I miss you all so much. <3 Hope to see you guys again in my upcoming final year! (And Cynde, we WILL be hanging out soon. Seriously)
Until then, lovelies,
I can always tell when I call my mother whether or not she’s been crying. I hear it in her voice, in the way she up-speaks to try to sound ok, in the way she assures me everything is fine. But she doesn’t even have to say anything remotely concerning her feelings for me to pick up on it. Now, this is me and my mother over the phone. Imagine how we are in real life. It’s hard to get anything past each other. We read the other’s unspoken language very well.
Johnston’s last chapter in Choice Words talks a lot about how we communicate more with our nonverbal cues than with our language. He’s absolutely right, any communications expert can assure that. When we watch interactions and when we are a part of them, we are designed to pick up and understand the subtle ways in which the words are being spoken, the body language, and this shows us intention far more than words do. Johnston says, “Teaching, like parenting, is, for much of the day, automatic” (77). What Johnston is saying is that our mentality dictates our behaviors. It’s very easy to fall into a pattern during school, especially when your students are younger. They enjoy patterns too, and they pick up on them very fast, and Johnston stresses, “…the messages we convey about noticing, identity, agency, and epistemology have to be consistent conversational threads” (77). However, it is important to break out of that auto-teaching mode and really connect with your students. A student can tell when a teacher is really listening, and when the teacher is formulating the lesson they want to convey instead of listening.
As Johnston states, “We cannot effectively use a particular kind of language if the body and other crucial indicators give conflicting messages” (77). In other words, even though my mother tells me everything is ok and makes her voice sound upbeat, I can still tell she is upset. Whatever you are feeling or thinking will come out in some way, if not in your words. Children are vastly more attentive than we give them credit for. When teaching, we must remember to keep an open and present mind when we are interacting with our students–we must teach ourselves about our children, but we must write that mental label in pencil, because learning changes your students, and if you can’t erase your own assumptions they will never be given the opportunity to grow.
I’ve said it a few times before, so I’ll let Johnston say it this time, “The way we interact with children and arrange for them to interact shows them what kinds of people we think they are and gives them opportunities to practice being those kinds of people” (79). If a student is consistently treated as though he is a “bad kid”–i.e., given disapproving glances, being told what to do with lots of sighs and demands, given extra measures to ensure that he is truly paying attention and not joking around–then that kid will unwittingly act the role of the “bad kid” even if he inherently isn’t. The way you communicate with your students is a foundation for them to build from. A distrustful foundation makes for a distrustful student; a strong and reassuring foundation creates a strong student.
This isn’t to say that every student should receive praise or should never be given a punishment. It is important to set boundaries in your classroom, but what Johnston wants us to see is that the way you set up those boundaries is an underlying factor in the performance of the children. Johnston says, “Children who focus on getting praise or on not looking foolish have a much harder time becoming literate than children who focus on engagement in learning activities” (82). It’s tempting as a teacher to try to curb your students’ behaviors by reward and punishment. But this is an unwittingly sabotaging tactic for teachers because it creates standards in their students’ minds that focus on competition or status, instead of context and learning.
I wish I could come up with a few awesome examples of doing the latter rather than the former. To be honest, it’s easy to preach this stuff, and Johnston certainly backs up his claims in his book. However, I still believe that teaching is a constantly evolving career. I believe this because every student is unique and needs a separate, individual way of learning. Johnston definitely makes important points about the way our words and our demeanor as teachers affects our students. The way Johnston ends his chapter hints, to me at least, that he feels the same way. I appreciate his insight into what can make a better classroom environment, and I am glad that he acknowledges the need for change and assimilation in teaching, “Although the genuineness and consistency these teachers show in their interactions with students lies in these deeper beliefs, I think we can start to change our classroom interactions by changing our words and dragging some of our beliefs along with them. The language I have suggested throughout the book is likely to result in changes in other aspects of the classroom dynamic” (84).
Our words affect those around us. It’s a really simple concept. I think Johnston, throughout this book, adequately shows us that what we think is simple, however, turns out to have many different levels of complications. In other words? Teaching is hard, but we can do it. I’d like to say something powerful and moving for my last blog, and honestly I can only come up with one thing:
De do do do, de da da da. That’s all I want to say to you.
…and the bartender asks, “What’ll it be?” The group doesn’t say anything (cue the drum-kick).
I won’t mince words here: I really don’t like working in groups at school. I know that sounds very odd and anti-social, but let’s be honest with ourselves–does anyone REALLY like working in groups? We all remember what it was like in high school, when you were assigned to a group, and you were ready to divvy up the work and communicate, and half of your members either didn’t care or didn’t do their part, or never even showed up at all. Unfortunately, this type of assignment is still rampant in schools, and adequate policing of these group-communication-issues is still relatively low. I think the most I’ve ever heard in acknowledgment of this problem is a teacher going, “Now, if someone in your group isn’t doing their part, let me know.”
Well, it’s nice to know that we won’t be held accountable for another person’s lack of commitment, but that doesn’t solve the problem. It accommodates the problem. This is why I was a little skeptical when I read Johnston’s seventh chapter in Choice Words. However, upon reading, I realized that he notices just like me that schools need to help resolve group communication rather than just prepare for its failure.
Johnston tells us that group learning is actually critical for a student’s growth, saying, “Children must have the experience of such communities if they are to know what to aim for in constructing their own learning environments” (65). This statement makes sense to me. It’s not that I never understood why we were made to work in groups, it’s that it was never appropriately reinforced and so I knew nothing would come of it but frustration and resentment. Thankfully, Johnston wins me over by recognizing that we really don’t go about group work the right way: “Even when they work in groups, they rarely work as a group, sharing ideas and working toward a common goal” (65).
I believe that it is essential for students to learn at school the value and need for a safe, learning community as opposed to their own bubble of safety. Johnston is right, it is the teacher’s job to foster such interaction in his/her classroom, and to help the students along the path to conducting democratic, social learning groups. When we talk about conversing with the professional community during college years, the reference is to this very idea–that even though you have ideas and can adequately and soundly back them up, contributing to the world’s knowledge is a communal activity, and requires conversation and critical evaluation of your peers. Scientists accept this as fact in their formula of scientific inquiry. Why do we forget this when we are in the classroom?
One example that Johnston gives is is the “I wonder…” (68) example. I think this is a very important phrase that is underutilized in the classroom today. Johnston says that “wondering” encourages tentative inquiry without insistence, in essence bringing an idea into the light and allowing everyone to examine and poke at it, to see how it works or why it doesn’t. Johnston says, “For group discussions to take place, such lubricants, or “tentativeness markers” are necessary” (68). Necessary, indeed. If teachers don’t promote open conversation in the classroom, students won’t absorb the ability for use in later grades and in life problems.
I enjoy Johnston’s chapter and examples because he gives me hope for the teaching community that I may walk into when my career begins. As of now, I believe that teachers are only just realizing how much they’re lacking in the group participation portion of student assignments. Hopefully, as we in this class read Johnston’s book and other teachers perhaps read it too, we can all band together to encourage better communication in group activities and to heighten the productivity of such interactions for the students’ learning capabilities. Johnston tells us, “Normalizing the concept that there are multiple possibilities, and that alternative perspectives frequently help us arrive at a better, more nuanced understanding of the focus of our inquiry, or a more elegant solution to a problem, is a big deal” (70). Students, especially adolescents, need help from us in order to realize that other ideas and viewpoints are necessary to make democracy, and society in general, function in a positive way.
Johnston says, “Democratic living is about social problem-solving. Indeed, we can think of education in terms of efforts to increase learner’s’ problem-solving ability” (73). So often nowadays, teachers feel as if they must focus on what the standardized tests require or the district deems important knowledge, that they lose sight of the fact that memorization and learning are two different things. You know that really old, really cliched saying, “If you catch a man a fish, he eats for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime”?
If we hand the information to the students in nice, neat lists and ask them to regurgitate information, yes, they will pass the tests. If we teach the students how to figure things out for themselves through problem-solving and community conversation and engagement, they will not only pass tests but develop the ability to figure things out on their own, without lists or study-sheets or assignment guidelines. It’s a really simple concept, and yet we continue to try to make it as complicated as possible. I wonder…why is that?
I think the most annoying phrase I can pull out of my childhood is: “You don’t know everything, Samantha.” Yes, I can admit this (and I could back then too)–I don’t know everything. However, I knew growing up that there were a few things I DID know, and when I asserted my knowledge, I was normally met with the above answer. Granted, sometimes I would spout out my knowledge at the wrong times, say, when my mother and I were arguing or I was in trouble at school, but the point is I wasn’t always being a facetious child. A lot of the time, I was relating to what was being said to me in the only way I knew how; I was showing what I knew personally about the subject we were discussing. Johnston’s chapter in Choice Words definitely gave me a few flashbacks to my adolescence, in good and bad ways.
When Johnston mentions the IRE method in classrooms, a few of my old teachers admittedly come to mind. The intense Q&A was always off-putting to me, and to my friends. Johnston says about it, “This sequence is very controlling for a couple of reasons. First, the underlying premise is that the teacher already knows what needs to be known and therefore takes the role of judging the quality of the student’s response…” (54). I can’t express how accurately Johnston describes this scenario, as I’m sure anyone who went through elementary school can attest. In a sense, when we fire off those rounds of what I call “check up” questions (because all we’re doing is making sure they know what we taught them before so they can pass a test or some other form of assessment on it) we essentially are putting students in a Jeopardy contestant seat. Now if we think about this rationally, contestants for Jeopardy study and prepare for months, if not YEARS, to excel on that show. Why do we expect students, especially children, to behave in the same manner?
Some of the ways that Johnston says we can break out of IRE I agree with. There are a few that give me pause, however. Johnston’s phrase, “Would you agree with that?” (57) scares me a little. Just going off my own childhood, the word “agree” almost feels as if it carries negative connotation. I think it comes from calling the little fits children sometimes have with their parents “disagreements.” I get the idea Johnston is trying to convey, but I think a more appropriate way to get the same response would be to ask, “What do you guys think about that?” Thinking is always a good thing to promote in the classroom, and it opens the doorway for a child to disagree with the opinion already given, while taking away the gravity of the situation.
One phrase that I absolutely adore is Johnston’s, “Thanks for straightening me out” (57). I can’t deny that a part of me loves it due to a personal anecdote. In the first grade, I had a teacher that used to snack a lot during our class. This was the age I was beginning to learn the “dinner table etiquette,” and one day at the end of our class, as my teacher was talking, I realized she was chewing with her mouth open. I remember exactly what I was thinking, and it was no less innocent than this–I always got in trouble for chewing with my mouth open, and if my teacher didn’t know it was bad, how much trouble was she going to be in since she was an adult? So I raised my hand and informed her of her plight. My teacher’s response was to inform me that she was an adult and she could do what she wanted.
I’m sure you can see why, after that personal story, I love the idea of a teacher acknowledging that they have faults and can be wrong sometimes too. Johnston says, “The comment implies that a student has done what in most classes would be unthinkable: evaluated the teacher’s comments. This teacher’s response, however, tells the child that not only is it acceptable in this classroom, but that helping others correct misconceptions is something to be encouraged” (57). I think it is very important for students in the classroom to feel as if their opinions and observations matter. Yes, there needs to be some authority for the teacher to run the classroom, but I think students would be more open to learning if they realized it was a joint effort and not just a personal obstacle to overcome.
Johnston says, “…nobody has a corner on truth and that authority should always be questioned, checked, and warrants sought” (60). If I try and think about it, I’m sure I could come up with a great follow up comment for that. But really, how much more plainly, or truthfully, can someone really state it after that?
In terms of physicality, I’ve always been flexible. I’m a dancer. Granted, I’m not a die-hard dancer, but I’ve loved dancing since I can remember. In all my classes growing up, I easily did the stretches that others found difficult. My instructors told me I had perfect turn-out, a wonder among wonders in ballet. The thing is, I’d always been like that–I would watch TV growing up in odd positions (like with my feet behind my head or my knees flat on their sides behind me, or sitting in a bucket–don’t ask about that one). Without my instructors informing me of just how lucky I was, I would have never understood that my flexibility was something that translated into dancing. Reading Johnston’s fifth chapter made me think about this, and about how for children it’s not as easy to take the things they are inherently good at and apply them to foreign concepts.
Johnston says, “The stories they[the students] tell in these different life spaces are different–different genres, settings, characters, and goals. These are problems of transfer–the failure to generalize learning from one situation or problem to another” (43). In this quote, and this whole chapter, Johnston talks about a subject that I’ve always noticed and wondered about: there is a discrepancy with how children view their regular lives, and how they view life at school. Incorporating flexibility into a student’s life would definitely help them to merge the two environments, and I think Johnston gives us examples that really help with this. I particularly grasped the concept when he told the anecdote about the high school students and the shopkeepers performing the same math problems and how their approaches differed from each other. It’s important as a teacher to try to unify strategic thinking for your students, so they may take problem-solving techniques wherever they go in life.
The example that I thought best supported Johnston’s goal was the “That’s like…” (46) scenario. It makes sense to me that in order to support flexibility and growth in a student that you must verbally draw parallels between the things going on in other areas of their studies or lives. To apply the lessons to what the student is comfortable with and already has a small handle on is to further build a strategic weapon for them to wield whenever they come across challenging situations.
I was also very taken by Johnston’s suggestion of the “What if…” (47) tactic for teachers. Johnston says, “These hypotheticals can be used to explore worlds, behaviors, and choices without real consequence…it opens the imaginative possibility, and accomplishes the necessary instruction without risk” (48). I think this is a brilliant suggestion for teachers, because it allows them to teach without the consequence of putting down or admonishing a student for their wrong or weak choices. If I were to come across a student that I knew to be bright, and saw they were struggling with a certain area and failing despite their efforts, I would definitely use the “What if…” to free the student’s mind of his/her shortcomings and allow for them to take a step back and view the problem without fear or shame. A lot of pressure gets put on students’ shoulders, unintentionally for the most part, and when they feel as if they aren’t succeeding they can fall into that crack of “problem child” by adhering to the identity of a “dumb” kid. Johnston’s suggestion, to me, gives us a way to rescue that student.
This chapter from Johnston was very intriguing for me–the problem of encouraging flexibility is one that I’ve always thought was important. I was pleased that someone else shared the same point of view. Johnston says, “The more we help children build a sense of themselves as inquirers and problem-solvers, and the less they see boundaries between domains of inquiry, the more they are likely to transfer their learning into the world beyond school” (52). In other words, teachers need to help their students break down the walls between “real” life and “school” life, and support their excursions into the unknown with words that imply possibility and success. After all, if none of my instructors helped me see that my (physical) flexibility was an asset in dance, I probably would have considered myself a balance-less, graceless duck among the swan dancers. But by taking my inherent trait and translating it to the field I wanted to tackle, they helped me see that a ballerina comes in many shapes and sizes.
FYI, so do students.
I apologize for the horrible picture quality. I know I shared my collage today in class, so I’ll try to be as brief as possible and not repeat myself too much. In terms of my writing process, this collage is missing about everything else in the universe. I could take a picture of anything and put it on there, and I’m sure it’s crossed my mind at some point in life. My mind is constantly whirring. That’s probably why I get so many headaches.
The socks are an obsession of mine, and I’m not really sure why. I’ve always loved socks. And I love ones that are quirky, that have ridiculous designs and images on them. You would be amazed at how many socks I have. Trust me, I should stop here, because I could go on for days, but let’s just say that I love socks and I have absolutely no idea why except they make me exceptionally happy.
Growing up in Merced, I was subjected to a lot of farmland and country, especially living on the McKee side of town (native Merceders, you know what I mean). Also, my sister lived for most of my life on an orchard. I’ve always been fascinated with trees, with walking through forests and woods, the sunlight leaking through the leaves and the quiet snapping of nature, the rustling of wind. It’s always inspired my mind. I made up countless stories centered around forests growing up. My father and I even had a little game (an actual store bought one) that came with cassettes, and you were supposed to make the whole house a part of the enchanted forest, put signs up to signify which room was the river and which one was the dark forest, etc. Suffice to say I lived more in my fantasy life growing up than in reality.
I look back a lot now in this particular time of my writing life. Many years have gone by where I refused to remember a lot of things about my past, but now I’m constantly craning my neck around to view them again. The roots and the old time picture, the little old rusty clock, represents that aspect of my writing process. I used to hate the idea of memoir (probably cause I didn’t like to think of the past) but I find myself writing more and more about my early experiences. I look at my pictures a lot, especially the ones of me as a baby or toddler. I remember a lot more about my childhood than is normal, I think. Moments from when I was too young to really be able to remember. But there you go.
The smell of candles…well, just smells in general, have always influenced my life. I love good smells. A good smell can put me in a very happy mood instantaneously. Consequently, a horrible smell can easily destroy my whole day. My boyfriend has had to limit the amount of times I’m allowed in Bath and Body Works because the smells are like a drug to me–they call to me and pull me in. I could spend hours in that store, the different scents making me euphoric, a sure sign I’m an addict. This is another one of those facts about myself that I don’t know how to explain, I just know it’s very important to me. Smells can take me back. Tastes too.
The rest of the images I think I explained pretty thoroughly in class. I know this blog was supposed to be brief, so I bow down and beg for your mercy at making this so long. So there’s a few details about the images in my collage and what they mean to me.
So I’ve always thought this was a weird thing, but when I was growing up, all the female protagonists I read about in books looked, when I pictured them, like me. The supporting characters were other people I knew, but the main girl always resembled me in some fashion (usually with longer hair because I’ve always coveted long, gorgeous hair; also I was usually skinnier). I always thought that this was a product of my ridiculously active Pretend play. I constantly played Pretend as a child, and so I acted out the book in my imagination like I would a game of Pretend. Never would I have thought that putting myself in the active, agentive role in reading and learning was a positive thing if I hadn’t read Johnston’s fourth chapter in Choice Words.
Johnston talks about how encouraging students to think strategically and develop a sense of agency (or of confidence that their assertions will yield results from the environment) is a positive way to inspire learning. His writing really speaks to me–as I read the examples I thought of the situations I was put in during school, and wondered what other passions I would hold today if my agency and strategic thinking had been molded more in grade school. Johnston says, “Teachers’ conversations with children help the children build the bridges between actions and consequences that develop their sense of agency. They show children how, by acting strategically, they accomplish things, and at the same time, that they are the kind of person who accomplishes things” (30). I am lucky in the sense that I have always felt I am the kind of person who accomplishes things, most of the time despite what others were telling me. However, not all children inherently have such confidence.
I think Johnston makes a valid argument that if we help create scenarios that force the student to place his/herself in an active, agentive role, they will be able to achieve more goals and work even better in the future. Children naturally make themselves protagonists in their lives, but I think children often shove that universe away during school, as if school is the place where they, the hero, can’t win. This is a sad concept to me, but one I think Johnston addresses and resolves nicely. Johnston states that when teachers generate situations that promote strategic thinking in the student, and then force them to retell the experience of their assertions, “…they[the students] are in control of the problem-solving process and are asked to consciously recognize that control in an agentive narrative” (31). It is so critical that children feel some form of control when they are tackling problems in the classroom, and Johnston draws attention to just how critical.
What I found particularly insightful was Johnston’s exploration of “revealing” versus “telling.” Johnston says, “I suspect that revealing is more difficult than telling because it requires taking into account the child’s current understanding” (32). In other words, teachers revert to telling a student information when their expectations of the child’s understanding doesn’t match up with what they actually know. This type of situation is rampant in schools, or at least they were when I was there, and it saddens me. I think now of all the opportunities that my teachers had to really make a difference for their “problem” students, and how those opportunities were squandered because the teacher took the easy way out by telling them what to do. Obviously, there needs to be some form of telling in the classroom in order for authority and stability to function, but overall the learning process is just that–a process. A process is something that moves between two separate objects. A process is active, not verbal.
Johnston tells us, “…human beings are natural storytellers” (30). I couldn’t agree more. I think that it is this human trait that allows us to take in the world, to shape it into something understandable. Storytelling, even in a classroom setting, helps us make sense of our thoughts and the thoughts of others. And in the end, isn’t that what learning is all about? Teaching us to be able to interact with our environments, to meet problems and solve them, to mold us into productive and accomplished individuals.
I have always drawn my identity from reading and writing. That and Disney movies. Reading has always given me a feeling of belonging, of peace and safety in the knowledge of who I am and how I relate to the world. When Johnston talks about how, “Children in our classrooms are becoming literate. They are not simply learning the skills of literacy. They are developing personal and social identities–uniquenesses and affiliations that define the people they see themselves becoming” (22), I completely understand. As children growing up in school, we get a lot of information thrown at us, and a lot of the time we are going through severe social and emotional changes as well, things like puberty or separation anxiety for younger children. When teachers lift that gate between school and the real world, like Johnston suggests, it allows us to merge the two environments. Unifying our mindsets and ideas like this opens us up to learning, because we feel as if it is going with the flow of the other important things in our lives.
A passage that particularly connects with me is when Johnston talks about how characters behave in novels. He says, “This is not just what authors do, it is what people do to themselves. They narrate their lives, identifying themselves and the circumstances, acting and explaining events in ways they see as consistent with the person they take themselves to be” (23). As a writer, I fully understand how hard it is to construct a believable, alive character that develops and changes throughout the story. When Johnston put it in this context, it made me realize that as hard as it is for me writing a character’s identity, it is harder still for actual people to create their own identities. The impact of our words and actions as teachers shape how our students view themselves and react to their peers, their authority figures, and their surroundings.
Growing up, I remember being horribly confused about things like identity and personal growth. Obviously, children don’t abstractly think about these ideas, but we all go through them still. Events that negatively influence our identities in school can severely impact who we become as adults. One of the most powerful phrases I think Johnston suggests is, “That’s not like you” (24). I know that, when I was a kid, it was easier for me to shrug off a punishment when I was getting yelled at. All this did was rile anger inside me, and rebellion. But the minute I felt as if my parents or other family members were disappointed in me, or thinking that my actions were below who I was, my cheeks would flame up with shame. People unconsciously WILL live up to a reputation, good or bad, and I think this is Johnston’s point with this phrase. If you constantly are informed you’re a “bad” student, you’ll begin to act like one even more. What other identity is being offered to you? It makes sense that in order to create positive identities and a sense of belonging, you have to utilize the “that’s not like you” phrase instead of a simple reprimand or punishment.
As much as Pavlov was a genius for psychology, we have to remember that our student’s aren’t Pavlov’s dogs. There is passion and drive in all of us, and to manipulate powerful things like identity the wrong way can lead to self-doubt, discouragement, a disdain for learning, and a hardened heart when it comes to the world of reading and writing. After all, a student that feels unappreciated in a classroom, or feels a lack of expectations for their involvement, won’t see the point in asserting their opinions and ideas through writing. That situation is a true shame.
I have a friend who has a younger sibling, about ten-years-old or so, with ADHD. It’s exceptionally hard for this little girl’s brain to stop for any length of time, and focus on one activity. Even if she appears to be doing something continuously, she’s simultaneously talking about something else and thinking about ANOTHER thing separate from body and mouth. She even has trouble getting out her words, because there’s so many, she can’t finish. But I watch her with her family a lot, and I think another reason she feels so scattered and rushed about everything is that she doesn’t get the appropriate amount of encouragement and attention, recognition of her observations and thoughts.
When I read Johnston’s second chapter in Choice Words I instantly thought of this little girl. Yes, she has an even harder time expressing herself than a normal child, but I don’t think the rules that Johnston lays down should be any different for her. When he said, “With our assistance, children are expanding and learning to control their own attention, and the attention system is in many ways the “gatekeeper of knowledge acquisition” ” (12), I wanted to shake the book in glee. As teachers, we are supposed to further children’s knowledge, but also give them the tools they need to learn and behave themselves. We do that through our language, and it can have a very significant impact on how children view learning, the world around them, and their importance in it.
My friend’s sister constantly gets railroaded by “no”s. Everyone around her believes that the best way to handle her is to stop her in her tracks and force her on the path she needs to be following for the day. I always wonder why this seems like the best approach to them, because it clearly hasn’t worked yet. She continues to run off course, despite their limitations they try to put on her. Johnston’s text has confirmed in my mind the suspicion that I’ve had for a while now–that you have to help the children along through their own mind with encouragement, attention, and acclamation.
One of Johnston’s explanations of a key teacher phrase is, “The most important piece is to confirm what has been successful (so it will be repeated) and simultaneously assert the learner’s competence so she will have the confidence to consider new learning” (13). I think that this is something that little girl’s teachers and family members forget. When she brings them up a book and says, “I found this today, it’s really cool…” they instantly say back to her, “That’s great, but what are you supposed to be doing right now?” It always baffles me. They wonder why, when confronted with this statement, she merely continues on with her thought, and I think it’s simply because she’s trying to get her thoughts noticed and validated.
I worry that kids get labeled too much as “attention seeking” when they are trying to learn. I don’t think “attention seeking” is a bad thing, because kids need attention in order to figure things out. They aren’t adults yet, they need our help and encouragement to find out the things that we already know. Johnston draws attention (no pun intended) to directing the attention that children have in a way that affirms what they do right with the things that they do wrong, and so it helps them to hold the two side by side and try to fix their own problems. He says, “We can apply the same principle to a wide range of social and literate practices…I cannot overemphasize the importance of this discursive practice. Children with a solid sense of well-being are less likely to tell stories containing references to negative consequences or negative feelings” (14). I feel that Johnston is saying the more you positively embrace what a child is giving you, and then add on to it, rather than try and switch their direction, you achieve “attentional following” and therefore help them learn things easier.
Whenever I see my friend’s little sister I try as hard as I can to encourage what she is saying to me. Yes, that means that sometimes I stand for twenty minutes listening to a speech about how to bake clay figures so you can make your own toys, but it also means that she is gaining confidence in her own voice, how her own words are important. Children don’t think like adults do. We have to guide them to the information they need, and sometimes they are going to have to take a path a little less linear than we desire.
When reading the first chapter of Choice Words I was struck with how significant Johnston really makes language in shaping our lives and how we relate to each other. I’ve always believed this about words, but at the same time I never thought of just how much impact they can have. I guess in a glib way, I understand that words can “move mountains” or some other cliche, but Johnston helped me see the huge endeavors words take on, and how successful they can be.
One passage that I am particularly struck by is when he gives examples from the classrooms he observes, and he mentions, “I watched as a student, who had been classified as emotionally disturbed, was systematically made undisturbed” (3). This observation made me sit back and stare for a long time. I reflected on how wonderful it is that words and reading can help young people shape themselves and even love and understand themselves. I also worried about how many children suffer from classifications like Johnston describes, simply because they can’t read well and are subjected to a poor learning environment.
I relate to that passage because without reading I would have never considered becoming a writer, and writing gave me an outlet to express myself in a time where I felt like I had no one to talk to. Reading Johnston’s recollections about the classrooms, it is easy to see myself in a lot of the kids.
Another passage I am fond of is when Johnston states, “…if students need to know something, they shouldn’t be reduced to guessing by their teacher’s assumptions about what they “should” already know” (7). I relate this quote to the anecdote from Calkins’ textbook, where the instructor asks a question and then impatiently calls on students, pronouncing them wrong and growing frustrated with each “incorrect” answer. Sometimes I think that teachers get so overwhelmed by the curriculum schedule and the need to keep their job, that they forget what their job is really all about: teaching people, young or old. It saddens me that a lot of teachers rely on the Q&A, when there is an entirely different set of people in the world that can’t learn by repetition or memorization.
I hope that as a teacher I never forget that creating a safe, welcoming, and encouraging classroom is one of the easiest ways to help students and create scholars. I feel as if when teachers assume what students “should already know” they do themselves a disservice, and they stifle the curiosity that is so important for learning.
Finally, a quote that hits home with me is Johnston’s statement, “Speech is as much an action as hitting someone with a stick, or hugging them” (8). I think Johnston means that we forget how speech dictates (pardon the irony there) almost everything about our lives. It happens while we are unaware, going about existence, and speech is so ingrained in us that it becomes an unconsciously wielded weapon. If teachers forget just how powerful words are, they are essentially handing (or not handing) students with invisible weapons of mass destruction. We have a responsibility to respect words and how they affect us, how they allow us to understand our world and make meaning of our emotions.
I know that this is very hyperbolic, but I wonder if behind every terrorist is a lack of respect for just how powerful your words, and not your actions, can be. If all teachers, like the one that Johnston writes about in his first chapter, aspired to end murder with their lessons of words, would people be so hasty to eliminate humans instead of convincing humans to see their point of view?