Blog #10: If Sting Can Understand the Concept, So Can We

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.

Blog #9: A Group of Isolationists Walk Into a Bar…

…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?