Finding the Right School Words for Everyone

“Words, Words, Words.” – Hamlet
          What language will best communicate to a school’s various constituents?  What is the Venn Diagram between the appropriately nuanced language of educators and the language equipped to speak compellingly to a smart, discerning and demanding larger community? How do we use language to bring these two groups together? I have written about this before in a blog entry entitled, “The Role of Communication in a Progress Culture.” More and more I feel the challenge of words.
          At my first faculty meeting of the year, my first at Westminster, I spoke about the danger of allowing what are essentially semantic arguments to masquerade as philosophical ones. Our use of the word “authentic” is an apt example. Who would argue that our students should have experiences that engage them in investigations and learning that are relevant and meaningful in the specific context of the world they live in? That said, say the word twice in a room full of teachers and a few eyes will roll. What’s worse they might even put the air quotations on the word when they use it in the company of colleagues. This tendency to poison a word, phrase, or acronym can polarize a faculty at the very moment when we need to recognize what unites us philosophically is an intense desire to improve student learning.
           I need to adjust my attitude a bit regarding the use of so many acronyms in educational conversations between educators. This is not the place to create a glossary of these acronyms rather what I want to point out is that the same language that has the potential to make us more understandable to each other ( i.e., teachers talking to teachers) has an equally powerful potential to make us cryptic to others.  In order to become a functioning Progress Culture, we must find ways to mitigate this problem.
           An example outside of education illustrates my point. My brother in law is a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Air Force where he serves as a band commander. His world demands that he be fluent in several VERY specialized languages–the language of music and the language of the military. Although he handles this negotiation with aplomb, it is not small task, as both languages require an initiation process that takes years. In the context of his professional life, I am certain that this specialized vocabulary is absolutely requisite; however, as an outsider I have experienced being completely lost trying to understand a conversation between two members of military speaking to each other. The acronyms alone leave the uninitiated in the dust.
           I am reminded of the military briefings that dominated the media cycles right after the beginning of Operation Desert Storm. It was a rare military spokesman who was able to provide a clear and accessible briefing of events to an audience that was far wider than the military audience alone. It was my impression in fact that, given the number of different generals who gave briefings, they were struggling to find the voice that would be successful in mitigating the distance between the esoteric language of the military and the general vocabulary of the audience. Notably, their task was not only to tell the story clearly but to secure support for the task at home.
          In educational talk that includes heavy doses of language regarding 21st century learning and transformational change, our task is similar tactically. We have to find ways to tell the story, and we have to find ways to tell it in a way such that the audience feels compelled by it. Significantly, we must also make sure that our speaking out to others is neither pejorative nor over-simplified. The language we choose should help us create partnerships with all those members of the community who are not initiated into the language educators speak to educators.
          There is a vital and expanding lexicon of words (and, yes, some acronyms) within the educational community. It helps us define our work and our priorities, and it helps us identify where we are not all in agreement. Some of it is useful, some of it is clearly not. While I know I will continue to chaff at some of the proprietary language–that has been hoisted upon educators from those who have something to package and sell to teachers and to schools–I need to challenge myself to see through to the need this vocabulary meets.
         (I don’t know what it is about airplanes, but this is the second blog I have written on a flight…this time using the notes section of my iPad. By the way as I have been writing, I have been listening to Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s HERE WE REST. You should buy it–it is tremendous.)