When there’s nothing left to say, start doing

Hands Shaping Clay

Today, I’m spending the day with educators in Cedar Rapids, IA – as you do. The morning will be dedicated to facilitating a workshop for superintendents from around the region. During the intro call with the folks who asked me to come out, I got a list of others who have come out in the months before me to offer and plan a similar workshop. Some of the names I knew, some I’m eager to read about. All of them made me wonder what I have to offer this room after the collective wisdom they’ve garnered from previous speakers.

I hammered away for a while before I realized all I need is a question.

What are you going to do now?

Think back to the keynotes and workshops you’ve been a part of – from the front or the back. Chances are they focused on vomiting new ideas, fancy new toys – the shiny, the new. It’s all well and good because these kinds of things are generally one-off experiences. The good folks of Cedar Rapids have contracted me to work with them for a day, not a year.

So, I’m going light on the new and the shiny. Instead, I’m asking a few simple questions:

  1. What have others said before me that stuck with you?
  2. What would it look like if you took the best pieces of each of those messages, envisioned them working together in your district, and worked to engineer a cultural shift in learning and teaching?
  3. What questions does this bring up for you?
  4. What are you going to do about it?

Throughout, I’ve thrown in several pieces of “Might it look like this…What about this?” to stoke the fires of their thinking and their curiosity.

In the end, though, once they’ve got a good vision, I’ll be asking them to build something. It might be a presentation for their teachers. It could be a workshop similar to ours. It could be a yearlong project to re-define learning in their schools.

Either way, I’m building our time together around the idea we’ve got all the information we need. Now, we must take the space and time to do something with it.

How do you say what your kids say?

A few weeks ago, I was observing a student teacher. In our debrief, I said, “When you’re asking students for answers, you put those answers into your own words much of the time. What might that say to the students?”

We then had a conversation about the possible implication that changing the students’ words could be perceived as correcting them – that what they were saying wasn’t good enough to be repeated as stated or written on the board verbatim during class notes.

My thinking has been that such switching of language could lead to decreased participation from students:

When I speak, she changes my words. This must mean that my answers are wrong. I should stop speaking so I don’t sound stupid.

I challenged the student teacher to make an effort to repeat answers as given and start writing them on the board verbatim.

As I read the second essay in Eleanor Duckworth’s “The Having of Wonderful Ideas” and Other Essays on Teaching and Learning. I’m starting to question this thinking. Discussing the work of one linguist, Duckworth writes:

If the children were asked to repeat a sentence of a form that did not correspond to their grammar (for instance, “I asked Alvin whether he knows how to play basketball”), they repeated the sentence, but with their own grammar (“I asked Alvin do he know how to play basketball”). It was not the words they retained, it was the sense. Then the sense was translated back into words, words that said the same thing but were not the same words.

That sound you might be hearing is my brain bubbling with questions:

  • If we accept that children’s retention of meaning, but discarding of words is a valid communication of meaning, does the same hold true for teacher’s repetition of children’s words?
  • Given the power structure of the classroom, does the teacher’s re-phrasing of a student’s response mean something different (or negative) than a student’s re-phrasing?
  • When do we decided re-phrasing student responses is teaching and when do we decide not to in favor of letting students know they’re free to share and expand on ideas?

I don’t have answers here, and would definitely benefit from hearing how other people think about how they accept student answers.

What does this look like in your practice?

Things I Know 7 of 365: I can’t curse

Go ahead and swear—it might make you feel better…

– Jeffrey Hill, The English Blog

Words amaze me.

They always have.

Every once in a while, one of my students will ask me if I always knew I wanted to be an English teacher.

In my youngest years, I wanted to be an artist or a stand-up comedian.

In eighth grade, I picked a profession that gave me the better parts of both of those options.

I’ve been teaching for 8 years.

And, for as much as I am able to master and throw around words, one set has always given me trouble.

I can’t curse.

I blame my upbringing.

Every once in a while, my mom would let loose with a “You little shit,” but even then it was full of incredulity of me beating her at a game of Scrabble.

That’s a lie.

I never beat my mom at Scrabble.

When I got to college, I decided that part of the requisite re-inventing of myself would be taking ownership of the lexicon that had eluded me for so long.

Every once in a while, I’d throw out an f-bomb or some derivative thereof.

Usually, this was surrounding the playing of Mario Kart on the Gamecube.

After about a month, through a friendervention, I was asked to stop.

“You just can’t pull it off,” they told me.

“You’re too nice.”

It would have been the perfect moment to prove them wrong, but I couldn’t.

Just before winter break, one of my classes was studying Steven Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

I was reading it aloud.

At the top of one class, a student approached me, “Please don’t read the cuss words, Mr. Chase.”

Worried I’d offended him, I asked why not, if everything was ok.

“Oh, yeah. I love the book. I just don’t like to think of you saying those words.”

I’d been found out.

I’ve tried a few experiments in the intervening weeks.

On the phone with a friend, I’ll drop in a curse word in place of the adjective I’d actually been thinking.

The conversation has proceeded normally. Then, I collect data.

“Hey, do you remember when I cursed?”


“A few minutes ago, I cursed. Do you remember that?”

“Oh. Sure. Yeah.”

“Good. Did it sound authentic?”


“When I cursed, did it sound like someone who knows how to curse?”

“Um, I guess so.”


I’m getting better.

Still, I’ve had to come to the conclusion that, like French, this is a language I’ll likely never master.

I listen to the lady a few doors down yelling at our neighbors on the weekends and wonder at the brush with which she draws from her diverse pallet of expletives.

She is a foul-mouthed Jedi, and I envy her.

She’s Lenny Bruce, Sandra Bernhard and every episode of The Wire rolled into one.

Faced with unsatisfactory answers in conversation, she constructs linguistic cannons from her canon of vulgarity.

I’d be reduced to reason and likely get nowhere.

Still, I’m working on it – working damned hard.

…I’ve a long way to go.