Words Matter

Words Matter

post by Shawna Coppola, 2019-2020 The Educator Collaborative Fellow

Words Matter

I come from a long line of word-loving nerds.

As a kid, I can recall my mother curling up with a dictionary in her living room recliner, meticulously scanning each page from top to bottom. As a teenager, I wanted to be Diane Court (Ione Skye) in Say Anything not merely because–like most 12-18 year-old romantics who came of age in the 90s–I longed for my own scruffy Lloyd Dobler, but also because I loved when Lloyd discovers that the cerebral and luminous Diane marks with an X every word she looks up in her giant dictionary. As an adult, I make a few bucks a year arranging words in sentences for other people to read.

Words matter, of course–as many have pointed out–in ways both large and small. In 1993, the year she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Toni Morrison reminded us that language, or “word-work,” is “sublime…because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference– the way in which we are like no other life.” Baltimore writer Amanda Montell, author of the hilarious and noteworthy bestseller Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language (HarperCollins, 2019), writes that “Words are something so many of us take for granted, which of course makes perfect sense.” However, she cautions with a wink, “every part of our speech–our words, our intonation, our sentence structures–[sends] invisible signals telling other people who we are.”

This past June, I was lucky enough to attend my second Opal School Summer Symposium at the World Forestry Center in Portland, Oregon, a three-day event that combines inquiry, facilitated sessions, materials exploration, and opportunities for dialogue for a variety of educators across the globe. While my first experience was spent affirming my philosophical beliefs around teaching and learning, during this most recent experience, I found myself focusing heavily on the language–specifically, the words–that the Opal School teachers used when sharing about their work. It was difficult not to, as every single Opal School educator used a particular set of words that reflected so much about how they saw themselves, their work, and the work of the children by whom they were surrounded. Three of these words stood out to me most: 


Big deal, right? Children. What I find so stunning, though, is how the teachers at the Opal School rarely (if ever) refer to their Pre-K through fifth grade learners as “students.” They are so much more than that–so much more than their learner selves. They are whole children. While many schools profess to value the “whole child” over (what? The partial child?), the educators at the Opal School live this, and it shows. Throughout my time at the symposium–and ever since–I have tried to make a habit of using children instead of students so that my language better aligns with my pedagogical philosophy.


It’s easy to visit a place like Opal School and walk away feeling as though everything, and everyone, works beautifully among and alongside each other, all the time. Not so, of course! The children and the teachers at Opal School experience challenges, just as in any learning (or human-occupied) environment. However, I was struck by the fact that instead of talking about conflict “management” or “resolution,” which sounds so corporate and sterile a process, the teachers often spoke of the work to “repair” those instances when conflict might lead to hurt feelings or broken trust. To me, “repair” feels like a much more gentle process, one that takes time and cannot be accomplished in one fell swoop using a standard protocol (like many of those one might find on Pinterest education boards–and to be honest, like one I helped develop at my own former school). I appreciate this distinction.


This word, which I heard over and over again as the teachers described the complex and challenging inquiry work that children regularly engaged in, felt so much more playful and positive than words like disagreement or confusion or complication. When exploring big questions about themselves and the world around them, children (and teachers!) are bound to find themselves up against roadblocks or obstacles that cause certain setbacks, whether they be cognitive, cultural, or relational. To describe such a circumstance by saying, “We found ourselves in a bit of a tangle” makes it seem okay–welcome, even–and playfully implies the collaboration necessary to return to an untangled state, where clarity is (perhaps) brought to light.

By highlighting these words, I don’t mean to suggest that they are inherently better than any of the alternatives I mentioned or that we should immediately begin changing our language to reflect that of what I experienced at the Opal School Summer Symposium. I simply wanted to share how beautifully they demonstrated who (and what) the educators at the Opal School are–

in a word, sublime.



Montell, Amanda. 2019. Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language. New York, NY: Harper Wave.

Morrison, Toni. 19 Aug 2019.  Nobel Lecture. Nobel Media AB 2019.  <https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1993/morrison/lecture/>