Tuesday, September 5, 2006

The Importance of Language

I can still remember the day in 9th grade, when my grade counselor, Mr. Doug Soule, called me into his office. I wasn’t in trouble. It was a get-acquainted meeting. I recall that he read from a thick folder and related to me that he knew I liked to sing and was a compassionate and caring little boy in Mrs. Collard’s Kindergarten class. Apparently, she had recorded that on the first day of school I attempted to help her out by consoling and “entertaining” the kids that were having trouble adjusting to the fearful newness of school. Mr. Soule also told me that I had perfect attendance in Mrs. Lake’s 1st grade; my 3rd grade national assessment test scores were good; my overall grades were good; and, he provided other snippets about my school career that I had forgotten and/or never had enough concern to notice. Unlike the rare visit to a school counselor at the end of 8th grade, where Mr. L. told me that I “could do what ever I wanted to do in life”, Mr. Soule gave me a brief “this is your life” moment.

Mr. L’s hyperbole never registered with me. I didn’t get it. I knew that Mr. L. was placing me in the college preparatory learning track in 9th grade the next school year, but it was only then, that any adult had ever encouraged me to think about my future. Me, in college? Me, the youngest son of a homemaker and a man that labored in the cement plant down the street from our house?

As a retired teacher, I now have a more complete understanding of what both men were trying to say to me. I get it.

Mr. Soule was reading from the school form still used in the Port Huron schools today. The form, CA-60, is an anecdotal record about a student. That form goes with each boy and girl as they move from the earliest school year through graduation. Mr. Soule gave me a rare peek into what had been written about and for me from Kindergarten through Grade 8. Teachers hardly ever tell their students or parents about this particular school record. It is not a huge secret that teachers from one grade communicate with the teachers in the next higher grade about Johnny’s or Jane’s progress, strengths, weaknesses, and good or not-so-good behavior. However, as my experience in the classroom has revealed, some entries should never make it into the light of day. The vast majority of professional and competent teachers are quite careful about what they write in a student’s anecdotal history and how that information is used.

My personal rule was to never read a kid’s CA-60 until just before the first parent-teacher conference in the fall semester. I never wanted to pre-judge a student or be influenced by what was in the child’s records except for knowing his or her previous grades, reading level, and attendance. If, however, after getting to know my kids and I was concerned about certain behavior (e.g. school phobia, inattention, or aggressive behavior), I would refer to the anecdotal records and other “noted” information before I ever talked with the child’s previous teacher and/or parent.

I once had a parent that wanted to have her child transferred from my classroom to another teacher’s room after only one week of school. I hadn’t done anything wrong. It seemed that the child did not like me (her first male classroom teacher) and she cried every morning before coming to school. Upon reading that young girl’s CA-60, I discovered that she had had the same school adjustment problem at the beginning of the previous school year. When the parent and I met with our school principal, we decided to give the child some more time and evaluate the decision to keep her in my room at a later date. By the end of September, when we held our traditional “Back to School Night”, the school phobic child’s parent told me that her daughter was extremely happy and was always talking positively about school, our classroom, and the funny or serious things I had said.

Writing in an anecdotal record of a child is something done with great care. A good teacher never waits until the last day of the school year to note some problem or accomplishment. The advice that I have given to new teachers is to be careful and always couch your statements using the words “seems to”, “may” or “perhaps”. I know that sounds a bit daffy. However, in our “litigation society”, a teacher must be careful to not state their opinions or make absolute judgments about anything. They may be terribly wrong about the “late bloomer” or may allow some personal prejudice to creep into their anecdotal remarks.

For example, never write that a child lacks common sense. Record that little “Jeffery brought a half-gallon of ice cream to school and left it in his locker.” (It would have been ugly had I not told Mr. Hagar about that ice cream in our locker! I wasn’t a sixth grade narc – it’s just that my mother didn’t raise a fool.)

Never write that Amanda is a thief. Just explain “that when her desk was accidentally toppled, Amanda had a box of crayons, a pencil case, and a tissue box belonging to three of her classmates. Two classroom calculators and a ruler from the supply shelf were also found.”

Do not call Tim a liar and his mother a crackpot. State the fact that “the music teacher and two classmates overheard him calling another boy a ‘homo’, and after contacting his mother to report the name-calling incident, Mrs. Notmykid insisted that Timmy only called the boy a ‘hobo’. Mrs. Notmykid wrote a letter to the principal and me demanding that the music teacher be fired for lying about Timmy and because she had heard that the music teacher had some personal problems.”

Or, when Peter comes to school wearing a dress on the day following the Thanksgiving Recess, never record the judgment that the boy is a homosexual. Be sure to stick to only observed behavior. Simply, document that “Peter came to school on November 27th wearing a dress, sensible shoes, and carried a purse that seemed to compliment his outfit.”

Language is important. We must carefully convey exactly what we mean to say.

William Shakespeare wrote that “brevity is the soul of wit.”

Sometimes, you have to be wordier.