Monday, February 4, 2013

The Power of Language

The difference between the right word and the almost right word
 is the difference between
 lightening and the lightening bug. 
Mark Twain

Help!  We need a conversation about language.  We have come so far in so many ways but we still go back to language that really doesn’t describe our kids, or our intentions.  Instead of hip replacements, we need language replacements.  We are teaching kids differently, we are seeing great things happen… and then we fall back on language that does not fit.  I have been thinking about this a lot, and reading some articles about labeling, about hurting, about keeping people in boxes.  I know none of us want to do that.  But we need to find new language. 

            So that is my challenge to everyone… what language do we want to use?

Here is an example.  What does low mean?  I hear it quite often, I am sure you do too.   “I have a low class this year”.  “I mix up my groups so I have lows working with highs”, “I have a low group” or a “low student”.  Really?  According to what?  What makes someone low all over?  Okay, I understand that some kids struggle in reading, math or writing, maybe in art or PE, or making friends.  Which of these makes them a “low all over student?”  I know actually, it’s a rhetorical question.  I have never heard any of us describe a student who has difficulty drawing as a low student … but I have heard it a lot when it comes to academics. 

Is that really what we mean?  I don’t think so.

Language is so incredibly important.  If we wouldn’t say to the child “You are low” then do we want to be describing the child to anyone else that way?  Maybe that is kind of the rule of thumb. 

Some of the Canadian groups for children and adults with disabilities have put forward “People First Language”.  People first language puts the person before the disability, it describes what a person has, not what a person is.  For example, Johnny has a learning disability, not Johnny IS learning disabled; or Faizal has autism, not Faizal IS autistic.  Or instead of “I have 3 learning disabled kids and 4 behaviour kids in my class” it would be “I have three kids with learning disabilities, and four kids with behavioural issues in my class”. It goes into things like “He receives special education services” vs “He is IN special education.”  “She uses a wheelchair” vs “She is wheelchair bound”.  And so on and so on. 

Does that sound picky?  Ask anyone with some kind of a disabilities… and guess what? It isn’t picky to them.  People first.  In fact, if you want to get serious about this, you find alternatives to the word disability, because it really isn’t,
it’s just different.

I remember years ago when the Performance Standards first came out in BC.  Sharon Jeroski (author of the BCPS) warned us all to be so very careful with the language:  not yet meeting, minimally meeting, meeting and exceeding.  She warned us to be sure that we always said, “the child’s reading is minimally meeting”, not “the child is minimally meeting”.   No child is minimally meeting, just their skill of reading or writing etc.  But again, we get sloppy, and out the words come. 

So here is our struggle in this project.  We are working so hard to make better conditions for kids who have traditionally struggled in school – we need language to describe what we are doing.  Here is some of the language we are using to describe who we are talking about:
            - students who are at-risk of not completing school
            - students who are doing average work
            - students who are doing strong academic work

Is there better language?  Can we do better than this?

Richard Allington, says any kid who struggles is a “curriculum casualty”.  What else is out there?  Any ideas or suggestions?  Please write if you have some.  We want to learn.

P.S. what is a mixed ability group?
Words hold power.

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