The Power of Words

For the past two weeks or so, technical difficulties I still do not understand robbed me of my daily romp through the Internet and held this blog at bay.  My carrier finally repaired the line late yesterday, just in time to share what has been a reaffirming time in my classroom.  Students in each of the three subjects I teach responded to challenges which called upon them to unravel and reconsider the power of words.

For the past three years, I have asked all my English students to compete in the Larry Neal Writers’ competition sponsored by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities in partnership with the PEN/Faulkner Foundation.  To me, there are no better assessments than those which are rooted in real life.  I asked my students to share personal essays about a life lesson learned through adversity.  How had the experience changed them?  The essays needed to use words to convey a personal truth and touch the reader with a deeper revelation–all in five hundred words or less.

Themes of loss, betrayal, kinship, survival, and discovery elevated their work to new heights of self-expression.  While three were named as finalists, all grew with the experience.  They learned to value their voice and treat their thoughts with reverence.  Writing matters.  It helps us process the world, overcome its challenges, and celebrate its triumphs.  As one young lady who normally says little shared after taking first place for the piece she wrote about grief,  “I really didn’t want to do this at first.  But it helped me.”

In English III. we completed reading Gatsby, of course, and moved to discuss the impact of Fitzgerald’s choices.  Throughout the year, I continually held up a blank piece of paper and reminded students that, like them, all writers begin with nothing more than that.  Like artists painting a memory, writers rely on sound, inflection, nuance, connotation, rhythm, diction and syntax to bring their impressions to life.  Metaphors and similes are just some of the tools used to lure the reader in closer–as though the author was sharing a secret.

After we finished the book, the exam, and the paper, I showed them the movie.  After asking a few questions about the differences between the characters they imagined and the ones on screen, I just let almost half of the movie speak for itself.  Then the harder questions came:  what elements did the visual, sound, and pacing bring to the story?  what aspects of the novel did the cinematic telling leave out?  Without exception, the students themselves named language as the missing piece.  The music of Fitzgerald’s words–his details, observations, and storytelling–gave the novel an imaginative power the elaborate movie sets could not duplicate.  They learned about the power of words.

In AP English Language, students finally sat for the AP Exam.  In the days leading up to it, we revisited the nature of persuasion and the art of rhetoric.  Students no longer simply summarized “what” they had read.  Instead, they moved to analyze how a piece was constructed, and whether or not the writer achieved his or her purpose.  In the end, all the techniques we studied–parallelism, repetition, sentence structure, diction, and so many more–melted into Aristotle’s brilliant triangle mapping the connection, when effective, between speaker, audience, and subject.  These students used this experience to lift their own written discourse.  Their tone became confident and decisive.  Their rhetorical flourishes became cleverly disguised, and their reasoning did not stray from their goal.  Words became their instrument and not some foreign body with too many grammar rules.  It was a sight to behold.

Finally, my Debate class spent the last few weeks preparing for the City Championship.  The league has changed a great deal in the six years I have served as coach.  Now, private and charter schools greatly outnumber the public schools involved.  The DC Urban Debate League is struggling for funds, and the total number of students involved is less than half of what it once was.  Still, the actual competition has never been stronger, and all the students who elected to spend an 80 degree Saturday inside a school building came to win.

Our two topics focused on collective bargaining rights for public employees and the recent Supreme Court decision (Snyder v. Phelps) allowing picketers at funerals.  In the latter case, we delved into the meaning of the First Amendment and the importance attached to it in a democratic society.  We read the actual decision and the dissent.  We explored established exceptions to freedom of speech, such as “fighting words” or “captive audience.”

We debated the porous line between public and private, context and content.  Finally, we envisioned an America without the freedoms we assume.  Yesterday, our debaters, in teams of three, stepped into classrooms and used their knowledge and voice to persuade a judge to award them the round.  Then, they entered another classroom and worked to convince another judge that everything they had just said was wrong.  They became masters of both the pro and the con.  They worked the room with just the right blend of fact and drama and won many more arguments than they lost.

I could not have been prouder as I watched prom-weary seniors who had been up until the early morning the night before rise to the moment before them.  I passed hallways filled with voices of young people I would never have recognized back when we began.  The growth I witnessed was not a testament to me, but to them.  They had done the work and then found the courage to take pride in their skills.  I watched one debate in particular where two young sophomore ladies who once mumbled a few words and then quickly sat down command the space in front of them and weave an analysis that led their wealthier opponents down the path to defeat.

After all rounds had ended, and we waited for the final results, one student who came to observe the tournament, and with whom I have battled at times this year in English class, turned to me and said, “You know, you kinda know how to teach.”  We both laughed after she said it.

Then, the league director asked all the debaters to stand and salute their coach.  My students turned and faced me, still seated, with such a look of mutual respect that I scarcely noticed the bit of dust causing my eyes to water.

Later, when we learned we had won the city title again, we all joined in a spirited chant of our school name.  Then we posed for pictures with all the trophies we had claimed.  On the drive home, I thought about everything I had seen and heard in the past few weeks.  I thought about authentic assessment as a lengthy process whose finish outweighs its parts (and all the fill-in-the-bubble exercises masquerading as growth).

I thought about courageous excellence, and all young people who possess the will to find it.  I thought about guidance and the misguided teacher evaluatory measure we call Impact, where teacher silence and a smiling face  too often outweigh instruction.  I thought about the enduring power of words, and one thing more.  What all students want–what all people want–is not just to speak, but also to be heard.  I try to give my students that gift, and then receive it graciously.  Some days hit the mark more than others.  But that’s ok.  The power of words begins with the attempt.



About Mark E.P. Roberts

teachermandc is Mark E.P. Roberts, a middle-aged, high school English teacher entering his ninth year of instructing young minds. This blog is an attempt to capture the challenge of teaching and the essence of learning. At a time when DC has become the epicenter of educational theory, this blog will keep its preferred focus on students in an somewhat typical DC high school. I have taught in both public and private schools. To date, 95% of my students are of color. All names have been changed, and complaints about in-house politics will be avoided. Hope you enjoy.
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