Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Power of Three Little Words #dublit16

The Power of Their Words
As a classroom teacher, I always tried to watch my words.  I always tried to measure their frequency with student frequency.  I'm not saying I was always good about it; I'm saying I tried.  There was the continual sound of Charlie Brown's teacher droning on in animated films, "Wah, wah, wah," playing in the back of my mind.  I didn't want to sound like that to my students.  There are lessons I remember teaching in which I know I spent too much time talking.  Talk helps students to learn, and I always felt their talk really made the difference.  

As an intervention teacher, I find myself challenged continually by this thinking.  I don't have the same time to move from explicit to implicit in my short lessons with students.  I don't have the same time to wander through conversations.  If I'm not careful, it is easy to fall into patterns where I am doing most of the talking.  When this happens, I know that I am doing more telling and owning more of their learning.  

Words can be powerful.  The language we use can support learners and help them to develop agency.   However, some words are stronger than others in supporting our learners.   I was reminded of this recently as I joined educators for a Saturday of learning at the Dublin Literacy Conference as I listened to speakers across the day.  Here are short phrases I took away that could open up dialogue for students:  

Kylene Beers and Bob Probst:  "What Surprised You?"
Kylene Beers and Bob Probst, spoke about Responsive and Responsible Reading of Nonfiction.  In their session they reminded us of the importance of dialogic talk that opens conversations for students instead of monologic talk that checks for understanding.  In their conversation they shared three simple words to start conversations about reading, "What surprised you?".   These three words carry much power in turning conversations about reading over to students.  Kylene reminded us that rigor didn't reside in the text itself but, instead, in the the interaction between the reader and the text.  

Amy Ludwig VanDerWater:  "Let Poetry Speak"
One of the highlights of my day was spending time with poet, Amy Ludwig VanDerWater.  In her session, Our Wisest Writing Teacher, she reminded us of the power of poetry in teaching writing.  I'm going to say that I struggled a bit more bringing Amy's words down to three I took away.  She had so many smart things to say about poetry --- and students children humans souls.  Amy reminded us that poetry speaks to children and helps them to see they are not the only one.  I had so many phrases I pulled from her session (some three words, some not):  poetry as gift, poetry as a diving board into writing, poems teach us about writing, poems teach us about language.  Of course my favorite lines were her closing lines, "Poetry is enough by itself.  Poetry places unforgettable images in the hearts of our children."

Kristin Ziemke:  "Tell Me More."
Later in the day, I attended Kristin Ziemke's session,  Read the World: Literacies for a Digital Culture, where three words caught my attention again.  Kristin shared that we are moving away from fact recall curriculums, toward search curriculums;  I might even venture to say we are moving toward curriculums that position students to create.  The room was packed with teachers as Kristin demonstrated ways to build intention as we talk with students about reading images for understanding.  Kristin put a video of Michigan's governor, talking about the Flint water crisis, on the screen.  After viewing we talked about what we noticed.  One teacher shared her response.  Kristin listened to the response, paused thoughtfully, and inquired, "Tell me more."  Her words really asked the speaker to dig a little deeper into their thinking, and to share that with the learning community.  I was once again struck by the powerful simplicity of three little words.  

Magic comes in threes.  Perhaps thinking of three words to elevate student learning across our day is worth consideration.  Of course, the magic of the Dublin Literacy Conference wasn't just words; it was learning, laughter, friendship, conversations, community, and guests from afar.

Kristin and I had a little fun as she signed my digital copy of her book at the conference.  This picture was taken by Marisa Saelzler and posted by Kristin on her Instagram account:

Thinking More About Words?  You might like:

  • Karen Syzmusiak returns to her blog with, Powerful is Not Perfect.  In her post, she shares powerful words from Kristin Ziemke: word to set us free.  
  • Nicole Kessler, also returning to her blog, just wrote about Classroom Language as she reflected on the power of open ended questions.  
  • Changing My Frame, a post written to consider the work of Peter Johnston in my classroom.  
  • Speaking of Peter Johnston.  These books changed the language I use with students (and - ouch - it shifted my talk at home).  
  • Don't let the cover of this one fool you.  We're reading Using Discourse Analysis to Improve Classroom Interaction in a course I am taking with Dr. Melissa Wilson at Ohio State.  I appreciate the way the authors have us thinking through our language and the contexts of interactions to improve our language.  


  1. Cathy! It was such a delight to see you last weekend. Thank you for sharing words from my session and for allowing me to learn from the other sessions you attended. We are all so lucky to have each other. And a DIGITAL BOOK SIGNING! xo

  2. The lens you used to filter your learning is powerful. I like the 3-word analysis you did. I routinely use the words, "Tell me more," and have discovered their ability to have students dig deeper. Because of Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, Janet Wong, and a few other poets I met at KSRA, I learned that "poetry is enough." Reading and writing poetry has had a significant effect on my students. Your analysis reminded me of these, and has me taking away three new words to deepen my students' learning: "What surprised you?" Thank you for sharing your learning so that it could benefit others!