In Choice Words, Peter Johnston (2004) discusses how “[language] creates realities and invites identities” (p. 9). In other words, the language we use communicates to others how we see them as individuals and as members of a larger community. In the classroom, language plays an integral role in shaping students’ identity, developing their sense of agency, positioning them in relationship to others, and creating a classroom community. I define identity, agency, positioning, and community as follows:
- Identity examines how and to what extent a person associates with the characteristics of a particular group. Ideas about identity center around the fundamental question of “Who am I?” and “Who are you?” When we claim an identity, we abide by the traits of that “type” of person.
- Agency entails taking charge of a situation and believing that you can affect change. It is knowing that you have a choice and that your choices have consequences. Agency is also realizing that risk-taking sometimes leads to failure, but that failure is a natural part of the learning process.
- Positioning considers the relationships between people and the inherent power associated within them. Positioning tends to create a binary in which one person or group has more authority than another.
- Community refers to the sense of belonging created by a group of people. The strength of a community can be judged by how its members function together as a society.
Identity, agency, positioning, and community are interconnected. For example, the concept of identity and positioning forces us to examine how we see ourselves and others, and how we perceive ourselves compared to others. Similarly, agency informs the extent to which we view ourselves as competent individuals and functioning members of a particular community. Johnston (2004) writes, “As individuals we can evolve only within the limits of our social environment” (p. 73). When we, as teachers, nurture a student’s sense of agency, we encourage them to assume a particular identity. Purposefully chosen language can help mold students into readers, writers, thinkers, and scholars. Language can position students as active, valued members of a literate learning community. Language can also do the opposite.
Cultivating agency is, I believe, one of the most critical components of ensuring a child’s success in school and, later, in society. I have witnessed the transformative power of agency at work in the classroom when a student who identifies as “a slow reader” or “a bad writer” is purposefully positioned in ways that allow him to bloom. And yet agency is a seed that does not germinate wholly on its own. The choice words we teachers use in conversations with students nurture their sense of agency by rooting their identities. Our words position students as colleagues and collaborators and create a community of learning. As an educator, I will use language to help grow my students into readers, writers, thinkers, and scholars who, in turn, believe language and literacy is their power.
Johnston, P. H. (2004). Choice words. How our language affects children’s learning. Stenhouse Publishers.