To begin, possibly because I am a musician, I love the way Peter Johnston describes teaching and the choices we must make constantly (p. 4):
I'm back to thinking that every word I say (and even those I don't say) can have such a significant impact. While I'm grateful for the chance to make my words count, I do feel some pressure as a result.
Teaching requires constant improvisation. It is jazz. A child asks a question. Do we answer it? If so, how? How long do we wait before we answer it? If not, what do we say? A child successfully accomplishes something – or fails to. We have another opportunity to say something, but what? My intention with this book is to offer a basis for choosing more productive talk – how to make the most of those opportunities children offer us. Most important, I hope to show you that, given that we are playing improvisational jazz, it is important that we choose a productive key in which to improvise.
A lot of what Johnston writes about in Opening Minds (at least so far) seems to be influenced by Carol Dweck's book, Mindset. If you haven't read her book, it is well worth the time. The key quote for me here is from page 10:
The point being that when we tell kids how smart they are it also tells them, that at times when they do the opposite or different from what they are currently doing, they are dumb.
We might even point to the child’s successes as evidence that he is smart. But if successes can be indicators of smartness, then failures, errors, or struggles can be evidence of stupidness. Heaping such praise upon these students to build their self-esteem won’t solve the problem, it will only deepen it.
Reading this I wondered how our students view athletes at the Olympics. Do they think the athletes worked really hard to get there or do they think the athletes are just naturally talented? It would be an interesting conversation to have and, I think, a pretty good insight into some kids' thinking.
On page 21 Johnston writes about why these different mindsets (dynamic as he calls one vs. fixed) can impact how students view one another:
Suddenly, helping students have a dynamic or growth mindset can significantly impact the classroom community, the way students interact with one another, and the level of risks they are willing to take. If I can control all those things simply by being thoughtful about my language choices that is a small price to pay.
When faced with transgressions, people holding dynamic theories try to understand the thinking and the context of the transgression, to educate and forgive the transgressor. They think the misbehavior is more likely temporary and they are inclined to help make it so. In a classroom, this position leans toward a restorative justice stance – repairing an error rather than simply judging and punishing the perpetrator. This view is consistent with all error in the classroom. When a child makes a spelling error, the idea is to understand what went into the production of the error and to educate.
One of the ways Johnston suggests that we help students think dynamically rather than in fixed ways is when talking about characters in books. On page 29 he suggests looking at how characters change rather than fixed character traits:
As a family we are currently reading Peter and the Starcatchers. For the past few nights, since reading this, I have been pushing my girls to notice how different characters have changed and grown throughout the book. I don't know what that will really do for them longterm but it isn't costing me much and I'm fascinated by what we, all of us, are noticing as we do this.
If we are going to resist searching for fixed “character traits” in the classroom, we probably shouldn’t search for them in the literature the children encounter in school. Rather, in discussions of books we should cast characters not in terms of stable character traits, but in terms of internal states, feelings, intentions, contexts, and change.
A final thought is about what I keep seeing as one of, if not the, big ideas in both of Johnston's books, agency. He writes, on page 26:
Everything we do is, I would hope, geared toward helping students be independent thinkers and learners. We want them to do this all without us. Not only do they need the skills to do this, but they need the sense that they can and belief in their right to do so. In short, they need agency.
I chose the particular examples in this chapter to emphasize the fact that much of the feedback children experience comes from their peers. We have to remember that we are not just giving students feedback; we are also teaching them to provide it. In a way, we are teaching them to teach.