Envisioning Language: Naming Positive Identities

Photograph by Jeff Woodward.Learning and growth require hard work, and to do that hard work, students need to see themselves as capable people who can behave and achieve in ways beyond their current reality. Helping students form, own, and become excited about this kind of vision of themselves is a fundamental job of teachers, and a key tool for doing this job is envisioning language.

Strong envisioning statements are ones that engage students by speaking to issues they care about, with ideas and words that matter to them. In this post, we share one way to craft such statements: naming positive identities that help all students see (and become) their best selves.

Naming positive identities for students helps them see their potential as learners and motivates them to fulfill that potential. Suppose that on the first day of school, you tell your eager but somewhat anxious first graders, “I see that our classroom is full of good thinkers who are ready to learn. This year, I expect that all of you will find some schoolwork that you’ll be able to do easily and some that will require hard work. But we’re all good thinkers, so we’re all going to learn a lot!”

Naming the students as “good thinkers who are ready to learn” adds power to your vision because it gives students an important, enticing identity. “Yes,” they repeat in their heads. “We are good thinkers.” Thus primed, they are indeed ready to learn.

Here are some tips to help you name positive identities in a way that recognizes where students are and where, with their effort and your support, they can go.

Believe your own words

Naming students as good thinkers, or offering them any other positive identity, works only if your words are backed by deep conviction—if, in the preceding example, you truly believe that all children are good thinkers in different ways and begin school eager to succeed as learners.

For another example, suppose your sixth grade students have formed their project teams and are raring to go on their DNA extraction projects. “Teams that collaborate well,” you remind them, “will be able to make the most of our work time. Talk in your groups for a minute about what you’ll do to be effective collaborators.” You’ve set a clear and positive goal for the class by identifying them as potential “effective collaborators,” but they’ll want to live up to this positive image of themselves only if they sense that you truly believe they can.

Avoid naming negative identities

Sometimes, without thinking, we name a negative identity along with a positive one, like this: “I’m hoping for hard workers instead of lazy workers.” That statement could imply that we currently see students as lazy. And once students hear a negative identity, they may have a hard time imagining themselves with the positive one. Or they may become resentful and unwilling to work toward the positive vision.

A straightforward positive statement works much better: “I know that you can all work hard and learn a lot, and I’m here to help you do that.”

Be inclusive

Imagine a fifth grade teacher who shares a vision of gym class as “Boys and girls, skaters and jocks, all being friendly to each other.” The intention—to reassure students that everyone has an equal place in the school community—is positive, but the words reinforce the very divisions and stereotypes the teacher wants to overcome.

Far more effective is a simple sentence such as “In this class and in this school, everybody will feel welcomed and included by everybody else.”

Keep trying

Learning how to name positive identities for students takes time and practice. Be patient with yourself and persist, even when you make mistakes—just as you encourage students to do. You’ll soon find yourself using these envisioning statements fluently and frequently.

For more on envisioning statements and other kinds of positive teacher language, see The Power of Our Words: Teacher Language that Helps Children Learn.


Tags: Encouragement, Rewards

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