Talking About Students

I’ve been thinking more about equity since Grace, Brette and Sammie’s great session at Twitter Math Camp. In particular, I’m working to pay attention to the elements of equity that I attend to in my reading and thinking about teaching this summer, and the elements that I want to get better at seeing, recognizing, and acting on.

One thing I’ve been paying attention to the last few days is how I talk about groups of students. Most teachers see a difference between “high” students and “low” students and find this distinction useful in their pedagogy. At the same time, teachers use all kinds of different euphemisms to communicate their perception of different students. My go-to descriptors in the past has been “struggling students” and “high-achieving students”. I’ve heard other teachers talk about low-ability and high-ability students, students who are behind, gifted-and-talented students, top and bottom students, and more.

I’m coming at this with the assumption that words matter, and that the way that I talk about students influences the way I think about students and make decisions about teaching.

I’m also coming at this thinking about what it means to have an asset-orientation toward students and their learning. I want to avoid deficit thinking — talking about students in ways that assume they are static, that their challenges define them, or that their prior experiences predict their future success. Lani Horn uses phrases like “lazy”, “a C student”, and “at-risk” as examples of this perspective. Whether or not these descriptors are true, they aren’t particularly helpful in moving forward and teaching that student. An asset-orientation replaces this language with a focus on students’ strengths and their potential to grow in the future. Importantly, an asset-orientation doesn’t ignore students’ prior challenges, but it is focused on the future and next steps moving forward rather than students’ past performance and experience.

Teaching toward equity and empowerment means acknowledging the differences in students’ prior achievement. It means paying particular attention and putting focused energy into supporting students who have been less successful or felt less included in the past. I don’t want to hide from those distinctions. At the same time, doing this work with an asset-orientation means approaching each day by acknowledging students’ prior experiences but leaving behind assumptions about what they can do that day and in the future.

When I’m talking about students who teachers might call “low students” or “strugglers”, I want to try to start using more language like “students who have struggled in the past”, “students who have been tracked into lower classes”, and “students with low prior achievement”. Those are more specific phrases, and they make no assumptions about what students are capable of in the future. I want to work on always accompanying that language with an explicit focus on what I am going to do to support students and what my goals are for them moving forward. My goal is not to erase students’ prior challenges in math class; my goal is to acknowledge those challenges but leave them in the past, and focus on what all students are capable of in the future.

I hope that this type of thinking will allow me to see one aspect of teaching and learning through a new perspective. I have no illusions that changing my language in small ways will make a large difference in my teaching. But as I work to see my classroom and my pedagogy through an equity lens, all I can do is add to my toolbox, one idea at a time.

7 thoughts on “Talking About Students

  1. Daniel Carlson

    Interesting thoughts. When I talk about students, I try to avoid the sort of descriptors you mention, but depending on the situation, they can be useful as identifiers. I personally never think of students as “high” or “low,” preferring terms like “high-achieving” and “struggling” like you do. These terms can quickly and effectively identify a group of students, which can be helpful when talking with my colleagues. I like to think that when I talk about a group of “struggling students,” people understand that to mean “students who have struggled with recent /past content but who I’m working with to help achieve improved results in the future.” It’s unfortunate that it’s so difficult to include this sort of nuance in a conversation.

    I’m fascinated by your thoughts on acknowledging students’ past difficulties. I have often told students “I don’t care if you’ve struggled in math class before. We can make this year a great one, and you can be a successful math student.” My intention is the same as yours, but I wonder what sort of effect dismissing rather than acknowledging past struggles has on the students’ mindsets. I’ll have to think about this as I prepare for the coming school year.
    
    Reply
    1. Daniel Carlson

      Well, that’s wonderful how I botched the formatting. Here’s the second paragraph. “I’m fascinated by your thoughts on acknowledging students’ past difficulties. I have often told students “I don’t care if you’ve struggled in math class before. We can make this year a great one, and you can be a successful math student.” My intention is the same as yours, but I wonder what sort of effect dismissing rather than acknowledging past struggles has on the students’ mindsets. I’ll have to think about this as I prepare for the coming school year.”

      Reply
      1. dkane47 Post author

        That’s interesting. When I wrote this, I was actually thinking a lot less about talking to students and more about talking with other teachers, families, and administrators. I really like your message, and I wonder if it’s splitting hairs talking with students because our actions speak so much louder than words, whereas talking with other adults our words are all we have.

        Reply
  2. elsdunbar

    This is such an important post. It reminds me of what’s termed person-first language in the world of special education. People often times say things like “that autistic kid,” where the focus is first on the challenge rather than the child themselves-it clouds a person’s view of what that child can and cannot do.

    Just because a student has struggled in the past doesn’t mean they will always struggle AND more importantly, doesn’t and SHOULDN’T, define them.

    Reply
    1. dkane47 Post author

      Thanks for this! I hadn’t made the connection with person-first language, that’s an important one. I think it’s also so important to underscore /why/ person-first language is important, that it’s not just semantics but language used deliberately to help us think in certain ways.

      Reply
  3. goldenoj

    Your level of reflection is always amazing, but what strikes me here is the gentleness of it. You’re modeling on yourself exactly what you’re talking about for your students. On Twitter, Michael Pershan was connecting this to the Sapir Whorf hypothesis (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_relativity), which I had to look up, the idea that language influences (or even determines) thought. So your language with yourself, then with your colleagues is so relevant to supporting your students. And you get there so directly. I aspire to this: ” I want to work on always accompanying that language with an explicit focus on what I am going to do to support students and what my goals are for them moving forward. My goal is not to erase students’ prior challenges in math class; my goal is to acknowledge those challenges but leave them in the past, and focus on what all students are capable of in the future.”

    Amen.

    Reply

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