Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

When words abound, and confuse


Recently I was asked to be a companion to a woman I’ll call Joan, who had a stroke in July, so her family could go canoeing while visiting Ely. She was about my age. The language-processing part of her brain had been affected, but she could get around physically just fine.

It turned out we had a lot in common: we had both taught first grade, enjoyed doing watercolor, drawing and pottery, and loved words in all their forms: reading, writing, speaking and thinking. After a lifetime of having words at her command, when she tried to express what was clear in her mind, they tumbled out in an unsorted pile of syllables and unrelated words. She was very aware her thoughts were not coming out correctly and was very frustrated by it. She used a small white board to write on, which sometimes allowed the chosen words or numerals to come out whole, but other times they drifted off in a scribble. Pronouns were quite consistently incorrect. When she referred to herself or to me, she used the third person “she,” never I, we, or they.

Subsequently, I heard an MPR program reporting on a particular mode of instruction referred to as the science of learning to read, which forms the basis of reading programs used in some Southern school districts; impressive improvement in reading skills was cited. Teachers (many who had never received instruction in how to teach reading) were being retrained with a combined approach using phonemes, phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, and spelling. I was stunned. I left teaching elementary school 40 years ago; although I loved working with the kids, I was burned out to a crackly crunch from the system. I gave 200 percent, aiming to be the best teacher I could, coordinating activities with my teammates in an open classroom “pod”, supervising a student teacher, serving on curriculum and faculty development committees as well as the negotiating team for the teachers’ association, doing what I thought was needed to change the status quo. I was passionate about instilling students with a love of learning and excellent reading skills, which serve as a critical underpinning for success in school and the lifelong enrichment possible through command of the written word. I was appalled by the lack of focus on reading instruction beyond the first and second grades and frustrated with the lockstep methods, among other concerns.

I resigned with a flaming statement of idealism and the fire of self-righteous perfectionism, saying, “I think we are striving for mediocrity, not excellence, and while change may come, it will come too slowly for me.” There’s a reason they call it “burnout.”

Now, decades later, they’re exclaiming the success of using basic key components of language to teach reading as if it’s a new discovery. How sadly correct I was, and how exasperated through these many years that public education keeps repeating the same cycles, trying “new” approaches, tossing out proven methods with the bathwater, seemingly at a loss to retain and accumulate knowledge and wisdom. Indeed, beyond that, even now, even with proven results, there is resistance from some teachers, according to this report, defending their belief in a “whole word” teaching method. One administrator said, “Is this my science or your science?” I wonder how he was taught and what his teachers and administrators believe in spite of evidence to the contrary.

And now I experienced the opposite end of the process, where words and learning fall apart into non-meaning, even for a language lover and educator. So, how was I to communicate with Joan? Her brain synapses were scrambling the meaning of words spoken to her, as well, so we took walks, played cards, drew pictures and pointed at things. I talked less, not more, since playing Twenty Questions to discern a scrap of meaning or explaining in various ways simply flooded her with more confusing input. Instead, I listened intently, using intuition and probable context to discern what she might mean. I noticed that there some nonsense syllables that seemed to have a consistent reference, so it was a bit like learning a new language. I found, when I relaxed and listened with my whole being, that we communicated fairly well.

I’ve had similar experiences of nonverbal understanding. I was once talking with an elderly Greek woman who spoke no English, so her words were Greek to me. (Sorry, I just had to say that.) She was showing me how to tat, a method of making fine lace, and somehow our murmurings in our own languages communicated beyond the task at hand. Another time, I was visiting some friends in a cabin on Lake Vermilion, and out came the cards and games. We decided to play Pictionary, and I was teamed up with Susie, a dear, quirky person who was a perfect blend of scientist and artist whom I had known for 30 years but hadn’t seen in a decade. Every single time it was our turn, one of us would draw a few squiggles and the other person would yell, “quicksand!” or “flamingo!” with no explanation for how we got there. We were amazed and our opponents were frustrated, but could see there was no way we could be cheating.

That kind of communication can often happen with long-term friends or partners who anticipate the other’s thoughts and actions and may even start sounding alike. But to experience that with a new acquaintance is quite refreshing and enlightening.

It caused me to reflect on many attempts to communicate with different people through my life, sometimes in writing, often using the spoken word, with individuals and groups, and often, with less-than-successful results. Sometimes it seems like we are speaking different languages, expecting the others to understand, and in a way, we are. Our vocabularies are absorbed and developed in the context of our family, culture, geographical setting, and educational experiences, salted with words or phrases we overuse or use incorrectly that may not communicate what we think they do, peppered with words that have loaded meanings for us, culturally or personally, that may trigger intense negative or positive feelings. They can be the landmines in a conversation, blowing it off track, leaving the participants stunned, unsure about what happened. One of the strangest experiences has occurred only with two or three people, when I feel we are 99 percent in agreement, but the conversation seems to have parallel paths that never intersect, suggesting disagreement and contention when there really is none there.

I do want to state clearly and LOUDLY that the full-bodied listening I’m referring to is not the same mode as those who use silence to hide, avoid confrontation, withhold feelings or information, or just aggravate their more verbal conversational partner because they know it drives them crazy. That’s fearful, passive-aggressive, obstructionist behavior, in my humble opinion. Full-bodied listening is the opposite, removing barriers to the other person and their thoughts, allowing the mind to open to possibilities that the spoken words, tone, inflection and the spaces in between may mean. Give it a try. You might just learn something.


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