A painting of a crowded room where a man reads the Bible to his audience.

Meaningful Language

Every morning, our school opens with prayers that include the line: “Teach us to behave sincerely and reasonably towards everyone, that we may bring embarrassment and sorrow to none.”

Every morning I think, “That’s so nice. We should do that!”… and then carry on with my day of embarrassing students and causing them all kinds of sorrow.

Just kidding.

Sort of.

This line stood out starkly to me last week in light of the discussions I’d been having that seemed to overlap in all of my classes—4th Grade English, 7th Grade Great Books, Shakespeare, and Theatre—discussions of understanding what people mean.

In 4th grade this looks like the mechanics of language—what words themselves are, how we categorize and organize and arrange them. They have learned a terribly catchy song about the 8 parts of speech and the 4 kinds of sentences, and I have heard it in my dreams for the last three weeks.

They practice vocabulary building, and learn how the parts of speech are associated with particular words, and that in turn dictates how we can use them in a sentence. They practice letter formation and spelling, the sounds that different sets of letters make, and what’s more—the logic behind all of this—the why of mechanics. The rules are strict: English words do not end with I, U, V, or J! And the consequences are dire: Larj errors ov spelling!

 But then we lay aside our workbooks and the building blocks of language and we begin to discuss stories—the things we build—and this is when it begins to come together. The symbols that mean sounds that make words that organize into sentences that arrange in paragraphs all get you here:

It all seemed too good to be true. Hither and thither through the meadows he rambled busily, along the hedgerows, across the copses, finding everywhere birds building, flowers budding, leaves thrusting – everything happy, and progressive, and occupied.

-Kenneth Graham, Wind in the Willows

In 7th grade this looks like investigation of how someone else uses language, and we try (hard!) to not impose our opinion on a text, but rather to really work at understanding what the author intended.

In Shakespeare class, we look at how the act of speaking can change meanings—how accents can highlight a joke or synonym that is lost simply in the reading. During theatre rehearsals, we work on communicating with spoken language, but also with our bodies, discovering how movements communicate silently where language can fall short.

But all of this work to understand and communicate usually results in the same thing: an extra kind of care in the way we speak to each other. Because if you’ve gone through all the effort of learning to read and write and speak and walk, then gosh you really just ought to be sincere and reasonable.

Mechanics correctly applied become beautiful, and well-written and ordered language gives dignity to even the meanest of phonemes. We strive to write well so that we can offer up the very best of what we have in our hearts. We desire this ability for our students so that they need never be embarrassed at their inability to communicate through writing, and so that they can be understood—so that they can say what they mean. And hopefully that ability will serve them well, encouraging them towards the pursuit of sincerity and reasonableness, so that when they speak or write, they offer dignity and joy to those around them.