Blog #5: Hello, My Name Is _____

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.

Blog #4: Attention Doesn’t Have to Dither (the Johnston Version of ADHD)

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.

Blog #3: Invisible Doesn’t Mean Weak

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?

Blog #2: Mini Bio

A Noisy Appreciation

Taylor Adams clearly has a passion for communication–of any variety.  The items that she pulled quickly from her brown paper bag basically screamed this fact.  Although the first item, a Donut House single serve coffee pack, didn’t immediately associate with such an observation, her explanation of why she chose it made it perfectly clear.  She couldn’t go through a day without it, according to Adams, otherwise she would never be able to focus on work or interact with friends.  “Although, I usually fill it up heavily with coffee creamer,” she noted.  “I can’t drink it too strong.”

This was, as I soon found out, a comical dichotomy to her intense, strong personality.  The next item she brought out was her phone, because of how much she communicates with the people in her life.  It was a gift from her dad, and she fiddled with it while we talked, pressing the buttons almost compulsively, instinctively, before sighing and setting it aside.  Bright pink earphones followed, the cords winding around her fingers as she grinned brightly.  Pink was her favorite color, and she cheerily informed me, “I listen to music a lot.  I constantly try to surround myself with it.  Or, with noise of any variety.  I love noise.”

After that was the camera, sleek and black, in wonderful condition.  She delicately held it while she talked about her love of taking pictures, despite the fact that she hated being the subject of them.  We laughed at our shared opinion on that and then she moved on to her final object.  A small quote, red letters on a creamy white scrap of paper, fluttered in her fingers.  As Taylor looked at it, her face softened, her thumb running over the words as if she could feel them pressing against her skin.

The bible quote was from Ephesians 3:20-21 – “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us,  to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”  She smiled as she recited it, stating it was one of her favorites.  As I thought about what the quote meant, I realized more why Taylor had a burning desire for noise and communication.  The Ephesians quote beautifully outlined how it was a way for her to strive to do better and better things, all the time.  Honestly, how could you not respect someone with those kinds of aspirations?  If noise is what Taylor Adams needs to continue her dreams, I’ll whip out my metaphorical pots and pans and bang around in her honor!