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More meaning

More meaning

Teacher readiness #4

I’m not nearly as concerned about student readiness for school as I am about teacher readiness.  As teachers we tend to assume that words inherently have meaning.  If I tell the class to be quiet, the students, of course, know what quiet means.  Or do they?   I admit that if I have an English as a Second Language learner, I don’t assume they know the meaning of my English words, but that’s obvious.  What problems might I run into by assuming my English speaking students know the meaning of my words?

For primary students, you have no real idea what quiet means in the environment they came from each day.  If you ask them to have quiet feet when they walk, does that mean slightly less than stomping to that student?  It could.  Maybe their family lives in the flight path for the local airport.  Quiet means things aren’t shaking.  It will be extremely helpful to you and your students to be in the habit of demonstrating the meaning of the words that you use.

To help them understand quiet, you can use a feather for a demonstration.  Ask them to close their eyes and listen for when the feather hits the floor.  That’s quiet.  Hand out cotton balls and have them drop the cotton balls.  Have the students pretend they have cotton ball feet when they walk and practice walking with quiet feet.

Even simple, every day expressions can be confusing to students.  Using expressions such as cut on the line, line up, stand on the line, get in a line, line leader, line the box all make assumptions about what our students know about the word line.  The key in using any important phrases in your classroom is to demonstrate, demonstrate, demonstrate.  Too many of us assume children know what it means to stand in a line and think we have other kinds of discipline issues when the classroom can’t seem to get it right.  We need to show them what we do with our feet, what we do with our hands, how we stand in relation to others, and what we do with our lips if that is part of what we expect when we use the expression “line up”.

What we expect is a key concept for us and our students to understand.  In fact it may help you to refer to “The Doughty Way” or “The Martínez Way” or whatever your last name is. This admits that other people may use “line up” with a different meaning, but in the Doughty class “line up” means heading to the yellow line by the door, standing close to but not touching the person in front of you, hands to yourself, quiet and still feet, and lips zipped.  Once we have lined up in the Doughty way, we will proceed to the next activity.

What does it mean to put your crayons away?  If you assume students know, you will have crayons everywhere.  In giving meaning to your instructions about using crayons, you need to literally build crayon handling skills.  This means early in the year you will ask the students to take their crayon box out of their desk and put it in the crayon spot on the desk (it helps students be successful when their tools have designated places to sit).  Check that everyone has their crayon box in its spot and tell them this is what it means when I say “Take out your crayons”.  Now have them remove the red crayon from the box.  Once you’ve checked that everyone has the crayon box in its spot and the red crayon is out, then you have them put it back in the box and put the box away.  Explain this is what I mean when I say, “Put your crayons away.”  If you don’t train your students, you will have missing crayons. Having missing crayons (or any other resource) every time a student has an assignment to complete, does not help them or your class be successful.

Later in the year, when you replace your crayon boxes, have a conversation about the state of crayons (or any other resource you make use of).  Are they missing, are they broken?  Why?  What can we do to take better care of our crayons (or other resource).

If you think of your usage of words and your instructional approach as “The Doughty Way” or whatever your last name is, it will be more obvious that Erin Smith coming from the Smith family likely does not know The Doughty Way.  This approach works as students get older.  High School students need to understand what respect looks like in your classroom.  Don’t assume that other teachers and parents have demonstrated what you mean by respect.

Remember that there are only so many working memory slots in your student’s brain.  Teaching skills such as how to handle crayons makes this process routine and allows them to have more slots available for learning the common core standard or for being creative.  Don’t underestimate the incredible power of giving more meaning to your words.

Rick Doughty is a parent of three young adults and the Vice President of Administrative Services at Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham, Oregon. His wife Sally is a second grade teacher at a Title I school in Beaverton, Oregon. Rick is a Certified Trainer in brain-based learning through the Jenson Learning Corporation and has a master’s degree in communication studies. His passion is helping to make complex material and ideas useful and understandable. This passion is reflected in his book Fulfilled Kids, Fulfilled Parents which takes principles from neuroscience and helps us put them to use in parenting.

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