A Brief History: Follow-Up

Dina’s Blogging Law #1: It’s the posts you write in a frustrated five minutes that always get the most attention.

There’s two main reasons that have made me want to douse these statements in Agent Orange– even though (or perhaps because) I found one popping out of my mouth not 25 minutes ago.

First, they are all loaded with jargon.

I’m not talking here about the usual educational jargon– that set of words by which we convince our superiors, colleagues, parents, or ourselves that we know what we’re talking about, even when we don’t.  Those words are indeed so prevalent, and so ultimately meaningless, that you could spend happy hours on this generator site, coming up with just the right phrase to throw at your principal in your next evaluation meeting.

Instead, I’m talking about jargon which targets a different audience: our kids.

Words like “initiative,” “respect,” and “effort”  are simpler, elementary-level jargon. They’re stuff our kids recognize instantly as important, but so are so obtuse or vague in their overuse that the kid is left floundering to understand what they actually mean.

Ultimately, such words are a social code which does only what jargon is meant to do: convinces the audience that they are intellectually or morally inferior to the speaker.

Our kids, especially middle school kids, are very sensitive to messages of inferiority from their teachers. The second they hear them, their eyes go dead, their ears close up, and their only goal is to get the hell away from you– ironically, the exact opposite of what we want them to do.

Now, certainly there is an argument to be made that teachers are indeed the superiors of their students. But even if we take that to be the case most of the time (which I do not), teacher-to-kid jargon also completely sidesteps what is the ultimate goal of a teacher, leading me to my second objection: jargon does not teach.

Hence, the mile-wide difference between this:

“That behavior is inappropriate. Stop it now.”

And this:

“Hey, listen, kid. A few years ago, when I was eight months pregnant, a kid ran into me in the hall full tilt with a basket full of scissors.” (True story.) “I got hurt pretty badly. So I know that you’re just trying to get to class on time, and that it doesn’t seem unsafe right now, but it really is. That’s why I have to ask you to walk in the halls.”

But even this story is not as effective a teaching tool as it could be, because it involves (again) the agent of power as the one who was wronged. (A better story might be the one where I watched a girl, pushed in the hall by a running student, crack a kneecap on the stone floor.)

Corrective stories do three things, all of which have been scientifically demonstrated to support the intrinsic motivation of our kids. They explain; they affirm; and they provide explicit, positive redirection.

Jargon does none of these things. The purpose of jargon is to lock people out of understanding, thus reinforcing the imbalance of power. This is the opposite of  teaching. Teachers, in contrast, strive to bring people into a common understanding.

A final note: A couple of commentators have asked: “What do you say instead?” This is an honest question, particularly when you need shorthand in situations that don’t allow for corrective storytelling.  I approach this in two ways.

First, I try to create catchphrases that are not jargon, but are more like slogans: meaningful, but still short and sweet. I have been known to walk in the halls after last bell like a crazy person, placing myself in front of the flow of kids and bowing, saying “Namaste– peace be with you.” They may arch an eyebrow and roll their eyes, but they all slow down.

Second, if I do mistakenly use jargon, or are forced to use jargon by the situation, I make sure I take the student aside as soon as possible, and tell my story, as well as– and this may be the most important part– give the kid a genuine opportunity to tell their own.

If this kind of detailed micromanagement of teacher-to-kid communication seems like overkill, it is– and it is required. By the time kids get up to me in 7th grade, nine times out of ten they are so steeped in the superior/inferior culture that they are like the adolescent rabbits in my backyard right now, shying away if you blink at them. Bringing them into a more positive dynamic of interaction takes a good amount of TLC.

But frankly, folks– isn’t that what we’re here for?

8 thoughts on “A Brief History: Follow-Up

  1. I don’t know. I do tend to use catchphrases as well, but one of them (“appropriate behavior at all times”) is similar to the one you’ve stopped using. I see two differences from your anti-example: first, it’s stated positively; second, it’s not phrased as a command.

    But I think part of the reason I don’t shy away from using SOME jargon is that I’m working with high school students. When I remind them that they need to behave “appropriately” and don’t give specific directions, I am showing them that I know that they KNOW what behaviors are appropriate for different settings.

    The narratives I would use tend to be ones from professional settings. You don’t see people leaning chairs on their back legs in job interviews, or throwing paper airplanes in board meetings.

    But mostly? I don’t see the need to.

  2. Since we are just professional idea thieves anyway, I’ll share the one I use with my high school students, who usually are horsing around in front of the glass display cases just outside my room. “Let’s play cement, glass, brain, bone,” I interject. “Which ones do you think always win?”
    They pause for a moment, analyze the reference, realize the answer, chuckle a little and sheepishly drop their friend out of the wrestling hold.
    And as they walk away, I tell them I’m glad they will (hopefully, I add in my head) finish the day in one piece.

  3. Explain; affirm; positively redirect. You got it in one, Hope, and take it one step further by really pushing the kids to think, in a humorous way.

    @Clix, I get and appreciate your line of reason– you want to the kids to make their own decisions and not spell it out for them. However, my argument is that jargon like “appropriate” shuts the kid down so fast– even phrased positively– that the critical thinking we’re all shooting for does not occur.

  4. I just – I really disagree. Jargon isn’t useless in these situations. I agree that it doesn’t teach, but my thought is that by the time they’re in high school, students don’t need to be TAUGHT what appropriate behavior is – merely reminded. IMO, jargon is actually a more effective way of doing this.

  5. I want you to succeed.
    You have a lot of potential.
    This will be fun!

    I think you’re making a mistake on these 3. All three of them are framing phrases. It is important to explicitly state to students our confidence in them. I’m guessing “you have a lot of potential” is on there because it’s normally followed or preceded by something that is critical of the students. Fair enough. But I don’t think the ideal of expressing faith in the students underlying abilities is a phrase that should be banned.

    I personally don’t use “It’ll be fun” now that I’m not teaching middle school students, but as long as the tone of voice is correct, I did find it a useful phrase to have in my arsenal when I was teaching them. Sometimes things are fun if they’re only willing to let it be fun.

  6. I learned a great deal from A.S. Neill who wrote a book called The Radical Approach to Child Rearing. One big point (and influential to me) was about storytelling, or lying if you will. Sure I agree that using the word “appropriate” can backfire but I wouldn’t suggest the answer lies [no pun intended] in untrue storytelling (assuming most told were made up just to teach a lesson)

    And other point, I have a strong feeling against passive aggressiveness. I discourage it when I see it my colleagues especially when it is being used against young people. If we know what we are trying to say, then we owe it to say it directly. Kids hate sarcasm and being made to feel stupid. They also have a keen sense of phoniness. Proceed with caution.

  7. Stories are more powerful than jargon, aren’t they? And I think you’re right to stop and think about your choice of stories.

    Although… the jargon can be useful if it is meaningful to the child. They don’t need the whole story every single time. Sometimes they just need a concise reminder of the expectation.

    Another thing we know about jargon is that it shifts over time. That which is politically correct today will be horrifically insulting tomorrow. But I have the sense that you are hip to your students and choose ways of communicating that have meaning and import.

  8. SD225: I get your point. I do not make up the vast majority of stories I tell my kids– it has much more impact, particularly in a corrective sense, if it’s a real event. The two I cite in the post both actually happened.

    I would submit my own caution here, though, which is equating fiction with lying. As an English teacher, I can assure you that a good story often shines light on the truth far more quickly than mere facts. However, again, your point is taken. If I am telling a fictional tale of some kind to a kid, for whatever reason, it’s transparent.

    As for your other points, nothing I am advocating here is meant to promote sarcasm or passive aggressiveness– quite the contrary. The only purpose of both those verbal tactics is, once again, to reassert the imbalance of power– not to teach.

    Amanda,I was thinking about your very point the other day. Stories are certainly not time-sensitive! So, then, the challenge becomes trying to find ways of communicating snappily that are not jargon. It can be done, but it takes some thought.

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