These are all words that are repeated multiple times as I review my notes and observations from Opal School last week. I feel extremely honoured and grateful to have had the opportunity to sit contemplatively in several Opal classrooms full of students and teachers over the course of two days. While there were many things that struck me in my time at Opal, the overarching idea that has stayed with me as I reflect on my learning is Language.
The language practices of both the students and teachers at the Opal School are respectful, consistent and obviously well modeled. This was very evident across the classrooms and ages of the students. There seems to be more space and time for language and dialogue at the Opal School. Perhaps part of the effect the beautiful aesthetics of the classrooms have is creating spaces for dialogue and conversation amongst its inhabitants.
Michael Halliday says “Language has the power to shape our consciousness; and it does so for each human child, by providing the theory that he or she uses to interpret and manipulate their environment.” An observer at Opal School can quickly ascertain that the teachers at Opal fully understand the significance their language has on helping or hindering the development of the children. Words are chosen very carefully and intentionally, and are spoken calmly and purposefully. The teachers do not take up “more air time” than is necessary to provide scaffolding and subtle direction required in the moment. The words are empathic and the language is structured in such a way that it invites others to continue the conversation. And my there are conversations!
On my second morning observing in the Opal 4 classroom (9-11 year old students), I was so excited to see the continuation of their inquiry into the history of the Columbia River Basin. They have been wondering about the ideas surrounding land, place, people, settlers and how people come to be in a space. The class has been working in small groups to learn more about the geographical features and boundaries associated with the place of specific Native American peoples. During the discussion, one student had noticed that his people “owned” land that was the same as another group. A classmate then said that both peoples were “using” it. I watched as their teacher skillfully and purposefully brought forth the somewhat subtle difference in language as she said, “I notice that … said that they owned the land while … said they used the land. I’m wondering if those words are important to talk about?” For the next ten minutes I watched in total awe as the group set into a dialogue that covered the big ideas of territory, ownership, intentions of others, mistakes, misunderstandings, law, justice and more. The teachers transcribed and listened carefully, but let the students continue in their questions and group conversations that led to better understanding and perspective about the people of the Columbia River Basin. It was beautiful and I felt truly grateful that I was there to see it.
Peter Johnston’s book “Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives” is a resource that the Opal School staff have studied and they refer to it’s significance on their blog. It is an inspiring read about the power that language has in our classrooms and our lives. Johnston says, “ In this book, I show you how our values, our beliefs, and our histories, and the context in which we work, have an impact on the language we choose. I also show you how our language choices have serious consequences for children’s learning and for who they become as individuals and as a community. I help you make productive choices, because the language we choose in our teaching changes the worlds children inhabit now and those they will build in the future.”
All over the walls of Opal School amongst a multitude of provocations and documentation, one consistently finds three questions. What do you see? What do you think? What do you wonder? I hope that I’ve described a bit of what I saw and thought. Here is a bit of what I’m wondering. I’m wondering how I can make language a more intentional and purposeful part of my own teaching practice? I wonder how a shift in my language and words as a teacher might affect the language choices of my students? I wonder what kind of a world I might help create for my students if I were to make language a more explicit part of my planning process.
Thank you for reading!
Woodward Elementary School
*all photographs were taken at the Opal School with the Museum Centre for Learning at the Portland Children’s Museum, with permission to share here