Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Last year I did the cyber PD on Patrick Allen's book on conferring. And loved it. I loved talking with people from all over the country about some really big ideas. Those people really pushed me as a thinker, teacher, and learner. Not sure, why, then, I hesitated about joining the conversation this year. Maybe because there are several other professional books I need to read. And I'm working on my Spanish. And it just felt like a lot. But then I read everyone's posts last week and couldn't stand not to participate. So I ran and bought the book. And thought I would do an extra post during the week to catch up, but somehow I didn't get it done. And now it's almost 9:00 on Wednesday night and I'm just finishing my post for this week.

I'm finding OPENING MINDS to be really, really rich. It's not long, and it's not hard reading, but the ideas are so big. And I can only digest little chunks at a time before I need to stop and reflect and take notes about how I want to use this information. And then I think I've got it, but every time I reread a chunk, I pick up something new. I'm having a hard time, then,  pulling together a coherent post. Tonight I'm thinking about Johnston's information in three different contexts.

First, I'm thinking about this as a teacher. I completed my dissertation, a study of how third graders use portfolios to develop a self-extending system in reading and writing seventeen years ago, and to some degree, I have spent the better part of the last two decades looking at how kids use language to guide their behavior. Some things Johnston talks about then, are not new to me. I never, for instance, say to kids, "I like the way…" I do sometimes say, "If you are not sure what a scholar looks like right now, you could look at ____ because she is (and then I name the behaviors). I'm actually wondering if Johnston would find that too teacher specific. I try to be really clear and specific in my feedback, "When you didn't know that word, I saw you cover the suffix with your thumb, and then go back and reread to see if it was making sense." Last school year, the power of the dynamic learning stance was brought home to me (for about the 700th time) when I taught my fourth graders long division. The day we started the unit, I told my students that we were going to learn one of what I thought might be the hardest math concept we were going to work on all year. I told them that we were going to persevere until everyone had it, and that no one could say, "I can't do this," but that they could say, "I can't do this yet." Amazingly, within about ten days, every single kid, no exceptions, had the hang of long division. The word yet was magical.

This year I am going back into the role of literacy coach. As I am reading OPENING MINDS, I'm continually thinking about how I can share Johnston's work with the teachers I will be coaching. I'd love to do a book study, but my district (like many others) is focusing pretty heavily on Common Core Standards this year; so I'm thinking that if we do a book study, it will probably have something to do with that. At the same time, I'm bound and determined to share this work with my teachers. I think it has huge implications for them in working with kids; but I also wonder whether OPENING MINDS might have has huge implications for me. I wonder, for instance, how I can help my young teachers to to develop procedural narratives about their teaching; and what kinds of questions I might ask to help them be reflective about what worked, and what strategies they used. I think of all of the teachers who have said to me, over the years, "I'm not good at teaching writing," and I wonder how I might help them move from that fixed world view to a more dynamic one, "I'm not good at teaching writing yet." I am also fascinated by Johnston's discussion of dialogic thinking. Most of us who have coached, or done professional development, or sat on school committees, can think of how different people's input affects conversations and/or group dynamics. And I wonder how, as a literacy coach, I can create discussion formats, (I'm thinking of some of the Critical Friends protocols), that really open up conversations, allow a variety of voices to be heard, and invite multiple perspectives.

I also have to admit to one bit of skepticism about Johnston's take on dialogic conversations and the construction of knowledge, especially when it comes to content area reading or professional development. While I truly believe that such conversations can aid in the construction of knowledge and yes, moral development, as Johnston suggests in Chapter 6, I also believe that there are times when people just flat out need a little information from a more knowledgeable source. I think about some graduate classes, where the professor let us construct everything. I loved working with other people in groups, but there were some times when I just wanted to hear what the professor had to say. She already had her masters, and her Ph.D. She clearly knew more than I did. I wanted to hear from her. Not a two hour lecture, but fifteen or twenty minutes that would push my thinking, or add to the material I was using to construct knowledge. I have felt similarly in some of the new teacher inservices I have attended or observed or facilitated. I don't think it's entirely helpful for new teachers to talk JUST to each other about strategies when they really don't have that many strategies in their bag of tricks. Sometimes I think it's equally useful to introduce a new strategy, then let them reflect on how they might use it.

Finally, I'm thinking about Johnston's work from the parent perspective. I wonder how I might use some of this language with my own sons. My boys are not "school kind of kids," at least not yet anyway. I wonder how I can talk to them in ways that will promote a more positive and dynamic stance. How can I help my Son #2, who is brilliant, but hates school, to want to put forth the effort to graduate this year? And how I can help Son #1, living in an apartment and starting junior college, to develop procedural narratives that will help him be more successful in school, and more vocal about his needs as a learner.

OPENING MINDS is giving me lots to think about as a teacher, a literacy coach, and a parent.

Jill is hosting the conversation today at My Primary Passion. Be sure to stop by and see what others are thinking. 


Jill Fisch said...


I appreciated that you had one point of skepticism and shared it with us. I completely understand. There are times when you need to provide a little information to discuss or things can't or won't move forward.

Like you, I am thinking about the ideas in this book as a teacher and as a parent. I think that maybe using this language as a parent might be the toughest challenge.

Maria said...

It's interesting that you bring in the parent perspective. Our kids are similar in age, and I often wonder now that they are older how my new learning could have impacted them? But now I ponder if I can take my new understanding and have similar conversations with them. Thanks for opening this box for me.

Mary Lee said...


I, too, like that point of skepticism. In the midst of all the glowing posts, it is good to hear just a bit of push-back.

And I agree with you on the idea that dialogic conversations are enough in PD or content area learning. But I had an experience recently that helped me get past that piece with Johnston. I got a tiny little taste of what it would be like to be a literacy coach. I listened to a colleague complain about a certain instructional technique being mandated in her reading workshop. I knew I had some ideas about how to make it better, but instead of just telling them to her, I asked another question ("What's the hardest part for you, the time or the materials?") and listened to her answer. After she had focused her thinking beyond the rant, she was much more ready to hear (and probably use) my suggestions. So, yes, the dialogue moved her ahead as a reading teacher. But that dialogue needed three, not two elements: speaking, listening, yes, but also, as you remind us -- just a bit of telling.

Maybe this relates back to the Johnston quote about wanting to raise kids to be "lifelong TEACHERS." We have to make sure they understand that the dialogue, the talk, isn't just back and forth talk...we have to always make sure that teaching/learning are a part of the mix, too.

Karen said...

First of all, let me say how happy I am that you took the plunge and are adding your thinking to this conversation. Your thinking has always had the power to make me push my own thinking -- thanks for that.

Like you, I had also thought about starting a book discussion group on this topic, but also like you, our district is full of thinking ahead to Common Core, and bringing all the pieces online. But, I wonder, if in my building, there wouldn't be a small core of folks willing to think even more about Johnston's thinking. For me, learning has always been about the ripple effect, so even if the group starts small, maybe the conversation will continue to grow. Thanks for letting me think out loud here.
I am a little envious that you don't have to break the language habit of "I like how you..." This and using the word YET will be my main goals this year.

Katie Dicesare said...

I love to hear about how you are applying this as a parent. I can always relate to your stories and goals with your boys. I'm so glad you ran and bought the book!!

Unknown said...

It was interesting to read your reflection from three different perspectives. Your post gave me a lot to think about. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and joining the conversation.

Cathy said...

First of all, I'm so glad you took the time to join the conversation. You have left me with much to think about (and I always enjoy your voice in your writing).

Choice Words took me forever to read. It was hard. I had to read. Reread. Rethink. Revisit. Opening Minds has been easier to read, not because the content isn't as intense, but because I think Johnston has written this book so I can easily consider what the change in language is I need to make, why I need to make it, and what that might look like. His examples help me to envision the next steps --- and the language I need to put behind me.

You make a compelling point about dialogic classrooms and learning opportunities. I wonder though, would we learn more listening to "the expert" for 10-20 minutes or having them sit down beside us sharing in our discussion (symmetrical vs. asymmetrical). I really don't know. Just pondering. I have sat in classes that were as you described.

Johnston's work has always been an eye opener for me as a parent. I apparently have better language habits at school than at home. I'm finding home to be the perfect place to practice the changes I want to make in the new school year.

Congratulations on your new position as a literacy coach. I'll be looking forward to following your journey.


Unknown said...


As a new faculty member for pre-service teachers and graduate students, I struggled with how much to "influence" my students. I didn't want them to think that my way, or the stories of my experiences were the right way to do something. In my first year, I hesitated to tell any of my own professional stories and I think my teaching suffered because of this. I could tell because I got a lot of the same feedback that you mentioned. The students felt they were taking the class to learn from a more knowledgeable other, not just figure things out for themselves. Like Mary Lee mentioned, I have now learned to ask some questions and listen to see if the person needs some solid information, or if they need guidance to figure things out on their own. I also have gained confidence that my own experiences are valuable to share.

Thanks for your thoughtful reflection, Suzanne

Tony Keefer said...

Thanks for the honesty in countering the role of dialogic conversations in all situations. What I am trying to figure out is how can I "tell" when it is needed without shutting the door on dynamic learning. I love having my thinking pushed by people who have a higher degree of knowledge than I do, but I think I am in a place when that knowledge is pushed I look to more sources to confirm the new knowledge. I rarely take any one statement as the end all be all. My wondering is how do we encourage children to develop this type of stance.

I don't like hearing the phrase, "Because my teacher said so."


Laura Komos said...

It's great to have you joining in the conversation! Hearing your different perspectives was really interesting to me. Having those moments of skepticism also assist in pushing our thinking and making sure we are staying true to what we believe in. Thank you!

Unknown said...

Hi Carol,

I relate to your comment about needing a bit of information from a knowledgeable source. I am doing some graduate work, and most of the professors do not add their voices to our conversations. It's not that I am looking for a 'right' answer, but the thoughts and ideas of a more experienced or more specialized educator would be appreciated.

I also connect to your thoughts on using this language at home. My last born is heading out to college in September, but he is not convinced that it is the right thing to do. He intellectually understands that we all change as we learn, but in reality, he has himself in a fixed-performance frame. Will our shift in the way we use language with them impact them?

And I appreciate your comments about the impact individuals have on group conversation. My colleague and I are new coaches (two years) in a system that has never had coaching, and we are essentially training ourselves. We read a ton, take courses, and tap into our Provincial Ministry of Education's extensive resources and opportunities for PD. We bring all of that to the leadership table to share and to support the learning of the principals there. But, I was just told that some of them feel intimidated by our knowledge, and that they will remain silent rather than run the risk of appearing foolish. Needless to say this comes as a surprise to me, but clearly this will have to change. I wonder if shifting my language will help create an environment where everyone will want to be heard? Is that enough?

Carol, I would love to talk to you more about your role as a literacy coach, if you have the time.

Thanks for sharing your perspective!