Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Difference a Letter Can Make

                Last Thursday Dr. Kristen Ohlenforst [i]presented “Helping the Racing Child” at our first Parents’ Association speaker event for the year. We asked Dr. Ohlenforst to come as a follow up to our screening last spring of Race to Nowhere, an event she facilitated.  (You can read prior posts on RtN: this one, that one, another one.) She made a great number of wonderful points and gave sage advice with concrete suggestions.

                Immediately Dr. Ohlenforst stressed an important reality—that no one is going to change the complex socio-cultural system which has produced the issues captured in RtN. It comes down to family choices based on values, beliefs, wishes, et cetera. Another key factor is how we talk to our children about these issues. The questions we ask, the attention we heed to certain particulars, the feelings we expose, the words we use—kids pick up on these things immediately.

                Similarly, certain aspects of school are not going to change. There are going to be assessments and homework; there are going to be areas in which students shine and areas in which they struggle. As in anything else, for a young person to progress and thrive, he or she is going to have to work hard. A student should no be allowed to see that as optional. School is inherently going to bring with it a certain degree of stress. That can be okay. As Dr. Ohlenforst pointed out, the right level of stress actually serves as a motivator. The problems arise when the stress grows too great, even if it’s just a bit too much over a long period of time.

                Since Dr. Ohlenforst emphasized points about the language we use, I began thinking about one of the most popular words used to describe curricula: rigorous. It’s hard to argue against rigor; certainly we want students pushed and prodded. But let’s consider what that word really means: “rigidly severe or harsh…severely exact or accurate.” When applied to weather or climate, it means uncomfortably severe or harsh; extremely inclement.  The very Latin root of the word refers to “stiffness.” Think rigor mortis. I’m reminded of Dr. Ohlenforst telling us that too much stress beginning at a young age can actually cause someone’s full brain growth to be smaller.

We need to change just one letter for a better word to describe what we should want student experiences to be.

            Think about the meanings of vigorous: “full of or characterized by vigor… strong; active; robust…energetic; forceful…powerful in action or effect.” Vigorous plants and animals grow well. The root refers to energy and and has ties to thrive. Other words that come to mind are vibrant, vivacious, and invigorate. They all suggest life and joy. No undergrown brains there.[ii]

That little single-letter change holds massive implications. After all, other than our actions, language is our most powerful tool in educating our children. The conversations we have with them are crucial. Yet they often can prove troublesome in obvious and hidden ways. Richard Weissbourd explores this idea in his wonderful book The Parents We Mean to Be, and he provides many talking points and strategies for conversations with children, teachers, coaches, and other parents. I highly recommend it as a follow-up to Dr. Ohlenforst’s presentation. To Dr. Weissbourd, all of this is a moral calling, one operating in “the deepest forms of love” (Kindle edition, loc 3095). I find that truly invigorating.

[i] She also is a very talented artist. See
[ii] All dictionary information taken from

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