Words, Story, Legacy and Thinking

10 February 2022

Words, Story, Legacy and Thinking

Was there a teacher who inspired you? Can you remember a moment in your own learning when something just clicked? When something changed your perspective or your awareness of something bigger than you in this world?

This was a presentation given to staff during a January professional development session by Mrs Natalie Bluhdorn. It built on previous sessions in which staff were encouraged to reflect on their own Teacher Professional Identity, whilst considering how their practice impacts on the learning experiences of students. The Acting Academic Head will continue to explore these concepts more fully with staff throughout the year, as the school works towards refining its learning culture.

Here is a little example for you- a ‘story’ if you will. This vignette encapsulates every word in the title of this talk: words, storylegacy and why we need to be more silent.

I have always loved reading, loved school, it all just happened to click for me. My primary school was a little different, they didn’t give awards, results, ranks, nothing like that. It was just about learning, the idea of being competitive or wondering where my knowledge sat in comparison to others didn’t factor into my schooling. 

Then came high school - suddenly a rank appeared for every subject on the reports. Ranks appeared on topic tests. In one class, and this wasn’t school policy, but a particular teacher had us sit in individual rows based on our ranking. It felt unnatural. It felt cruel. But I guess this was the 90s and we are, thankfully, in a very different place now. 

Fast forward to senior high school. I studied 2 unit related English and had an iconic teacher, who loved the canon and loved Shakespeare. I learnt to appreciate her valuing of those texts, but we weren’t encouraged to share our perspective or interpretations with literature. We were told “this is what the author intended”. At that time, I was happy to sit in that space.

However, I had a 3 unit English teacher. She acknowledged the requirements we were operating in. We were thoroughly assessed. We were prepared for our external exams. Yet, it was in her lessons that the gravity of the power of words, of language, of stories, well and truly smacked me in the face. I can still remember one moment vividly. I was in Room 24, we were studying Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I didn’t particularly like the play, but there was one lesson when she read out a particular quote and she said it with such wonder- almost reverence, that it suddenly hit me that words did not just have to be something I read for enjoyment, they could, in fact, be something transformative. That lesson and that quote in particular made me suddenly realise how small my world was. It made me want to look up and look out and find out what story I could create and how I could contribute. 

No one in my family had ever gone past Year 10. No one had completed their HSC. Going to university was seen as an indulgence at best, at worst, a waste of time and money. So, imagine their frustration when I enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts! That ended up leading me to teaching, because I always remembered that transformative moment from that wonderful English teacher. I never told her. She was warm, but a little intimidating to me, so I never let her know how much I loved that lesson. Only last year I found out that she did come to know the impact her teaching had on me.

She is now the academic dean at a large private school. When our paths recently crossed, she shared a little anecdote with me. She was interviewing a wonderful woman for an English teaching job. In the interview, she asked her why she became an English teacher. This woman said that she became an English teacher because she had been inspired by her English teacher, and that teacher had shared in the classroom, that she had also been inspired by her English teacher. It turned out that this girl who was going into teaching had been taught by me, and I had been taught by, and inspired by, the person interviewing her. It was a lovely, full circle moment of literally three generations of women who had been compelled to go into teaching because of the ways in which the power of words had been harnessed in those classrooms. They led to a belief in our own capacity. The stories of myself and these three teachers do lead to a legacy.

What words are we speaking in our classrooms? What story are we creating? What stories do we share? What space do we make for the words of our students? Do we let them share/create/imagine their own stories? How do we value stories- ours and theirs? Whose story gets privileged in our rooms? How do our words and our ways of being in a classroom shape what they believe about knowledge, about their own capacity, about their ability in the world around them? 

When our students leave this school, what would have been the dominant narrative that they heard? Is there a school narrative? A set of words/values/ideas that gets shared across the school? What are we leaving them with? What will resonate with them as they walk out of those gates for the first time?

Let’s narrow this particularly to learning. Now, last year we focussed on our own personal teacher identity. I encouraged you to consider the factors that shape who you are as a teacher. You were encouraged to consider how your purpose in being a teacher aligned with your practice. So this year, let's broaden our perspective and zoom out a little. What characterizes our classrooms? You could self reflect on this, colleagues could come and observe your lessons- all these would be valid perspectives. But I wonder what students would say if we asked them about their learning experience at Shire Christian? If I asked them, what words do they feel they hear the most?

Well, guess what? I did ask a range of students. Some of the results were “competitive”, “hard work”, “safe”, “assessment”, “due date”, “guidelines”, “homework” and “ROSA”. Now, of course that is their perspective and obviously not the entirety of our lesson content. But it is a good reminder that our words have impact and do shape the culture, beliefs about knowledge, about student capacity, about what we value. After hearing those words, are we ok with that? Even if that is a slightly narrow view of what we actually deliver, how can we do better? I am not just talking about in the classrooms- from the leadership too! What words do we use when talking to students, to parents and most importantly, in our planning meetings.

I wonder if this year, we can give students opportunities that will bring their focus out of the four walls of the classroom, to go beyond the safety of the ‘school institution’ to the wonders of our world. How can we, as their teachers, help them to wonder, to be in awe, to contemplate, to speak up and to be silent. The words that we use, can empower our students to seek their own ways of explaining and understanding our world- and enable them to find their story. The words we use can inspire, can cause doubt, can undermine. We can use our words and teach them to use their words to play the game. Because we are in a system. We are limited by certain parameters/assessment requirements etc. Yet, despite all this, there are still moments in our classes, seemingly insignificant moments, that can and will leave a legacy. 

I don't think any of us would deny the impact our words can have on a student and their learning journey. But what about the impact and importance of silence? I remember when I was graduating and being asked “What would your classroom look and sound like if I walked past it?” Knowing what the expected ‘correct’ answer would be, I answered, “Oh, it wouldn't be silent. There’d be group work, discussion, moving around the room!”. Inwardly though, as a student, that would have made me cringe. Not just because I find it hard to block out noises, but because I loved daydreaming and silence as a kid. We had a farm in the hinterland of Coffs Harbour growing up and we used to drive up every second Friday. Back then it was a good eight hour drive. I still remember loving that drive because of the hours of mindless drifting thought. Was it wasted? Did it culminate into anything tangible? No! But was it important? I would argue, a resounding, yes! Similarly, the longer I teach, the more I realise that ALL students, some more than others, can benefit from silence in the classroom. This doesn't have to be a whole period of working in total silence. I am even just talking about the extended pauses, the deliberate non-speaking that we can choose to do after we pose a question. Or the conscious decision to silence our words and let the students fill those gaps with their thoughts and ideas.

I have been reading a book called Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind in which Guy Claxton talks about 3 different process speeds:

1.   The first speed is faster than thought. The reactions and thoughts that occur when we react- like correcting our car if it skids. This is a kind of intelligence that works faster than our thinking. This mode of fast, physical intelligence could be called our wits.

2.   Thought itself. Involves figuring things out, weighing up pros and cons, constructing arguments and solving problems. This is where we sit in our classrooms, right? This involves a way of thinking that relies on reason and logic. We often call this kind of intelligence ‘intellect’.

3.   The third processing speed is slower, often less purposeful, less clear cut. It may be playful and leisurely. We ruminate and mull things over, are contemplative and meditative. As we watch the world go by, we might ponder a problem, not earnestly seek to solve it. Sometimes we aren’t even aware we are in this state of thinking. It may seem aimless, but it is critical.

So, how do we give time for slow thinking? This will be practically explored throughout our year, but here are some initial thoughts.

We can’t just throw in a few lessons or brain break games where we do stand-alone problem solving activities. It can’t be a tacked on reflective question at the end of a unit of work. Rather, developing deep, rigorous thinking amongst our students requires thinking dispositions that have been cultivated over time, and across subjects, in a school culture that consistently stretches and strengthens them. What role can you play in this? 

We can be modelling for our students ways to think. Every subject can provide opportunities for us to give students space to identify shallow opinions or to learn how to deconstruct an image or get them to talk about what mistake they made in maths and then how they reached a solution.

So, let’s be thinking about the power and legacy of our words in our classrooms. Carefully consider the times when we don’t speak - when we stay quiet and let our students have space to develop good thinking skills. Let us recognise how we can combine the two!

A research psychological project in 2015 found that thinking is a kind of inner speech. You can even detect vocal cords minutely moving when someone is deep in thought. So, one way of getting better at thinking is through talking and writing. Our thoughts are often clarified and sharpened after discussion, after we are forced to articulate what it is we are thinking and want to communicate. After giving moments of silence, lets also give the students moments to grapple with their thinking, to improve their thoughts. We want them to think carefully, think critically, give clarity of thought, think creatively, grapple with complex thinking and engage in collaborative thinking. 

As you forge forward with your teaching this year, what story are you shaping in your classroom? What words are you choosing to use that encourage deep thinking? What moments can you provide to encourage slow, deliberate, messy, musings? We have a huge job ahead of us as teachers- we face some fierce competition. We don't just need to encourage our students to think harder and more deeply, we must demand it of them. Because our current society presents us with competition that is relentless - instant gratification, quick answers provided by google, Siri being able to answer our queries with nothing more than our voices, news and information packaged up neatly in short, polished bites on the internet or opinion being paraded through the stories constructed by celebrities on social media. Never before have our words, our space for silence and our encouragement of thought, been more important.

I will leave you with some thought-provoking words that were written 30 years ago by an educator and writer, Neil Postman. He grappled with the same tension when he echoed the worries expressed by Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World. He wrote: “As Huxley saw it, people would come to adore technologies that undo their capacities to think…that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism, and he feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. We would become a trivial culture because of man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”.

Let us lead and teach in a way that celebrates thinking, that resists passivity and that seeks substance and truth. 

Mrs Natalie Bluhdorn
Acting Academic Head

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