School Climate & Safety Opinion

Teaching the Power of Words

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — March 16, 2017 6 min read
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Not all educators are voracious readers. Even among those who teach children to read, reading is not a passion for all. That may not prevent them from being good at teaching reading techniques, but it does prevent them from sharing joy. Similarly, those who teach writing may be really good technically, but may not be writers themselves. Whether writing letters to the editor of a paper, a blog, a column, a research paper, a short story, a personal journal or an awarding winning novel, the process of writing cannot be shared if it is not experienced. This truth extends to the leaders who supervise, give feedback, offer professional development, observe and evaluate teachers.

It is the reading and re-reading of those words, written by others, in other times that awaken and move us. Words are important. They allow us to communicate with one another, close up and far away and across history and cultures. Words that are repeated and learned in context teach, intentionally or not. It is with that thought that we reflect on an abandoned piece of our own schooling. When did we stop requiring students to memorize and deliver famous speeches out loud in public and why? Or the study of MLK’s “I Have A Dream” speech and analyzing it as, perhaps, the best speech of our time? It wasn’t just speeches. Do any of our readers remember Memorial Day celebrations with students reciting the poem “In Flanders Fields” after the parade?

Words Are Powerful
No matter whether a lover of reading and writing, don’t we all agree that there are certain speeches and poems and letters with words so well connected that they always move minds and hearts? When and why did we stop requiring students to read, recite, and memorize those words? Surely there are classes peppered across districts where this is still done. But how much more valuable when a k _12 curriculum plan purposefully places speeches and poetry where they relate to what is being taught? Women’s rights, citizenship, segregation, gratitude, comfort in loss, the coming together of a nation are all places where important works belong. We hope the following, incomplete list will reignite a conversation about using the inspirational words of others to help children to understand the power of words.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s speech from 1868 and delivered in Washington DC is one example. Think about going to it as we study the constitutional amendments and the amendment process. Think about it in current events as we discuss glass ceilings and marine websites. Do we teach about how long some changes take? Here an excerpt:

We ask woman’s enfranchisement, as the first step toward the recognition of that essential element in government that can only secure the health, strength, and prosperity of the nation. Whatever is done to lift woman to her true position will help to usher in a new day of peace and perfection for the race.
In speaking of the masculine element, I do not wish to be understood to say that all men are hard, selfish, and brutal, for many of the most beautiful spirits the world has known have been clothed with manhood; but I refer to those characteristics, though often marked in woman, that distinguish what is called the stronger sex. For example, the love of acquisition and conquest, the very pioneers of civilization, when expended on the earth, the sea, the elements, the riches and forces of nature, are powers of destruction when used to subjugate one man to another or to sacrifice nations to ambition.

Or what about looking to military leaders and former presidents for examples of what our history was and how our national values were articulated? Look to an excerpt from Teddy Roosevelt’s speech, “Duties of American Citizenship” delivered in Buffalo, NY in 1883.

It is the duty of all citizens, irrespective of party, to denounce, and, so far as may be, to punish crimes against the public on the part of politicians or officials. But exactly as the public man who commits a crime against the public is one of the worst of criminals, so, close on his heels in the race for iniquitous distinction, comes the man who falsely charges the public servant with outrageous wrongdoing; whether it is done with foul-mouthed and foolish directness in the vulgar and violent party organ, or with sarcasm, innuendo, and the half-truths that are worse than lies, in some professed organ of independence.

And, of course, include Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech:

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

But, we know leaders and role models arise in every field and inspire us to become our better selves. Here’s an excerpt from the “Farewell Speech” of the great baseball player Lou Gehrig as disease ended his career too soon:

Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

Or on scientific exploration and tragedy, here an excerpt from Ronald Regan’s “Address to the Nation on the Challenger":

We’ve grown used to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us. But for 25 years the United States space program has been doing just that. We’ve grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we’ve only just begun. We’re still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers.
And I want to say something to the school children of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them...

Maya Angelou’s “On The Pulse of Morning"raised the hearts of a nation when she recited her poem at President Clinton’s inauguration:

Like Dr. Angelou’s speech, other current ones, including Ronald Regan’s Challenger Speech are examples of speechs that can be found in their live delivery, offering even more electricity carried by the words of the speaker.

Where these people stood, in the time they were living, the words chosen...real, powerful, effective words ...reaching out from deep feelings and beliefs can become alive live in their words for us. Words can be preserved as they were written. Let’s not lose their many faceted value.

In the End
Not all educators are prolific readers or writers and that has little to do with their effectiveness as creators of engaging learning experiences, assessors of learning, or supporters of students. But no matter the reason for the loss of importance of the powerful words of others, no matter whether they are memorized or just heard in context to teach and inspire, let’s not lose the knowledge of how powerful words are. Words thrown about casually and with disregard of others can be destructive. We focus sometimes on that. But, words to move another and to call all of us up to a cause or an ideal should be introduced to the hearts and minds of today’s students. Words carry messages and have meaning. That carries over centuries and teaches lessons. If we can teach the power of words, perhaps we will not only create the next generation of those who write and read but those who lift us up.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Photo by Nickbar courtesyof Pixabay

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.