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?