Turning Readers into Leaders
By Robert Schroeder
If children are expected to become the next leaders of our nation, asks Dr. Peter Johnston, then why do adults expect them to remain pliant and obedient?
That was the question Johnston posed at National Louis University Reading Leadership Institute's final meeting of the year Friday at the North Shore campus. With its year-long focus on vocabulary, the Institute brought in the renowned author of "Choice Words" to discuss literacy, learning, thinking and classroom communities.
Johnston, chair of the Reading Department at the State University of New York-Albany, discussed using language to develop group thinking skills, reduce power asymmetry between teacher and student, value differences and build comfort with uncertainty.
"Things happen in the classroom and kids don't know what they mean until you put a layer of language over the top of it," Johnston said.
The speech was a part of the Institute's tri-annual meeting, meant to assist in the development and support of networks of school-based leaders in reading and language education. Led by National Louis professors Drs. Donna Ogle and Camille Blachowicz, reading specialists from Chicago Public Schools, suburban districts and National Louis University's Striving Readers program and Reading Recovery Center gathered to analyze the latest trends in literacy education.
Johnston argued that:
-A singular focus on academics doesn't serve kids, teachers or society well;
-Teachers need to take seriously the fact that the adult is not the only teacher in the room;
-It is not enough to teach to individual minds; -Kids social imagination should be taken more seriously;
-Focusing on children's engagement changes everything;
-Making meaning is good, doing meaningful things is better.
This approach, Johnston says, is critical to break down self-imposed social frames prevalent in education. He pointed out that African-Americans asked to self-identify their race before taking a test score poorer than their counterparts not asked to self-identify; Asian women who self-identify as Asian score higher on math tests than Asian women who self-identify as women; and Asian women who self-identify as women score higher on language tests than Asian women who self-identify as Asian.
"Words evoke frames, so when we use a particular word, it opens a particular frame up," Johnston said.
Opening up learning frames helps children to expand their imaginations, a result with direct positive consequences. Johnston says that children with stronger social imaginations are able to understand larger social narratives, hold larger social networks, misbehave less at home and school and are viewed more positively by peers. Students with stronger imaginations are more likely to develop into engaged students, which leads to an increase in books read and a development of active reading strategies.
Rachel Haas (Master of Education, Curriculum and Instruction '96), said speakers like Johnston brought in by the Institute allow her to implement the latest research and thought leadership as a reading coordinator for District 21 in Wheeling, Ill. "It's a way of keeping my current, with big ideas that this group offers," Haas said. "It's also a nice way for me to interact with other colleagues that you don't get to see, and you get to see other perspectives of what's going on out in the city versus in the suburbs."
Bringing in experts like Johnston often leads to direct curriculum changes in Chicagoland schools.
"We've started using oral language as a foundation for writing, and the interaction between reading and writing to capitalize on the foundational skills of both," said Marge Harter (Master of Education, Curriculum and Instruction '90), a reading specialist at District 62 in Des Plaines, Ill. "It's been a phenomenal support; if you don't know at the moment, you know it maybe a week or the next week when you are in a moment with students that has been presented in a workshop like this."
For more information on the Reading Leadership Institute, visit the Institute's website.