Our words matter.
Of course, you know that — you're choosing to read words about words here at the Visual Thesaurus, so the chances are very good that you love words, love learning about them, love using them. You may even love correcting people who've misused words. Our words are our currency, enabling many of the transactions we make in the course of our day. For teachers, words are not only our currency, but our goal — we want our students to own more of them by the end of class, to know them and to use them more fluidly.
It would be hard for me to forget the power of words, but I find that I too often think of that power as a negative force that should not be deployed in the classroom. I must bite my sarcastic tongue and hold back a torrent of words when a student is whiny or rude. I'm constantly trying to listen to the words said around me by my students sifting through them for language that must be discouraged or abruptly ended. And, sadly, I'm often in the position of being the Solomon of Room 237: deciding who in a pair of arguers deserves more censure, while always painfully aware that I usually have missed the beginning of the conflict, and am left disciplining only the student who was animated enough to get noticed.
The negative power of words can be very draining for me. In particular, I felt it in one class that is unusually volatile. I frequently feel that I should change into a referee's black and white stripes and don a whistle before they enter, because teaching them is contact sport. One day last fall, their whiplashing comments and digs at each other had gone far enough, and I ordered everyone to form a circle of chairs in the center of the classroom, so we could play the Compliment Game. We were going to be nice to each other, dammit.
Less Complicated Than Rugby
The Compliment Game is so simple, it has caused some of my friends to roll their eyes in skepticism when I've explained the rules. Still, it works, and teachers who have tried it always come back to report, wide-eyed, on how different the class has been since they played it.
Here's how I explain it to the kids: Everyone makes a circle of chairs. Someone volunteers to enter the circle. If no one wants to volunteer, I will go in first. The people forming the circle raise their hand if they have a positive, non-weird compliment to give the person in the center. Compliments cannot be backhanded ("For a fat lady, you're pretty") and should not make the person feel uncomfortable ("You are the hottest teacher in the school!"). Compliments cannot involve any profanity. It is the person in the middle's choice as to who gets called on — do not be insulted if they skip you. Oh! And the person in the middle must look the complimenter in the eye and say "thank you" after each compliment.
That's it. Those are all the rules in the game. Super simple, but each part is in important. The most vital part to emphasize is that the person in the center is in charge. I try to stay out of the process, except to give compliments of my own, and help the kid in the center wrap up in a timely fashion. The second most important part is that the people giving compliments know that they are not empowered to say awful things under the guise of giving a compliment. I find my example of a backhanded compliment is so harsh that it makes the kids say "Oooohhhhh" and not want to do the same. Finally, the other key aspect of the game is that of responding, "Thank you." Many of us have difficulty accepting compliments graciously, so I think it's important that teenagers (and all kids) learn to do so.
It's Not a Warm-Up, It's the Lesson
I've noticed a temptation amongst teachers to treat all games as warm-up exercises for the "real" learning that's supposed to happen later. Because of this bias, I probably could have done myself a big favor by calling this the "Compliment Exercise." Alas. I hope you'll still consider giving a chunk of your class over to it, anyway. I can't deny that playing the game takes a long time. Each student's entry into the center of the circle changes the tenor of the room. Some walk in cocky, demanding their due. Others have to be forcibly dragged in (and some simply do not want to be in the center, no matter what. When that happens, I offer to have the class write down compliments for those students). And a few more really want to go in, but need to be coaxed. Take the time to coax them.
What I love, though, is that everyone walks out with new information about themselves. The next day (or at the end of class), I often ask students to write a response to the question, "What did you learn about yourself from playing this game?" and these are always fantastic to read. "I learned that people like my smile," one shy young man wrote. "I learned that people think I'm mad smart," another girl wrote, "which is good, because I AM mad smart." "I was so surprised that someone said I was a good mom, because I don't talk about my baby, but it felt really good to know someone thinks that about me 'cause I try," another girl wrote.
Since I make it a point to be as specific as possible in my compliments, calling a student "forthright" or "winning" or "charismatic," new words are learnt, too. One of my students called everyone else "articulate" until I made him read us the definition aloud, because I had called him that, and he thought it meant, like, a smooth dresser. That new words are learned is an excellent side benefit of this game, and one that could be exploited in your classroom, if you like.
What's amazing is that the class really does change after playing the Compliment Game. Inevitably, someone has given someone else an unexpected compliment, and both students will think of each other more kindly, then. I remember once when a student who openly hated me (and who, in turn, I just managed to treat lovingly because of her antipathy towards me) complimented me like this: "You go hard on me, but I know you care." I could never look at her again, even when she went back to being hostile, without thinking of that.
Why I'm Mentioning This
Remember the difficult class, the one from a few paragraphs above? They took to the Compliment Game very quickly, and, like many students who refuse to follow rules when I enforce them, became extremely adept enforcers of the few rules of the game. "Yo! That's backhanded!" and "You can't say she's pretty! She's blushing!" flew around the classroom. At the end of the class period, we had gotten to everyone who wanted to be in the center of the circle, and I began to wrap up the class with a little speech about how much we had learned about ourselves and the wonderful qualities we could be bringing into our class on a more regular basis, if we liked.
They weren't interested, and instead demanded I take my place in the center of the circle. There, I was, of course, brought up short to realize the magic of the game, for I was shocked to be told that my patience was noticed. I was thanked for it, and for the second chances I had begrudgingly given, and for greeting my students warmly when they entered the room, even when receiving a snarl in return. I forgot all about my speech as to the purpose of the game, and basked in the simple Sally Field-esque glow of just being liked.
Two weeks later, one of my students in that class, S., was shot to death outside our school building. Our community was plunged into the pain of anger, fear and grief, along with the words that come with that world: "passing" instead of "dying." "Gone home" instead of "dead." "Transferred out" instead of "terrified and unable to walk down that street again." We piled on words, words on top of words: Words of regret from the faculty member who had spoken to S. sharply that day. Words of revenge from a student who couldn't rest, knowing that S's killer was still at large. Words of planning and attempts at solace from outsiders who wanted to be of help. Words of comfort to each other.
It's been over a month, now, and I find that when I think about S., my mind returns to the Compliment Game. I can remember each of the kids as they played it, because I saw expressions on their faces that I had never been privy before. They looked shocked, surprised, delighted, proud, happy. S. was no exception. I remember that the others talked about his smile, which was a great one, a full sunbeam across his face, and he obliged us by breaking out in the biggest one yet.
I'm wary of making too much of this game, because a young man, half my age, has died tragically, and feeling that he had at least one or two happy moments in my class means little in the face of that. However, as I wrote when I began this column, I do feel words matter, and I feel some comfort in knowing he heard words of love and friendship from us that day.
To say, "live each day like it might your last" is a cliché, and one that will lead to chaos and destruction if actually attempted. I wouldn't want that to be the takeaway here. Instead, I'd like for us to think of the time we spend in schools as less transactional — you do this, and I'll give you this payment in the form of a grade — and more relational. I do believe that part of my job when I stand up in front of a group of 30 16-year-olds is to love them. I don't know where they've come from, or where they're going after they leave the school, but for the 45 minutes they're with me, I believe that I can use words in a way that shows them that they have value to me, and, indeed, the world. It has been my great delight — indeed, the true discovery of my time as a teacher — that my students' words can have the same effect on me. They are the great equalizer, across our many divides. Because our words matter. They mattered to S. They matter to me. They matter to you.