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Aurora Institute

Learner-Centered Tip of the Week: Choice Words

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Courtney Belolan

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

Science ClassThis post originally appeared on Courtney Belolan’s website on September 14, 2015. Belolan is the instructional coach for RSU2 in Maine.

By now the school year feels under way. The chaos of the first week has subsided. Classes are settling into routines. Units and projects are underway. Our excitement and expectations for the new year, and our students, is still there.

It is these expectations, the ones we as teachers hold up, that have the most power for our students’ learning. This piece from NPR explores the research behind teacher expectations and student achievement, and also offers some ideas for recognizing and adjusting our expectations.

In the book Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning, Peter Johnston talks about how the way we speak to our students conveys our expectations. He argues that our language is the central tool for the social, emotional, and academic development of our students. Here are three of my favorite suggestions for how we intentionally use language with our students so that we can create the intellectual life we want them to grow into:

Notice and Name: Be explicit about the praise you give. Say who you saw doing something you want to praise, then say what it is they did.

  • “I noticed, Sean, that you were putting yourself in the character’s shoes in order to figure out their motivations.”
  • “Class, I noticed that each group had different problems with their marshmallow challenge and each group kept trying different prototypes until they found one that worked.”

Build an Identity: Call the students what you want them to be. In a writing class, call them writers. In a science class call them scientists. In a chorus class call them vocalists. Replacing our more common terms (guys, kids, students, everybody, etc.) goes a long way towards facilitating students seeing themselves as the kind of person who can do writing, math, science, anything.

Become Strategic: We want to foster problem solving and creative thinking. One way to do this is to give students the opportunity to explain their thinking and processing in group settings. Ask students questions that prompt strategic thinking whenever the chance arises.

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Courtney Belolan works at RSU 2 in Maine where she supports K-12 teachers with performance-based, individualized learning. Courtney works closely with teams and teachers as a coach, and with the school and district leadership teams as an instructional strategist. Courtney has worked as a 6-12 literacy and instructional coach, a middle level ELA teacher, an environmental educator, and a digital literacy coach. Her core beliefs include the idea that the best education is one centered on student passions and rooted in interdisciplinary applications, and that enjoying learning is just as important as the learning itself.