The Power of Words

Danny Stock

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”

Try as we might to remain detached and secure in our self-esteem, words are powerful. They can destroy a business, mislead an entire movement, and wound people deeply. At the same time, they can also be a source of strength. In 3rd grade, teachers expanded a literacy unit on nouns and adjectives to help students explore the power of words and better express themselves in specific, meaningful ways. 

Below: To begin, students considered the phrase above and identified, on a spectrum, whether they agree or disagree. Third grade teacher, Foun Tang, debriefed the students on the activity and introduced the Power of Words project. Third grade teachers Todd Carter and Charles Edwards demonstrated a partner activity to get students thinking about multiple ways to answer the question: “Who are you?”

On round river stones, 3rd graders wrote words they felt described them well at this particular moment in time. Captured now in photographs, one can visit 3rd-grade classrooms to see student portraits with their chosen words encircling their heads: “quiet,” “goofball,” “gamer,” “brave,” “beautiful,” “basketball,” “Hispanic,” “helpful,” “wacky,” “wonderful,” and at least one hundred more.

The word stones helped the students answer questions like “What would you like classmates to know about you?”; “What words do you use to describe yourself and others?”; and “What kinds of words can we use to answer these questions?”

“I am ‘brave’ because I stand up for myself, and I stand up for my friends, too,” Luke said. “I’m funny and ‘wacky.’ [The word] ‘wonderful’ connects to all the other words in my stones. I can use these words to be powerful. I feel them with my whole heart.”

Westley said, “I picked ‘African American’ because I wanted people to know my culture. I love dancing to some of the afro beats, and I want people to know my tribe [mix of Akuapem, Ga, and Fanti], which is really interesting to me. [I also chose] ‘player’ because I am a team player, and I’m always passing the ball [for the] open shot.”

Edith, whose collection of words included “goofball,” said “I can be very silly. Sometimes I shout out ‘banana’ in a silly voice (but I wouldn’t do it at an inappropriate time). It makes me laugh when other people laugh. The sound of laughter makes me feel good.”

“I wanted people to know I’m Hispanic,” Diego said. “My dad was born in Venezuela, but his family is originally from Spain. I can speak Spanish and I’m proud of that.”

Jackson said, “I’m quiet sometimes in class (not all the time). ‘Quiet’ means being respectful of others and looking out for other people.” 

Inspired by artist Jessica Beels’s Weigh Your Words installation, which illustrated the power of a single word-pebble to outweigh a bucket of rocks on a lever scale, the 3rd grade Power of Words project emphasized the importance of choosing words precisely, particularly when telling your own story.  

Third grade teacher Foun Tang described the ways she sees the Power of Words project remaining relevant throughout the year. They plan to draw on it during literacy lessons—“What words would this story character choose for themselves?”—and in support of students’ social-emotional development.

“[The photos] provide segues for teachers to have conversations with students about how they perceive themselves that they may revisit midway through the year,” Foun said. “Students may ask themselves, ‘Which words no longer resonate for me and which do I want to add?’”

The Power of Words project is an elegant and explicit way to illustrate what ‘growth mindset’ means visually, especially with respect to some of the more aspirational adjectives students might choose for themselves. And, teachers have already seen the way it has deepened students’ cultural fluency, built respect for difference, and provided an important venue for learning empathy. 

Rather than leaving words to wound, the teachers have harnessed their power during what would otherwise have been a run-of-the-mill grammar lesson. Learning life skills and literacy at the same time—one could say they’ve killed two birds with one stone.