Praise Helps Redefine Student Roles

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A colleague of mine recommended a book called How to Talk So Kids Can Learn by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. Even though the book was published the year I graduated high school and isn’t based on scientific research, I am looking for new ways to connect with my students and become a better teacher. At the core of the book is the idea of validating students’ feelings even when we don’t approve of the behavior those feelings engender. The authors offer practical strategies that invite students to cooperate. I learned some strategies that I decided to putimmediately into practice about using praise and criticism to free a child from limiting roles.

Faber and Mazlish’s strategies seemed particularly useful for two of my students, Geraldo and Valeria. Both students are locked into roles that are limiting. I’d wanted to recast those roles. Geraldo is kind and attentive in my class but struggles to produce stellar work. When Geraldo excelled on an assignment, a performance of a poem he’d written, I used his success to help him start to see himself differently as Faber and Mazlish suggest in the book. I intentionally spoke to his math teacher about him within his earshot. “Wow, you should have seen Geraldo’s performance,” I said. “He even had a costume and memorized the whole thing.”

My compliments, Faber and Mazlish say, can build up a student and help him see himself in a new light.

Valeria is a top-performing student. She consistently turns in A+ work, but she is also unwilling to take risks. Her writing is formulaic. I want her to have freedom to explore different devices. For this to happen, it’s important that I offer specific feedback so that she doesn’t feel like she has to be perfect. I began to practice being honest and specific in my feedback to students. Instead of telling Valeria that her writing is “really good,” I might say, “The introductory paragraph caught my attention. And this sentence is beautiful; look at how you used metaphor to express your ideas. I’d like to see you connect more to the text.”

This kind of feedback tells Valeria that I really paid attention to her writing. It also gives her something specific to continue doing and offers an area to improve.

These tips and techniques are straightforward and even commonsensical, and yet they seemed revolutionary to me when put into practice. With simple adjustments in the way we speak to our students, we may find chasms bridged. Even for teachers who do not generally struggle to connect with kids, examining language can be clarifying for the teacher and the student. I think that by using just a few of Faber and Mazlish’s ideas, it seems likely that more of my students will be open to learning from me. I’ll try it with a few more students.

Thomas is an English teacher in California.