discussions and Group Work
Individual Roles

MANAGER: organizes other people, creates structure, gives tasks to other people. In a discussion, this role tends to signal transitions or define topics.

META-MANAGER: makes comments on how the discussion or group work is going; often suggests tactics or directions that the group should move in, in order to have a more productive group experience.

SUPPORTER: takes on tasks or jobs the manager suggests. Some of those jobs are often SCRIBE (to record thoughts for presentation) or RESEARCHER (looks through book for evidence).

DEBATERS: look for other sides to ideas or problems with arguments.

QUESTIONERS: either start a discussion based on a question, ask for clarification, or use questions to suggest that the discussion needs further depth.

MEDIATORS: help all members of the group get along, stay on task and work together.

WEAVERS: make connections between different people’s comments or ideas; use compare/contrast.

BUILDERS: pick up on a comment someone else has made, credit that person for it, and build upon it.

THE EYE: is always looking at the person speaking, gives good eye-contact, and uses facial cues to help the speaker feel as if s/he is being heard.

THE DETOUR: contributes with non sequiturs or poorly timed commentsthe comment might be worthwhile, but it doesn’t further the direction of the conversation at the moment.

THE HEAVY FOOT: the (often well-intentioned) knowledgable comment or heavy-handed contribution that takes over the discussion or ends up discouraging or squashing others’ participation.

THE PERPETUAL EPIPHANY: is constantly on the verge of a breakthrough, but struggles to bring peers along with him/her, either in energy level or in engagement with content. This person may also treat class as if it is a 1-1 conversation with the teacher, and make peers feel excluded.

THE ECHO: repeats an idea or fact that has already been established.  Sometimes, this repetition is intentional and for a purpose; sometimes, it is unintentional. 

GHOSTS: attempt to stay disengaged from the group, verbally and physically. They avoid eye contact and are mostly silent. They may be tuned in, but are not “pulling” the conversation through their listening.

THE FIDGET : may be paying attention, but is also engaged in physical activities that can be distracting to others: tapping, leg-shaking, paper-folding, or other object-fiddling.

DRIFTERS: contribute when it is their turn, but then drift off by themselves. They may only mentally drift, or they may disrupt other workers or physically leave the group.

CLOWNS: try to make people laugh by making off-topic comments or starting distractions, which might get a positive reaction in the moment, but ultimately kills the energy of the conversation. Clowns can be afraid to take intellectual risks, and will play up their own “failures” as part of the act.

One effective way to make use of these discussion roles is to ask students to identify their own natural roles (they are usually more than one), and then ask them how these roles contribute to the class. Students may find positive impacts in seemingly negative roles, or drawbacks to the more obviously productive roles. They get to talk about things like persona and attitude — you can be an insufferable Meta-Manager, or you can be a Clown with pretty good timing, who actually helps the class feel more comfortable.

Next, try asking students to adopt a role that is really unnatural to them, and play it for a certain period of time — five minutes, ten minutes, a whole class, a week. Ask them to reflect on what they learned through this exercise. Throughout this exercise, coach students in non-verbal skills that are indicative of good listening: eye-contact, body posture, facial expressions. Ask them to identify people in the class that they think are good listeners — people they want to be talking to, when they’re struggling to express themselves. Make sure you talk about the difference between acting like you’re listening, and really listening. Then, practice pairing discussions with writings — trace conversations, report back on ideas, map topic shifts and pace of progress.

The Habit

Good listening is palpable, and is key to drawing out the best, most meaningful articulation from others. Developing a classroom of good listeners will be a classroom of good writers — the recognition of ambiguity and the acceptance of the struggle implicit in communication will translate directly to the written page. Naming discussion roles and drawing attention to listening skills across all disciplines makes these skills universal: listening is not just important in a discussion-based English class, but in all human interactions, inside school and out.

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A Matter of Voice

by Harmony Button

“Don’t lose your language. Don’t lose your culture. The written word is the most persuasive form of communication.” — Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Last week, the entire Waterford Upper School travelled to the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake to hear Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor speak in what turned out to be a surprisingly intimate atmosphere, given the hundreds of people who filled the arena. Justice Sotomayor quickly rejected the podium, abandoned the stage, and roamed the floor for a while before literally climbing into the audience to sit with various school groups, all while telling stories of her personal journey and dispensing thoughtful advice to her audience. While Sotomayor’s comments on language were in response to a question about learning to speak English as a first generation student in the United States, her perspective on language, learning, and writing in particular hit home with any student who has found themselves struggling to find space for their individual voice in the academic world.

The Thinking:

Academic language is a language of privilege — it takes practice, coaching, and awareness to be able to participate in the kind of dialogue that we teach in schools. If you haven’t had that particular kind of coaching, you might feel as if your voice is not welcome inside the conversation: in some institutions, it is academic rhetoric that earns a student the right to speak, and to be heard. In school, we learn to speak in formal and academic ways because we believe that these ways will encourage critical thinking, and we see these styles of speech as successful in communicating ideas to a broad population. But we also know that these ways of speaking are recognized as symbolic of higher learning: therefore, the way you speak or write is a kind of signpost you carry around that sends a message about what kind of person (hypothetically) you are. This should not be surprising. We carry signs around with us in all kinds of ways: the way we dress, the way we look, the intonations of our speech patterns or the movements we make with our bodies. Some of these signs are under our control. Others are not. For example, I, personally, will never experience this world as a tall person. And yet, we (tall or short) must all navigate this world, wearing the signs that we wear. And, of course, the world responds to each of us differently, given our own particular assortment of signage.

In order to see how written communication is used as a signpost of identity, take a (careful, cringing, sideways) glance at the “comments” feature on any YouTube video or public post, and it won’t take you long to locate trolling jibes that reject an author’s idea via an attack on their identity, as communicated through their speech. “Bad” grammar becomes indicative of a lack of intelligence, and tone of voice becomes a way of measuring personal credibility. The personal attack lowers every conversation to the lowest common denominator: we’re all trying to figure out who we’re talking to, and if we should listen to them. Online comments are reduced to a performance of ego and ethos, rather than a space for intellectual engagement. 

But of course, in order to be functional humans, we must make value judgements on who we trust and listen to, and why. Building these skills of rhetorical analysis and critical thinking is central to our project in the liberal arts: we want to develop our students’ ability to be open-minded yet discerning thinkers. As teachers, however, we shouldn’t mistake our emphasis on academic or formal writing for an attempt to eliminate other kinds of speech that our students might practice. Instead, we as teachers are coaches and guides in teaching children how to “code switch,”  to make observations on rhetorical situation, and to respond in the ways that would be most effective and appropriate to the context.

The Application:

Sometimes, in English classes, students make the mistake of confusing overly wordy or convoluted sentence structures for academic tone. They try to elevate their tone through what they think are sophisticated gestures, but which are actually vague or needlessly complex sentences. This desire to elevate tone is often where nominalizations (or “zombie nouns”) come from. In order to combat this tendency to become more wordy or needlessly circuitous, you can ask students to translate their own writing into more casual speech: “what are you really saying?” seems to be a surprisingly effective question, here. Sometimes, students can pick through the word-salad of terminology, buzz-words, and diction they’ve picked out of the thesaurus, and re-locate their original intention at the heart of the sentence.  But if students can’t answer the “what are you really saying” question, then they might need to face the fact that they don’t know what they’re saying, or that they might be covering up for a lack of substance with a glaze of language that “sounds good,” — i.e., sounds intelligent and complex in nature.

There are plenty of times when you might encourage your students to write in ways that are not specifically for an academic audience. In fact, sometimes changing the audience forces your students to “get real” with the subject: they need to find ways of explaining complicated ideas to individuals or groups that do not share the same vocabulary and understanding (or implied value systems) as the speaker. This is the “explain how gravity works to your little sister” or “explain the concept of an economy to an alien who just landed on your planet” kind of assignment. By de-familiarizing the subject matter from the audience, the student has to examine the foundations of their own knowledge.

And then, there is the question of developing a personal “voice.” Although I continue to wrestle with these questions, myself, this is my advice to students: a voice is meant to be heard. If you can say what you want to say, while representing yourself in a way in which you want to be represented, then you have probably found your voice. Your voice can and should change, depending on the situation in which you use it, because the world is a complicated place and you are constantly readjusting your understanding of your place in it. When Sotomayor says not to lose your language, I don’t think she’s just talking about being bi-lingual. I think she means, don’t lose your range — your voice is a versatile instrument, and the more you stretch the range of your expression, the more confident and well-equipped you will feel to participate in any conversation, in any situation. There are some signs you have to wear, and there are some signs that you can swap in and out, depending on the situation. Your voice is a sign, but it a versatile one, and one that can carry you through a great variety of experiences. You can still be yourself, in various voices. 

The Habit:

Even as we continue to model, teach, and coach students in the conventions of our own disciplines, it is part of our responsibility as teachers to acknowledge that our modes of communication are not the only modes of communication. Helping our students to see the versatility of their own voices will not only help them find ways to investigate and interact with our course content, but it will encourage them to build their awareness of rhetorical context, allowing students to identify appropriate and meaningful ways to interact with lots of different kinds of people in the world. As Sotomayor also said, “the key to understanding others is listening, and looking at the world from their point of view.”

And by the way — our students have much to teach us, when it comes to the ways of communicating inside different contexts. They are savvy participants in all kinds of different modes of communication. I was thrilled to see Waterford students jump on the Twitter hashtag #sotospeaks soon after our experience in the Huntsman Center, and they introduced me to Storify, an app that collects an assortment of individual online expressions (through word or image) in order to offer up an implied story. You can check out the Storify account of the Sotomayor speech here

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Expressive Writing as a Vehicle of Change

by Harmony Button

“It may sound like self-help nonsense, but research suggests the effects are real.” — Tara Parker-Pope

The Thinking:

There have been a flurry of articles recently that quantitatively verify what writers (and educators) have long thought to be true: the act of writing does wiggly things to the insides of your brain, and makes you see the world in a different way. This recent piece published in the New York Times offers a brief overview of some of the ways in which writing (and re-writing) a personal narrative can lead to behavioral changes and greater overall satisfaction in life.  It’s worth a look. 

The Application:

Here’s the theory: we live inside the stories that we tell ourselves, and so, to some degree, we either empower or limit ourselves, depending on the constraints of the story. Now, the scary side to this theory is the “bootstraps” argument, which suggests that your unhappiness is simply due to your lack of imagination or ability to spin your story: you should pull yourself up by your own fictional bootstraps. This is not at all what proponents of expressive writing are implying. Instead, they’re suggesting that the process of applying the technical structures of fiction to the stuff of our personal narratives allows the storyteller to treat their own worldview as material that is as malleable as any other (non-fictional) subject matter. Further research shows that sharing these re-written stories with others also increases their power to affect behavioral change, creating lasting shifts in perspective: writing a story to share is more meaningful to an author than writing a personal account in a private journal.  

Unlike a self-assessment or self-reflection assignment, an expressive writing assignment asks the writer to write a narrative — tell a story. We use this technique in deaning procedures quite frequently when we ask a student to tell the story of “what happened” in a certain situation. Writing stories of personal experience allows an author to sort through the complexity of emotion, motivation, and personal perception surrounding an experience, but it also encourages the author to acknowledge the nuance and variation in possible perspectives on the thing: the more skillful the craft, the more open to variation of personal narrative the writer may become. In other words, developing the ability to write your own stories in multiple ways allows you to see your world in multiple ways, as well.

In practice, this might look like an assignment that asks a student to write a personal story several times, first from the first person perspective (the “I'”), then in third person (the “s/he”), and then perhaps from the first person perspective of another character involved in the story. Discussing one’s self as a character allows a student to articulate greater objective insight into the motivations or beliefs of that “character” (themselves!) than they might be able to fully acknowledge otherwise. A written story both distances and makes intimate the stuff of our experiences.

Of course, the ability to re-write a personal narrative relies on the technical competency to work within the medium of language: a visual artist is not in control of their own self portrait until they have the skill and craft necessary to do justice to the clay, paint, upcycled trash, or any other medium. Applying a technical understanding of the written construction distances us from our words (ie, our selves) and then reconnects us to our overall vision through innovative adaptation of this craft. This is also the kind of self expression is also at the heart of the arts curriculum in general, because we believe that all forms of artistic expression are, ultimately, a window to open-mindedness, mindfulness, and personal insight.

This desire for expression is also why we have a love/hate relationship with cliche, which reminds us that while some human experiences are universal, each individual experience happens upon the author as a unique and significant event. While cliches are, as the poet Craig Arnold said, “metaphors that won,” they are also too common to feel like they are accurate representations of our own individual experiences. They are tired language that we reach toward in moments when our experience craves something new a new perspective, a new expression, a new way to articulate an old feeling.

The Habit:

Sometimes, it seems like everything good (and bad) for me needs to be measured: minutes of exercise, servings of vegetables, dollars saved by using my rewards card at the supermarket. All this tracking produces a lot of data, but what do we do with the data of our lives? Sometimes, the onslaught of numbers ends up making me even more ineffective, as if the act of measuring has replaced the satisfaction of doing. But if, as researcher and storyteller Brene Brown suggests, “stories are just data with soul,” then perhaps we are more than just the sum of our parts: we are the storytellers, and we get ultimate authority on how we tell our tales, if not what happens in them.

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