Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Power of Language - EDU 718 Reflection # 3

This past week we have read and heard, several pieces about the powerful impact which language has in our lives.  both Dr. Keith Stanovich and Dr. Todd Risley point to research and data that support the idea that the types of language exchanges which happen at home early in life have a direct correlation to a child’s academic achievement.  This is referred to as the “Matthew Effect”.  Their research asserts that there is a relationship between socioeconomic status and student achievement. My teaching experiences in a lower economic school district support his theory.  The NPR interview detailing how synthetic speech gave Samantha Grimaldo a more comfortable voice was moving and powerful.  It filled my heart with warmth.

So much in chapters Chapter 5 and 6 Gee (Gee, James Paul. Social Linguistics and Literacies. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print) on meaning was fascinating to me.  After reading these two chapters I began to notice how we all use different language around various people and groups of people.  I can use distinctly different language around my children, colleagues, students, and friends from high school.  The practice of heteroglossia is a very interesting concept to observe. I have been paying attention to the language I use and how it correlates to both the meaning I am trying to convey as well as the position I am trying to establish in my environment.  On a larger scale I have been observing sociopolitical implications of the types of language used by various groups of people around me.

For this assignment I decided to “have fun” by recording some conversations at my school and then analyzing some of the meanings I noticed in each of them.

In this first situation I am working with three teachers on the grade 2 team.  We are discussing.  a model for lesson structure in our new math program.  Listen and notice how teachers are positioning themselves and the meaning of their conversation. (click on the link below to download the audio clip-I hope it works!)

My observations…
  • one discussion leader emerges
  • the conversation starts out more casual and becomes more formal as they work together
  • the people are comfortable challenging each other
  • there is collaboration
  • one individual wants to please the presenter, even says”I think that is right”
  • all three people want to “figure out” the correct lesson flow/structure
  • They have 3 distinctly different levels of experience with the content
  • some of the program elements are clearly familiar in meaning and some are not
By watching this group interact and analyzing their language I could easily assess what I need to do to support deeper understanding of of the instructional model of this math program.

In this next audio clip I am asking a group of eighth graders to express their feelings about our school.  At lunch I asked for volunteers to come chat with me.  After we checked for media release forms we had a brief conversation.  Listen and jot down some reflections about what you hear.

My observations…
  • My tone of voice is very casual
  • students start our responding in a formal tone
  • students are saying things they feel but also things that they know “sound good”
  • as soon as I asked about social aspects of school they tone changed, becoming much more casual

The last audio clip is between just the students when I purposely stepped  went to a part of the room where I could not hear the conversation.  

My observations...
  • In this clip one student clearly established his position in the conversation.  The “chat” became his forum for sharing his ideas about friends.
  • the giggles at the end of the monolog indicate an agreement with the idea that TH has many friends

Response to the question, is it the “job of the teacher to allow students to grow beyond both the cultural models of their home cultures and those of the mainstream and school culture”  Should it be required of teachers?

Is see my job as a teacher as demonstrating the power of language by modeling it in various forms.  I can see myself role playing and reflecting with students about how they come across in all contexts.  This primarily happens with middle schoolers.  My own children will do what we model at home.  They have been given a model of how to present themselves in formal settings and they have been exposed to playful, casual language which is fun and loving.

I don’t see it as my responsibility to “allow students to grow beyond their cultural models of their home or mainstream environment”.  I see my role as one of nurturing where someone comes from and exposing them to the world of meaning and language that may be different from what they know.  As students get older I feel a responsibility to discuss how our language can play an important role in how we fit into the power structure of our society.  There are huge implications here. I am careful to walk that fine line between judging/not judging my experience/culture and judging/not judging the experience/culture of others.  

The more aware I am of all these points made by Gee, the more careful I am about the language I use.  I get in trouble when I “relax” sometimes and speak more casually at school.  For example, at lunch a few weeks ago I was talking to a group of students.  I mentioned that I had been up working the night before and was so tired.  I then proceeded to say “I am sorry I misunderstood you , I am just so spaced out today”.  The table of 7th graders burst out into laughs and were acting embarrassed by my comment.  When I asked why they were laughing they informed me that I just told them I was stoned on drugs!  The terms we use change meaning over time.  I am glad I have they type of relationship with these students so that I could further explain my statement.  I learned that I need to be more careful when I use more casual language.


  1. This is an outstanding response, Joan. I am impressed by your insight and seriousness of purpose-- and also by your humor in telling the story of what "spaced out" really means. Wow!
    My chrome book does not want to play the audio clips, but I will switch platforms and persist.

    Voice is so much a part of who we are and how the world positions us.

    1. Thank you for the feedback. I asked some questions and learned how to make the voice clips accessible to all now..