Friday, June 22, 2012

Book Review: Choice Words

In July, Cathy et al at Refine andReflect are hosting a #cyberPD summer reading discussion based on Peter Johnston's Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives. In preparation (and while waiting for Amazon to deliver Opening Minds), I decided to re-read Johnston's Choice Words. It is a good reminder about the power of teachers' words in designing the classroom environment and creating students' identities.

Johnston begins with quoting Vygotsky (1978), which I think is a very powerful thing to remember, "children grow into the intellectual life around them" (p. 88). What kind of intellectual life am I creating in my classroom? What am I modeling through my words and actions about how to access and create knowledge? These are some big questions to answers - and it goes beyond naming the content and materials of the course. The foundation of teaching is the relationship between teacher and student, and since speech is action (Austin, 1962) teachers have the daunting responsibility of "naming" students - who is a good reader or struggling student? I need to be aware of how my language positions students in my classroom and be intentional in creating positive identities and attuned to how my students are rejecting, accepting and modifying the identities available. Johnston then elaborates in each chapter the power of particular ways of using language in the classroom.

When people are apprentices to an activity, any activity, they have to learn the names of things/actions and the importance of these things/actions. Students in my classroom need to learn the language of classroom activities, ways of thinking and doing, I can't assume they know it. Once something is noticed (and named) it influences the continued perception of everything (ie. I can't "un-notice" something). In the classroom, I need to help my students develop the language and habit of noticing and naming their thinking and actions using phrases such as "Did you notice ... What kind of .... What process did you use to ..."

Teachers have great power (and with it comes great responsibility) in creating identities for children. Naming one child a great writing and another a struggling reader can have long-range consequences. "Building an identity means coming to see in ourselves the characteristics of particular categories (and roles) of people and developing a sense of what is feels like to be that sort of person and being in certain social spaces" (p. 23) Yes, children have agency to reject, modify or accept the identities available, but some do not know how to use their agency. "Teachers' conversation with children help the children build bridges between action and consequences that develop their sense of agency" (p. 30). Agency is easy to feel when there is direct cause/effect, but so much in learning is delayed. Writing a story often doesn't have an effect until it is read by another person, and even then the effect is subtle. I need to help my students create and tell stories (narratives) about themselves that include them having choices, control and positive outcomes. Phrases may include things like "How did you figure this out? What problems did you encounter? What are you going with this?"

In my research and literature review of discussion in the classroom, I have seen that it is still prevalent to have the traditional IRE pattern of discussion in the classroom, which Johnston confirms. The teacher Initiates with a known-answer question, the student Responds with an answer, and the teacher Evaluates the answer and moves on. Whoever poses the questions determines the topic of conversation, and most often, the questions are surface level or shallow. "Learning to act as a recipient of information and to display receipt of information ... [ is not the same as] building on ideas in a shared endeavor [ in which] participants' roles can vary widely, such as leading a shared inquiry, playing around with an idea together or closely following other people's lines of thought" (quoting Rogoff & Toma, 1997, p. 475). Knowledge building requires authentic questions, space for trying out ideas, and ways of connecting ideas together.

Often students are asked to work in groups, not as groups. As I begin designing lessons, one of my goals is to help students learn the skills of creating a community that supports each other and depends on each other, while bringing out the best qualities of each individual. “Democracy is neither a possession nor a guaranteed achievement. It is forever in the making; it might be thought of as a possibility—moral and imaginative possibility. For surely it has to do with the way person attend to one another, care for one another, and interact with one another. It has to do with choices and alternatives with the capacity to look at things as though they could be otherwise” (Maxine Greene, 1985, p. 3).

A teacher's conscious and unconscious expectations of the student in front of them is evident in the way the teacher speaks and treats the student, and students will internalize and act accordingly, either accepting or rebelling against the perceived identities. One question I need to ask myself, and help my students ask is "What image of humanity is inherent in it [this situation]" (Young, 1992).

“I've come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It's my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child's life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or de-humanized.” Dr. Haim Ginott

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