Thursday, July 12, 2012

#CyberPD - Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives by Peter Johnston

Beginning this week and for the month of July, I'm participating in #CyberPD (online professional development). A group of educators, like me, will be reading Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives by Peter H. Johnston. We'll be writing reflections about the book on our blogs, commenting on the blogs of others who are participating, and using Twitter to continue the conversations. In this first session, I'll be reflecting on chapters 1-3.

Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives by Peter H. Johnston
I believe that Words Have Power. The words we use and the feedback we give our students can impact them either positively or negatively. According to Johnston, "The language we choose in our teaching changes the worlds children inhabit now and those they will build in the future." (p. 7)

Johnston talks about the meaning of errors. When we make a mistake it should be viewed as an opportunity to learn. I can't tell you how much this resonated with me, it's a belief that I have tried to instill in my students over the years. Teachers and other adults make mistakes too. As Johnston suggests, we want children to feel valued even when they make mistakes. Consequently, my students enjoy catching my mistakes and they are quick to point them out. Johnston confirms the importance of creating an environment where students are safe to make mistakes in order to risk participating in learning challenges. This book and it's big ideas are centered around productive talk and creating a culture of positive language.

Dynamic-Learning versus Fixed-Performance
  • In a dynamic view, the process (how things are done) is most important.  In the fixed view, the outcome (performance) is most important.
When students operate within a fixed theory, they view everything as being out of their control.  Students operating within a dynamic theory believe that things can change and improve.  As I was reading, I started to ask myself, "What is the best approach for changing a fixed view to a dynamic view?  I found the answer on page 18.
Johnston gives three major points of influence:
    The first point is what we choose to say when children are successful or unsuccessful at something--when we give children feedback or praise.
    The second point of influence is the way we frame activities. 
    A third point of influence is what we explicitly teach children about how people's brains and minds work.
Johnston gives a great example of the third point. "If children know that each time they learn something new, their brain literally grows new cells, they can apply that to their thinking about the stability of intelligence." (p. 18)  My students would be all over this statement. The idea of their brains growing new cells would be totally motivating to my first graders.

I love the idea of turning attention to change rather than stability.  The teacher reading the story, Martin's Big Words, was a perfect example of embracing change.  I can't count how many times my students have told me another teacher had already read the story I was about to read to them. While I think my responses to that statement has usually been appropriate (For example, when we read a story for the second time we often notice something new, something we didn't notice before.), I love they way Pegeen Jensen responded.  When she reminds her first graders they are not exactly the same people they were in kindergarten.  By sharing this moment, Johnston gives a wonderful example of weaving change and growth into our classroom conversations.

There are so many important ideas in the first three chapters of Opening Minds, I can hardly wait to share my reflections on chapters 4-6.

Quotes I Like:
    "Teaching is planned opportunism. We have an idea of what we want to teach children, and we plan ways to make that learning possible." p. 4
    "Our language choices have serious consequences for children's learning and for who they become as individuals and as a community." p. 7 
    "By affirming that someone is smart, we agree that smart-dumb is the way to think about people." p. 10 
    "Because we all make mistakes, even teachers and presidents, and it doesn't make us bad people. It makes us people who are trying--taking on challenges in order to learn." p. 31 
    "Indeed, school interventions based on the dynamic-learning framework can change the trajectory of children experiencing difficulty in school." p. 18 
    "Since learning is fundamentally social, basing a classroom on dynamic-learning principles offers a double boost to learning." p. 21 
    "Turning attention to change rather than stability makes a difference to all kinds of learning." p.26 
    "Process information removes the "genius" from performance and replaces it with both a dynamic-learning frame and the strategic knowledge of how the success was accomplished." p. 31
Words I want to think more about in the context of using language to change lives:
conversational current
re-voicing words


  1. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and reactions! What really struck me in your post was something that I thought about a lot while I was reading, too. The idea that when we learn new things, our brain literally grows. I know our first graders would just LOVE knowing that! I was also intrigued by your list of words. What a great idea!

    1. Laura,
      I'm so glad to be participating in #CyberPD. Opening Minds has been at the top of my book list since I became aware of it. I'm looking forward to having better conversations with my first graders this upcoming school year and applying a lot of the thinking and information in this book. I can't wait the share the brain information with them. I know they'll get a big kick out of it.

  2. Valerie,
    I'm so glad you have joined the conversation. I am enjoying going from blog to blog to read posts. I think I will want to go back and reread them as there is so much to think about.

    The way you focused on the key ideas of Johnston's book was very helpful. It helped me to clarify some of his thinking.

    Great "words to think about" addition.


    1. Cathy,
      I'm so excited to be a part of #CyberPD this year. When Laura mentioned it at #1stchat, I knew it was something I wanted to participate in.

      I love Johnston's work. I actually heard him speak a few years ago and I've followed his work ever since. I read Choice Words several years ago and I'm enjoying Opening Minds even more (if that's possible).

      Thanks for hosting part one and I'm looking forward to continuing the conversation.

  3. Valerie,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. One thing that you said that made me think was that teachers and adults make mistakes, too. I try to model how to handle mistakes when I make them in front of my class. However, I tend to be very hard on myself when I think I have made a mistake in planning, assessment or some other behind the scenes part of teaching. I need to remember that I am still learning and give myself permission to make those types of mistakes, too.

    1. Jill,
      I know what you mean about making those "behind the scenes" teaching mistakes. None of us want to make critical mistakes, but we ARE only human. A good rule of thumb for me is, if I learned something from the mistake, then it's okay that I made it. If I think about mistakes that way, it seems to take the pressure off. After all, we ARE still learning, aren't we?