Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Building a Community of Learners: #cyberPD Part 3

"Intelligence, creativity, and caring are all properties of communities as much as of individuals, and teaching children with that in mind will result in individual achievement but also collaborative achievement and accompanying social and societal benefits."  Peter Johnston, Opening Minds (p. 123)
Today we will be discussing the final chapters of Peter Johnston's book, Opening Minds:  Using Language to Change Lives available from Stenhouse (at 20% off during Blogstitute event).

Today's #cyberPD conversation is hosted by Laura Komos at Our Camp Read-a-Lot.  If you are joining the conversation from your blog, you will want to leave your link there.

Important Event Links
  • Our Event Jog:  A collection of the posts from the entire event.  Just click on the table of contents on the left to move from page to page.  
  • #cyberPD wallwisher:  Stop by to leave important quotes, related links, or questions to ponder.  
  • Google.doc of Language:  Julie Balen began our Google.doc of language to consider for changing the lives of young learners.  Feel free to stop by to read, add, and share.  
Event Schedule
Building a Learning Community
For the last six years I have been back in a first grade classroom.  There are many things I enjoy about teaching a variety of age groups, but first graders are interesting in the amount of learning that happens in just one year.  In first grade, the amount of growth in learning is easily measured in student work.  You can see it in their writing.  You can hear it in their reading.  You understand it in their thinking and solving conversations.

Individual growth is easy to illustrate, but what about collaboration and social imagination?  One of the parts of my teaching I've been working on for the last few years is establishing stronger learning communities.  Our classroom structure allows for opportunities to own our learning.  It allows for collaboration, choice, goal setting, and time to learn among other things.  I've tried to spend more time talking about learning with peers, listening to one another, and thinking about what our friends say.

Reading "Opening Minds" has really helped me to think about ways to establish more of a community of learners where everyone has equal voice.  Johnston reminds us, "When each (my emphasis) person in the classroom community is viewed as able to contribute to the development of knowledge, there is not the typical hierarchy. (p. 102)"

How is this accomplished?  In our classroom we have learning conversations across our day.  When we are on the carpet together students have learning partners.  These partners share in thinking, learning, and collaborative talk.  Johnston reminds us that turning to talk isn't enough.  Students need to learn to value the thinking of their friends and build on the conversation to push the learning to a higher level.

Students often work together in pairs or small groups across our workshops.  At the end of each workshop, we gather to share our learning.  First graders love to share and tell what they've been doing, but helping them to value the thinking of their friends develops across the year.  Johnston says, "We develop a metalanguage for thinking about group processes and establishing their significance as something to attend to. (p. 107)"  In the typical busy academic day, it is sometimes hard to slow down for this important step.  I know I will need to take more time this year to have these conversations.

In what has become our world of testing, assessment, and data collection it is easy to forget the real goals of education.  I thank Johnston for reminding me of the bigger mission we must all accomplish - about the real significance of the work we do every day.  

Some Quotes
  • "Discipline that points out the consequence of prosocial behavior and attributes a motive of kindness and generosity is likely to be most effective.  (p. 88)"
  • "Conflicts are opportunities to examine our assumptions and values and they are exactly the places where students find morality most engaging.  Social problems offer concrete spaces for understanding different perspectives, understanding and managing emotions, learning strategies for negotiating social conflict, and asserting a commitment to fairness. (p. 91)"
  • "A group can have intelligence that can be more (or less) than the sum of its members' intelligence. Group intelligence is related to...the average social sensitivity of the group and how evenly the group distributes conversational turns. (p. 96)"
  • "Our ability to think alone is substantially dependent on our ability to think together. (p. 96)"
  • "Fostering more egalitarian relationships through collaborative talk emphasizes the class's work together and the value of each member of the classroom community in creating knowledge.  (p. 102)"
  • "Listening is the foundation of a conversation and it requires that we are open to the possibility of changing our thinking. (p. 102)"
  • "We expect to have more interesting and powerful conversations when people bring different perspectives and when they disagree.  (p. 103)"
  • "Each person's experience, what they notice, the logic they bring, and the assumptions they don't accept  enrich the conversation and, if we are trying to solve a problem, make a solution more likely. (p. 104)"
  • "We want our children to recognize when things are unfair and to act to make things right. (p. 116)"
  • "Children are more engaged when they have choice, a degree of autonomy, and when they see the activity as relevant.  (p. 118)"
Some Questions

  • How will I help shape a community that listens and values the thoughts of one another?
  • Is our classroom environment and community conducive to thinking and learning together?
  • Is there a hierarchy of learners in my classroom or does everyone have an equal voice?
  • Do our school teams value different perspectives, sensitivity to the thinking of others, and work toward distributing conversational turns equally?  Is everyone heard and valued?
  • What picture books might help to start conversations toward fairness and social justice?
  • Are students fully engaged in learning in our classroom? 
Language for the Classroom
  • "What's the problem?"
  • "How could you solve the problem?"
  • "You solved the problem.  You figured out what the problem was and you worked out a solution."
  • "Why do you think that?"
  • "Could you explain?"
  • "I agree, because..."
  • "I disagree, because..."
  • "Make sure each person has a chance to say something so that you're sure you don't miss different ways of thinking about it."


  1. Hi Cathy,
    When you mentioned, "In the typical busy academic day, it is sometimes hard to slow down for this important step. I know I will need to take more time this year to have these conversations", this reminded me of what I call "the forgotten huddle."(aka: Share time). The one thing I learned last year in our classroom was how important share time is on so many levels, but after reading Opening Minds, I am now thinking about how I can build conversations during share time that build off of each other's ideas and make sure that we are truly listening, not just hearing a report.

    Thank you again for organizing Cyber PD...highlight of my summer professional reading! :)

  2. Cathy,

    I loved how you organized your thinking into quotes, questions, and language. I agree a goal for me next year is to get my students to value the thinking of others. This social piece of learning is so important. I also want to make sure I have time built in for sharing. On days when we get busy, or more realistically when the teaching portion goes too long sharing part of the workshop is the first to go. Thanks for organizing and sharing your thoughts:)

  3. Cathy,

    I loved this point you made, "Johnston reminds us that turning to talk isn't enough. Students need to learn to value the thinking of their friends and build on the conversation to push the learning to a higher level." I think many believe that a collaborative classroom means that students are talking to one another. But, we really do have to teach our children to go beyond just the talking and really move into the sharing of perspectives and building on conversations. I equate this to pulling evidence from the text. We want our students to become critical thinkers who support their thoughts. This occurs in reading when we provide evidence from the text, as well as in conversation, when we build upon one another's thoughts (evidence). Just as we look to the authors of the books we read to provide evidence to support our thinking, we must teach our students that they provide evidence to one another to support their thinking in conversation.

    Thank you so much for nudging me to participate (you probably don't even know that you did! lol. This has been a wonderful learning experience!


  4. Kathy,
    I enjoyed reading your list of questions. They always give me more to think about. I really want to explore your fourth set of questions even more and pose them at our school team meetings, too. I think they deserve further exploration in our PLC's. Especially since almost have of our staff will be new to our building this year. (The result of lots of retirements last year.)

  5. Cathy,

    As I was reading your post, I noticed that you will be working on some of the same things that I will be this year, most importantly - how to really listen. Since I, personally, have to work on this goal sometimes, maybe I can watch my own thinking process to see how I can better help my crew. It will certainly be tough, though. I look forward to hearing how it is going in your room as the year progresses.


  6. Love the idea of "learning conversations across the day." What a good way to start early to build a learning communication with learning partners.

  7. Cathy,
    Great question: "Individual growth is easy to illustrate, but what about collaboration and social imagination?" Maybe sharing with parents about our intended goals will help them notice growth in these areas.

    On another note, as I was reading your blog I couldn't help but think about how behavior management can be a draining part of teaching for me. The quotes you selected hit me in an empowering way because I see how building agency (for learning and behavior self-regulation) is at the core of the educational experience more than an auxiliary part. Thanks for prompting that ah-ha.