The power of our words can brighten minds, mend hearts, and change lives. As teachers, we have been blessed with the opportunity to stand among a group of young people and use our words to inspire, console, enlighten, and so much more. If we are not careful with the words that we choose, we risk doing just the opposite. Although it might not always seem like the students are listening, we would likely be shocked by the amount that they are listening and what they are hearing.
Our team set out to have a real conversation with our students about the power of the words that we choose. We took a different approach to No Name Calling Week. We wanted to create a space where we could have real conversations and provide the students access to powerful works that would open up their minds to the power of the words that we choose in our daily lives and how those words have an impact on others. It strikes me as such an important topic to address especially in the presence of middle schoolers. If we can get them to think twice about their own choice of words, then we have the power to shift the culture of the world around us. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we embraced the power of the words that we use?
In what follows, I seek to answer the question: “How do we get students to understand the power of the words that they choose?” I have more questions than answers, but opening the conversation is a good place to start.
When I was in middle school, I can remember walking down the hallway of my school— hearing a conversation between two teacher. One of the teachers made comment to the other that I was a good kid. The other, my favorite teacher, responded: “Yes he is. He’s kind of weird though.” Nearly 20 years have passed and I can remember the moment as if it were a movie being played in the screen of my mind. Out of the many things that the teacher said, this was the only thing that I would remember verbatim. My own teacher confirming what all of my peers had told me— what I had already thought of myself. I was an awkward adolescent with self-esteem problems, once again realizing that he didn’t fit.
In my adult life, being weird is something that I tout. It is a part of me that I embrace. As a child who was still figuring out who he was, I was taken aback. The fact that I still remember these words is proof enough for me that what we say in the presence of our students makes a difference. Our words and how we use them might be the only words that our students remember us saying. The problem is that we can’t pick and choose the words that they will remember— let’s make a conscious effort to make the words that we say and the words that they remember positive and life-giving words.
Open the Dialogue
How have we come to know the power of the words that we choose? Each day we speak, hear and respond to thousand of words. As adults, we have countless experiences with the power of words to impact others and ourselves. We have experienced the power of the words that we have chosen to both help and hurt others. Our students have had far less experience in this domain.
For this reason, we must open the dialogue and allow our students the opportunity to grapple with the power of the words they use. There are few times that are more volatile in the use of language than the years of middle school. By opening the dialogue with our students, we can hope that they will begin to think twice about the words that they use around one another.
In order to the begin the dialogue, we passed out a paper with a t-shirt printed on it. We had students write words that they have been called that have hurt them in some way. Many of the students paused in hesitation when they realized that many of the words that have had the power to hurt were too profane to write on paper. Many asked: “Should we write it out?” I told them that they should do what felt comfortable. If they would rather use asterisks, then they should. Many chose to write the word out.
What came next was a moving discussion where students shared words that they had been called that truly hurt. Some of the words came as no surprise as they would hurt even people with the thickest skin. Conversely, other words were filled with a little more subtlety. In all, this was a time to recognize the humanity in one another and to have a real conversation about the power of words to hurt. The conversation would not be complete without us recognizing that we have also been called words that have propped us up— made us feel good about ourselves. On the other side of the paper t-shirt, we asked the students to write words that they have been called that they would rather be called. We discussed the contrast between the two very different set of words. Which shirt would you rather wear?
Words Can Move
The world has seen the power of both written and spoken words to unite people around a common cause. You don’t have to look too far to come across great examples of how words have impacted history. Whether it be the powerful spoken words of Martin Luther King Jr. as he led the Civil Rights Movement or the written word of Rachel Carson that began to shape the environmental movement, the words of men and women have the power to evoke human emotion, expand the mind or inspire a passion. We must take the opportunity to inform our students of the historical events and people who have used words to change the course of history— for better or for worse.
Although this is taking the broader more generalized approach to see the impact of words. It is important for our students to realize the ability of words to create change especially if those who are making the change have a likeness to them. There is little that is more powerful than having the students realize the reality of others their own age through reading and/or listening to their words. Looking into the history of Malala Yousafzai and how she used and continues to use both written and spoken word to push for education for all can be a powerful experience for students. This is a young girl who used her words to push for what she believe to be right. The amount of courage elicited in her words is unspeakable. Learning about situations like these should humbling in respect to what we thought to be such an important argument just moments before.
Words Can Heal
Although I cannot do justice to the topic of Restorative Justice in this small space, I would be remiss if I did not bring up the power of the process. When things go wrong, as they so often do, words can can bring reconciliation and restoration to difficult situations. They can turn parties who are walking away from one another and help bring them back together. Words can be the calming force in an electrifying storm.
When words divide us, we can use the power of them to reunite us. Not only does the process give us the ability to come to a reconciliation, it allows for the parties to process and learn from the experience. We have done a lot of work to bring students back together and help them learn from the times where they are less than their best selves. Often times when people are divided, it is rooted in a misunderstanding or a misuse of language. The use of words to express our emotions can bring us clarity and allow us to start the healing process.
As teachers, we must open the dialogue and allow our students to begin to think about the power of the words. We can choose to use these words as a force for good or otherwise. Our students cannot begin to make these choices if they have not yet started to think about the power of the words that they use. How can we begin to teach them to use their words for good, if we haven’t acknowledge their power?