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.