I have been extremely sick, had a death in the family, and planned/co-hosted a baby shower for my brother all within the past few weeks. Life has been… crazy. I’ve been crazy. I did, however, finally dedicate time to finish Choice Words by Peter H. Johnston. Again, I read with my pencil, made stars, underlined, and wrote comments in the margins.
I had an honest reflection session during chapter seven that I tried to push aside, but was only slapped in the face to address by the middle of Appendix A.
Johnston writes about using the term “we” in our classrooms to express solidarity or affinity. (I looked up the word affinity and was given “a spontaneous or natural liking or sympathy for someone or something” as the definition.) He continues to write about two different teachers in the chapter and includes quotes of how the teacher describes their class and their outlook on literacy. The first teacher wrote about her students using the terms “them” and “I” and discussed good students vs the students who didn’t care or didn’t participate. Then we writes about another teacher that describes her class in such a way that I wrote, “THIS IS HOW I FEEL!” in the margin. She used terms like “we” and “our”. I said to myself, “I want to be like her!”
Somewhere while reading this chapter I began replaying the past week in my head. “My kids didn’t have a good week.” I said to myself. I stopped and repeated, “WE didn’t have a good week.” After making that small change in my head I went from visualizing their behaviors and how they frustrated me to my behaviors. I was so frustrated and slightly embarrassed with my actions that I pushed them away and didn’t want think about them.
I continued reading chapter seven, then read chapter eight. I thought I was done, considered skimming the appendix and that’s when Johnston forced me to finish the reflection that I started in chapter seven. In Appendix A he wrote, “Language turns out to be a very tricky tool for communication… words by themselves mean nothing– only what the social context allows them to say. Whatever is said before, or after, will change the meaning.” He gives the example of saying “good” to one student, but then following it with “fantastic” to the next. That changes the total meaning of the “good”. He also writes about how silence can mean so many different things. They can mean “I’m waiting on an answer,” “How dare you?” “I don’t believe you,” “You win,” “I don’t care,” and countless other things, all depending on the context.
I wanted to reflect on the great ways that I use silence and the great ways that I use words, but all that kept coming to me was this past week and how much of a struggle it was just to get to 4:15 on Friday. I thought about all of the unbelievable behaviors that my children exhibited that were so unlike them. I thought of all of the work they turned in unfinished or nameless while I was in a 3 and a half hour IEP meeting. I thought of the disgusting way they left the classroom when I had a substitute for my team’s half day planning. I thought of the way they absolutely COULDN’T get through a single set of directions listening the FIRST TIME and of all the times they had to go back to their seats to try lining up again the “appropriate way” that we have been doing for “over a hundred days now”. I thought of the rough week they had.
That’s when I repeated my sentence. “WE didn’t have a good week this week.” I then thought of the exhaustion I felt after trying to catch up with everything post sickness. I thought of the meaningful instruction time lost due to my multiple, extremely long meetings. I thought of the anxiety that “all of the things I have left to do” caused me. I looked back with a critical eye and asked myself if they were really that loud when they were lining up. The floor was extremely messy, but how much of that was due to the substitute not sharing the same expectations or enforcing them the way I do? I reheard the tone of my voice that I had on so many occasions this past week. I saw bright, neon lights that read “WE” in my mind.
We had a rough week. I was just as big of a part of our rough week as my students were. We were equally responsible and, hey, that happens, but it wasn’t fair for me to place the blame on them without taking any of it for myself. By taking the responsibility that is so clearly (now) mine I can reflect and build strategies so that when this happens again (and it undoubtedly will) I’ll have tools to help turn
my students US around.
I’m sure that this wasn’t the first response Johnston had in mind for his readers for chapters 7 and 8 (and the appendix), but it’s my reaction and it’s been eye opening. I’ve written before that this book has caused me to reflect and modify my language with my students, but even more so my personal self talk, and it held true to the very end. I’m a better teacher, and person for reading this book.