“The Practical Classroom”

From: Not Yet…And That’s OK: How Productive Struggle Fosters Student Learning (2021)

Guest post by: Peg Grafwallner, @PegGrafwallner, Solution Tree author and educational consultant

In my most recent book, Not Yet…And That’s Ok: How Productive Struggle Fosters Student Learning, I explain the mindset of the Not Yet approach as an opportunity for teachers to create an authentic classroom experience where students value setbacks and obstacles as ways to grow, learn, and develop. Instead of allowing failure to define the student, the not-yet approach creates opportunities to normalize development and empowers students to realize learning takes time and that mastery isn’t the end of their growth.

The not-yet approach encourages teachers to allow setbacks and obstacles to support students in realizing that those bumps are necessary to learning. Instead of using failure as an excuse or a justification for indifference, it becomes a tool for empowerment as the student learns from it and – here’s the most important part – moves forward as a result of that failure.

But, it’s April and you’re thinking: with only six to eight weeks of school left in the year and so much content to get through, I can’t possibly take on one more thing. While the not-yet approach sounds intriguing, implementing something new this time of year is more than I can do.

Absolutely true. As a classroom teacher, your plate is full and another of anything is too much.

However, you might already be implementing some components of the not-yet approach without even knowing it. As an example, the Practical Classroom is one of the 12 “classrooms” highlighted in the not-yet approach. The Practical Classrooms targets specific language that is useful to students – language that offers hope and empowerment to students while reminding them to move beyond the setbacks and obstacles they face.

Focusing on one’s language is a manageable task that doesn’t take any extra time; except perhaps, a conscious effort to be mindful of the language one is using and its impact on students.

As you’re thinking about the language you use in your classroom, ask yourself: is your language practical and useful to students? Is it authentic and relevant? Can students apply it both personally and academically for their own hope, growth, and empowerment? 

In assessing student work, do you sometimes use “deficit” language – language that focuses on incorporating punitive judgment and critical evaluation? Oftentimes we must critique student work to determine a grade. When utilizing judgment and evaluative language, without noting the severity of that language, students can feel discouraged from engaging in productive struggle.

But, when teachers use practical language, language that is useful and hopeful, students endeavor to stick with problems and try new strategies to overcome an obstacle or setback. 

For example, here are some examples of deficit language in the classroom that has been replaced with practical language from the not-yet classroom:

Examples of Deficit Language in the ClassroomPractical Examples of Not-Yet Language in the Classroom
“I read your response paper. Did you read the text?”“I read your response paper. From what I read, you seemed uncertain in your response. Let’s talk about how I can help you make your response more convincing.”
“I’m not going to say it again. You need to listen next time.”“If you are unclear, can you tell me where the confusion began?”
“This should be easy for you. You’ve been studying this since you were in elementary school.”“It seems this particular concept is challenging for you. Let’s figure out where the concept becomes challenging and try again.”
“I never give As in my class because an A means perfect, and no one is perfect.”“I want my grading to be fair and authentic. I’ll be grading your work according to standards and using rubrics so you will always know the grading expectations.”
“Any late work is a zero. You will fail the assignment or the assessment if the work is not turned in on time.”“I realize that sometimes it might be difficult to turn in your work on time. Let’s discuss due dates, why they’re important, and how to adhere to them as best as possible.”

As you read the examples of practical language, you will notice a collaborative tone from the teacher inviting the student to share their thinking and explaining, as best as they can, the obstacle that is causing them to be immobile. The teacher uses language that is hopeful and empowering as it encourages the student to utilize productive struggle to move forward. The teacher is not going to do the work for the student; rather the teacher acknowledges that the work or deadline might be challenging and offers opportunities of support. It is up to the student to use this setback or obstacle as a way to learn from it and try again – without judgment or evaluation.

Think about your language and how much of it already mirrors the practical classroom. However, we always know there is more work to be done and opportunities to improve. Consider asking a colleague to observe your class to gather some of the language you use or ask your peer to make a list of the written feedback you offer students. Are you noticing practical language or some elements of deficit language in your communication? 

Please don’t consider the practical classroom as one more thing that must be done. Rather, reflect on the language that is already useful and authentic in your classroom and utilize these last several weeks as a chance to fill in some of the gaps. The not-yet approach gives all of us – teachers and students – a chance to value setbacks and obstacles as ways to grow, learn, and develop. Instead of allowing a misstep of language to define us, the not-yet approach creates opportunities to try again and empowers us to do our very best for our students.

About the Author 

Peg Grafwallner, Solution Tree author and educational consultant

Check out Peg’s newest book: https://www.solutiontree.com/not-yet-and-thats-ok.html


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