A reflection on the book “Choice Words” by Peter Johnston and a commitment to move this work in my classroom forward this year.
Reflecting on the book “Choice Words”, there are powerful examples here about how to build a classroom culture that supports and nurtures learning, builds a culture of agency and makes a real community of learners happen.
One of my goals for this upcoming school year is to not just apply these ideas into my practice but to have my learners become fully aware of them as well – both to help me be more accountable in supporting and building a classroom of kindness, reflection and growth mindsets.
I am powerfully struck by the link between the goals of our program, the IB learner profile and the comprehensive tenants of the book.
One of ways that Johnston expresses this is by referring to the ideas in the book as an epistomology – Which I agree with. In a sense, how we interact and nurture conversation say a lot about our theory of knowing and learning.
As a science teacher, I think I do many of these things because of my philosophical (epistemological) underpinnings of being a constructivist. Questions liked “what would happen if?” And my favorite “why do you think/say that?” align well with my preferred ways to engage a class in discovery ad reflection.
What I feel I need to do more fully and work on are the aspects of building a community of respect and reflection in my learners. Let me give a few specific examples from the book. After some exploratory and explanatory chapters at the beginning, Johnston give specific types of situations in the language that can be engendered for deeper more reflective and powerful learning. These include chapter titles like “noticing and naming”, “identity”, “An Evolutionary Democratic Learning community”.
Most of the chapters start with an introduction to the idea, with some exploration of teacher exchanges, but then zero in on specific kinds of open-ended questions that engage students to think deeper about their learning.
So for example, in the chapter on evolutionary, democratic learning community, he includes examples like
“any complements?” – a means to create focus and listening strategies as well as building a culture of feedback
“are there any other ways to think about that? Any other opinions?” – He makes the point that research shows this is rarely done in classrooms, but the opportunity to create places where students see differing viewpoints is critical – Johnston mentions that research shows that disagreement in ideas is a more powerful and effective way to advance thinking that agreement.
In the chapter on identity, another beautiful quote is:
“what have you learned most recently as a reader?” – What a simple crafted idea that is wonderful because it honors students thinking, engages them to think about their own process in comprehension, and builds a sense that we are learning this together.
In the final chapter titled “who do you think you’re talking to?” He summarizes and dives into the application of these ideas and the outcomes from a culture of purposeful use of language. In doing that, he contrasts some case studies of teachers. He compares two – one whose name is Pam who was well-liked by her students, but does not engender this sense of agency with her students.
In one passage he states:
“It is fairly easy to hear the way Pam thinks of her students. They are people who cannot be trusted to read independently or make productive choices, children who are incapable of having a conversation.”
To move from a teacher-centric class to a community of learners, teachers need to change their beliefs on learners and learning. Johnston doesn’t come out and say or promise we can change this internal belief about learning by just changing our language. He does encourage the possibility that by starting to adopt the language we can start to evolve our beliefs about the transactional exchanges that happen and the value they can bring to improve classroom discourse.
In my role as an instructional coach I need to embrace and model this more fully. As a teacher/facilitator, I need to continually improve my craft and ask my learners and peers to help me be mindful of and shape my language.
The bottom line to me is the title of this post. If I want to get to better, deeper learning in my deeper learning class (MPX), I need to develop a culture that exemplifies the language of an effective community of practice. In order to get to that place I have to craft and shape all conversations and interactions in my room with a mindful approach towards the ideas of “Choice Words”.
My words WILL lead to development of a classroom culture that will ensure that everyone learns with respect and depth.
Addendum: After writing this blog post on the plane back to Honolulu from ISTE, I flipped through Johnson’s more recent follow up book “Opening Minds” and was struck by his close work with the research on mindsets by Carole Dweck amongst others. Not surprisingly, the work between language and student agency is powerful and very closely aligned. but that is another blog post for another day…