Creating a positive classroom culture through language
Shari Krapels, a high school English teacher in New Jersey, shares her thoughts on the importance of language teachers use in the classroom
I am obsessed with words – a trait that manifests itself in countless ways in my classroom. I am forever urging my students toward greater precision in their language, chased by the fear of George Orwell’s ominous prediction: “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” However, it is not only our students who need that urging – it is we, too, their teachers, who need to be constantly reminded of the power of the words we use.
Every day I greet my students in basically the same way: “Good morning, friends!” That I refer to them as “friends” is not an accident, and it’s not a joke – it’s an intentional choice that I make when I speak to them. My students are in high school, and my classes are discussion-based. I need them to be comfortable with me and with each other, and so I call them “my friends”.
What I never call my students is “children” – except when the adult that I’m talking to needs reminding that high school students may sometimes seem like adults, but are in fact adolescents.
What I also call my students is “writers,” because that’s what we do: we write. Writers don’t “submit” papers or “turn them in,” they “publish” them, and so that’s what we do in my classroom, too. We revise and edit together, we work through the messy writing process together, and then we publish together. Always “publish,” always “we,” always “together,” because that’s how real writing gets done.
What I never refer to is “the real world” as some place that exists outside or beyond high school. When we slow down to examine our language, we realise that in talking to our students about “the real world” as not high school we are invalidating all of the work that that they, and we, are doing every day.
What I insist my student’s say is “earned” – they “earned” that A just like they “earned” that B.
What they never say is “got” – because when students “get” grades, they are victims. Instead of being acted upon, they are actors; instead of having school happen to them, they are essential participants in their learning.
When my students – my friends – leave my classroom, I encourage them to have a good day, and I use their names. Using someone’s name communicates care and interest. I care about my students and I am interested in them – it is important that they know that, and one of the ways they know it is when I use their names.
What makes a teacher great instead of just good is having a strong, positive classroom culture. Culture is built in so many different ways, but one of the main things that underlies a strong culture is strong trust, and one of the ways that we encourage students to trust us is in the way that we speak to them. Precision in our language matters – it builds trust, but it can also build self-esteem in our students. When students feel good about themselves, they learn better and they learn more. When students feel good about themselves, it means that we are doing our jobs as teachers.
Consider, then, challenging yourself in the following way: What are three language shifts that you can make today, and that you can adhere to every day, that will help you build a stronger classroom culture? Those three small changes will not only make your students’ lives better, but yours as well.