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exploring language

My students this year seem deeply motivated by root words.  It began on the first day with the root word logos and the word prologue.  Students examined its connection in each subject, from biology to the question of rational/irrational and whether it’s the same logos in logical that’s in the other subjects.

It’s my first year of self-contained and hence my first year of completely blurring the boundaries between subjects.  Today students ended the day by wrestling with the question, “How do literature, social studies, math and science differ in how they define truth?”  A few kids convinced me to let them switch “truth” with “reality.”

Although I have a Luddite streak in me, I notice that my most careful language mavens are the tweeters who have learned to choose wisely with 140 characters.  That and the kids who want to be rappers and expanded their vocabulary for the simple joy of rhyme.  They might not be hooked on phonics, but they seem drunk on the same iamb that once hooked Shakespeare.  And then there are the English Language Learners (aren’t we all learning language?) who thirst to learn, because unfortunately in society a lack of language often means people assume you are stupid.

So, just about every subject has turned into an exploration of language.  “Cell division seems really complicated with the language hear, but the process seems simple.  Do you think they do that to make themselves feel more important or to keep people away?”  Ouch.

Another student picks up on the phrases used when we study “Tell-Tale Heart,” and remarks, “Why do we assume that the narrator is a man? You all use ‘he’ but we have no proof.”  These moments are not constant.  I still wade through a sea of sloppy syntax and listen to my fair share of misplaced words.  Still, it is this intense desire of the class that feels like such a contrast compared to many of my grown-up conversations.

All of these experiences make me think that what I really want are students who understand language, not so that their essays sound pretty, but because they recognize the power in how it shapes reality.  I want them to wrestle over the context and know the root and understand the relations not so that they sound snobby in a coffee shop, but so they aren’t easily duped by cable news.  I want students who will never use the phrase, “It’s just semantics.”

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About John T. Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.

Discussion

14 thoughts on “exploring language

  1. I really like this post and believe we should be talking about the language we use in the “Reform” movement. How do you think the role of language limits our ability to change education for the better?

    Thanks for this.

    David

    Posted by dloitz | August 25, 2010, 11:19 pm
    • I’m not very popular in this respect. I prefer the term “rethink” over some of the other terms. “Reform” sounds too vague and bland. “Revolution” tends to disregard some of the great ideas of the past (much like change for the sake of change) that we lost before the age of industrialism. To me, “rethink” has a tone that is both social and personal – holding me accountable for my interactions with individual students as well as with the system in general. What we need are paradigm shifts.

      Within the system, we deal with huge issues of language. If I hear “data” and “mission” and “vision” I know I’m dealing with a business paradigm. I can’t even talk about a rethink with the person if the issue is simply one of changing business models. So, if I’m lucky, I’m able to switch to natural metaphors and use language that allows for more growth and paradox and common ground.

      If we try and fit good ideas into bad language, the language will reshape the ideas into something bad.

      Posted by johntspencer | August 25, 2010, 11:26 pm
  2. I wonder if evolution more accurately describes how education “reform” is likely to happen. What we must ask ourselves is “what are the pressures that are most influencing the evolution of education?” When these pressures are political and financial, we are not evolving an educational system that will best help our students become happy adults.

    Posted by jerridkruse | August 26, 2010, 12:44 am
    • Random point on evolution:

      A kid asked me yesterday, “Is evolution painful?” It was such an out-in-left-field question that I couldn’t answer it. If I could, I’m not sure I would have, either.

      Posted by johntspencer | August 26, 2010, 8:09 am
    • Excellent point! If the filter we view it through remains simply financial and political, it is lost as a social and community institution.

      Posted by johntspencer | August 27, 2010, 7:56 am
  3. John and Jerrid, I like both your thoughts here in the comments. John, I appreciate the term rethink, but leaves me wanting for action.

    Jerrid, if I take into account a new study that is showing that evolution has been shaped by moving into new physical space not competition, it creates an interesting shift in thinking for me. For example, on another post, a commenter has offerred that what we need is a business model for schools, a free market. This is in line with the current popular notion of “survival of the fittest.”

    As a brief aside, this notion has been mangled for decades if not centuries. “Fittest” relates to not that which can kill more “others” than the others that can kill it (a riddle perhaps?), but rather that which best makes use of its ecosystem and provides necessary services to its ecosystem. This is where specialization comes in. A chickadee and a nuthatch are both little grey, black, and white birds that hang out on pine trees. However, the chickadee hangs out on the branches to find insects and other things to eat and has feet designed to support this habit of hopping on horizontal branches. Nuthatches however run up and down the trunks of trees to forage for their food and have feet that support this lifestyle. Neither kills the other, neither is stronger, but both fulfill a niche.

    Okay so what happens when we apply this notion of “fittest” and that of the need of physical space for evolution to occur. It means to me we are on the right track in education-sort of. There is a trend that is looking for innovation. Of course there are many misguided systems set-up to “promote” innovation, such as the reliance on test scores as a primary means of evaluating success.

    Physical space isn’t really the qualifier for evolution in educational systems, it is the need for political space. It also means that we need smaller more specialized schools, not larger more generalized ones. We need schools that can adapt to the needs of their community of learners, and to individual learners themselves. We need the chickadees and nuthatches of schools, not the lions and tigers (as we popularly conceive of them). And perhaps I have misrepresented the commentor’s notion of what a free market is, because we could understand a free market to also produce the space needed for evolution to occur. Again just like is missing in the political reforms happening today, the issue is that we must understand that fundamental assumptions of what education must first be challenged and the space to do this must be had in order for true evolution to occur. Otherwise reform is just a wolf in sheep’s clothing or a dog wearing a party hat.

    Posted by Adam Burk | August 26, 2010, 6:35 am
    • Your comment has me thinking about how to re-invision the context and the space within the space. In other words, the school as an extension of the local context. Our local community is becoming an underground art hub. I see it with the number of murals store owners have commissioned as well as the more skilled outlaw graffiti artists who have actually created something beautiful (if illegal) in the alleys. I’d love to see a movement of the art and the creativity back and forth. It’s just a small example of adapting to the environment.

      Posted by johntspencer | August 26, 2010, 8:07 am
      • John, I like how you are connecting the systems. As the Center for Ecoliteracy puts forth an essential ecological understanding is that of nested systems. That seems to be what you are talking about.

        Borrowing from Kirsten’s comment to another post, I would highlight that the space we need in education is political and intellectual. Kirsten talks about how restrictive schools are in regards to controversy. You can’t blame them per se, but the restriction of intellectual air space kind of ensures nothing is buzzing but the flies flying off the crap we put forth as “learning” most days. Parker Palmer talks about building communities of truth that are inclusive and inviting–of people and ideas. It is this sort of space that I think really moves educational institutions and learning forward. It’s how Goddard College has innovated learning, particularly adult/self-directed learning for the last century.

        Posted by Adam Burk | August 26, 2010, 11:08 am
    • Adam, Thank you for this correction on the idea of evolution and Darwinism. I too am aware of the mangledness of our culturally popular ideas about survival of the fittest. I will take the image of the chickadee and the nuthatch with me all day today. That is a lovely poetic gift; it says much.

      Posted by Kirsten Olson | August 26, 2010, 8:44 am
      • I too felt this way when I read it. I think we tend to forget that science is a cultural construct and that one can all too quickly turn a scientific discovery (though the term discovery is a misnomer – science itself evolves) and read it through a capitalist, western filter.

        Posted by johntspencer | August 26, 2010, 10:42 pm
  4. John, What I really heard here in this post is your incredible sense of fun and play in your classroom with your students. Your space with students is a place to be real and joyful and doing stuff that matters. That is (in part) why teachers find the work so compelling and meaningful; it’s the real place. Thanks for holding this up.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | August 26, 2010, 8:47 am
  5. Oh boy! What a great conversation! Adam you described my definition of Human scale! Everyone needs to see this school in Minnesota

    http://www.archfoundation.org/aaf/gsbd/Video.Johnson.htm

    really quite amazing what they are doing.

    can’t wait to start sharing my thesis work with everyone here!

    Posted by dloitz | August 26, 2010, 2:26 pm
  6. I’m interested to follow where this goes, John, especially as students begin to think about how the disciplines and their practitioners define things like equality.

    This little post has me thinking about equality a lot lately. It’s about P and NP (and, for just a moment, whether or not P and NP are ever equal) and how computers solve P-class problems very well, but not np-class problems. P problems can be computed easily; np problems cannot, since, if P does not equal NP, computers can’t find a quick way to solve fundamentally different types of problems than they are meant to – P-class problems. Perhaps, as the post suggests, computer intelligence will always be limited, forestalling the singularity.

    Humans, though (if you believe Dan Simmons), and maybe quantum computers, can, if I’m reasoning correctly, imagine cases in which p and np are the same and thus intuitively and creatively posit solutions that would otherwise involve countless computations.

    I’m probably way off.

    Regardless, I wonder if systems are better at P problems like “reform,” and humans are better at NP problems like reform. I wonder if “reform” is equal to reform in the consequences it causes. Does reducing, if I may be so bold, instruction to an adaptive computer program – say, one as good as Ender’s – equal a teacher individualizing a curriculum for a student, and which students are most likely to receive which type of instruction in which part of our country? Is being left to learn – or told to learn – ever the same as being taught – or invited – to learn? Is Bean ever Ender?

    I guess what I mean is that it will be cool to follow your students making connections and to see how far those connections extend – some might be P (just semantics), and others NP (all about semantics).

    What vision do you all share for your time together this year? Where do you all want these conversations to go?

    Best,
    Chad

    Posted by Chad Sansing | August 26, 2010, 9:20 pm

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  1. Pingback: Educational Evolution « Teaching as a dynamic activity - August 26, 2010

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