Something I love deeply and profoundly about teaching writing and reading is the ability to delve into what words can do and how they do those things. Words are amazing. They can literally create realities. J.L. Austin’s description of a “performative utterance” has forever shifted my understanding of the power of language. Austin explores the ability of words to perform and accomplish things, noting that sometimes,
“the issuing of the utterance is the performing of an action – it is not …. just saying something” (7).
Composition and communication affect change. The prospect of this is so beautiful and so terrifying that it sometimes makes me weep.
As an English teacher, this prospect is one of my driving motivators. If we are dealing in creating and consuming words and texts, we are necessarily wrestling with what those words and texts do. The power and influence we are toying with is not something to be taken lightly. The ways this truth impacts my lessons, assignments, and demeanor in the classroom are diverse, shifting, and complex. I can’t say I entirely understand them myself. However, just the other day, my wonderful school, Lexington Christian Academy, hosted a small event that I thought truly encapsulated the importance of teaching and then allowing students to deal wisely with their meaning making and composition.
As most truly great ideas are, this one was cooked up by the students involved in the student-led Peer Issues Group (PIG). The idea was simple: to anonymously post encouraging phrases written by students in the student bathroom, and to allow other students to anonymously share some of their struggles and encouragement. This was a bathroom graffiti-style activity and, since I often use the student bathroom in order to avoid an infinitesimally longer walk to the faculty bathroom, I was able to bask in its glory.
Students blew me away with the vulnerability, tenderness, and strength of their anonymous words. With their simple, brief compositions, they managed to support, build community with, and listen to one another. Their words DID something. What they wrote mattered, and you could feel it as you stood there and read what they had to say. The activity was simple, but, in my opinion, powerfully demonstrated the ability of words to create real change and exert real influence in individuals and communities.
For what I have learned will never be the last time, I sat there learning from my students, letting my students’ words teach me about the power of allowing them and helping them to use their words for good. I’m still working to learn the lesson.