"For us, schooling is not just about developing individual children’s intellectual and social abilities. It’s also about expanding their moral development and building stronger communities."
Ten years ago, Peter Johnston and six colleagues embarked on a journey to discover how to design a classroom culture that thrives intellectually while being both socially and emotionally healthy. Engaging Literate Minds: Developing Children’s Social, Emotional, and Intellectual Lives is the culmination of their work and the stories of how their teaching has evolved by using Peter’s best-selling books Opening Minds and Choice Words.
The group collected their experiences and cast them into one voice to create this inspiring professional learning resource. Here is an excerpt from the book that gives readers a sense of the inspiration behind its creation and how it might encourage you and your colleagues to gather in a collective effort to make children’s (and your own) lives and futures brighter. Take a look!
This book began when our small group started working together to become better teachers—to help the children, each other, and ourselves. We were in our first, third, sixth, eighth, thirteenth, and twentieth years of teaching at the time, and each found we needed a supportive intellectual community. We felt then, as now, that there must be something more than the steady stream of skills and strategies dominating school curricula. We also felt that the social and emotional life of the classroom was just as important as the intellectual life. As our teaching has evolved, so have our expectations for what’s possible in our classrooms. We’ve come to believe that in intellectually healthy classrooms children should be: meaningfully engaged (not merely complying), inquiring/questioning, theorizing, seeking evidence, productively disagreeing, helping each other and seeking help when necessary, collaborating, and expecting and engaging different perspectives. We should not expect children to be held in place by intellectual hierarchies. These behaviors are possible only when the school curriculum is thoroughly permeable to children’s interests and proclivities.
We’ve also come to realize that an intellectually healthy classroom is impossible unless it is also socially and emotionally healthy. Consequently, we also expect to see and hear: positive relationships, positive social behavior, cooperation, empathic concern, emotional self-regulation, dialogic discussion of emotional and relational issues, a sense of gratitude, no social hierarchies, and happiness (yes, happiness).
This vision has come to guide our teaching decisions. When our classrooms reflect our vision, we help our students recognize what it feels like and how they contributed to it. But our classrooms are works in progress, so, when they don’t reflect our vision, as particularly at the beginning of the year they do not, we help the students recognize the problem and what it feels like, and we figure out how to solve it. We do not waiver from this vision because within classroom life children generate their sense of self, their value (and values), their sense of competence and belonging, their relationships with others, and their happiness and sense of well-being. In short, our classrooms are responsible for helping children develop their humanity. Our vision, and the joys that come with the journey, pull us forward—that and the other members of our intellectual community.
It was early spring in Merry Komar’s second- and third-grade multiage classroom. There was a busy hum of students making books and doing relevant research. Eliza, a third-grade girl working at a table alone (by choice), suddenly looked up and, with enthusiasm but apropos of nothing and to no one in particular, announced, “I love working with other people!” before returning immediately to her work (alone). What made her feel that, even when working alone, she was working with others?
Steve, working intently on the book he was making, also had a Cynthia Rylant book open. He enthusiastically explained the significance of the Rylant book: “Well, I’m working on my descriptive language, and she’s really good with descriptive language.” A question about his excellent illustrations produced an equally fervent response. Pointing to a classmate across the room, he exclaimed, “Thien taught me how to do that. I was doing stick figures!” In this brief conversation he has named a classmate and an adult author as active mentors, making no distinctions around age or physical presence. Neither Rylant nor her descriptive language had been a focus of Merry’s lessons.
Later, during share time, a quiet (indeed, historically seriously withdrawn) third grader, Aiyana, was on the author’s chair sharing her book on the death of her dog. Her book was dedicated to a classmate whose dog recently died. As Aiyana fielded questions, Merry observed, “We’ve talked about this sort of writing before. Does anyone remember what it’s called?”
A student responded, “Cathartic.”
Events like these are normal for this class and the others we will visit in this book. They are places where students are caring and intellectually engaged by themselves, collaboratively with peers, and with mentors whose presence in the classroom is only through their books. They are places in which students inspire and support each other, and laugh, while achieving beyond district benchmarks. In this book we explain why these events are important and how to make them normal.
This is also a book about what children learn beyond the curriculum in the process of acquiring academic knowledge—knowledge about themselves and others, and about the tools they will need for a fulfilling life. Their individual and collective engagement and their sense of relatedness and competence are all causal predictors not only of academic achievement but also of well-being.2 Similarly, though it is not in the required curriculum, the children’s incidental learning about cathartic writing that day in Merry’s class will help them better understand functions of writing more generally. At the same time, cathartic writing, provided it is not required, can be a powerful tool for gaining distance from emotionally difficult and traumatic events. It can be a tool for maintaining mental health that all of the students might find useful at some point in their lives.3 Its omission from the school curriculum should not stop us from capitalizing on such instructional opportunities. In other words, the book is also about how children’s lives and their individual and collective thinking can, and must, permeate the existing curriculum, so that, as Anne Haas Dyson reminds us, “the social and intellectual energy of our students can penetrate into the official classroom worlds.”4
A Literacy Learning Community
Amid the morning flurry of taking attendance, entering lunch count, sorting field trip slips and notes from home, figuring out who was staying after school for Brownies and who had to get picked up early for the dentist, Tara stepped back to observe her first- and second-grade class. Recognizing that to the casual observer it might look a little chaotic, she noted a small group of students lined up getting their morning snack, several students book shopping in the classroom library, and others chatting and working on morning work at their tables. She overheard Jacob excitedly proclaim to Jeremy that he had finished the fifth Pee Wee Scouts book and could now lend it to him to read so they could discuss it. She smiled as Sam discovered a new Henry and Mudge title in the classroom library and immediately brought it to Jeremy, the resident Henry and Mudge fanatic. She also heard Emma remind Lilly to ask if they could stay in for recess again to continue their research on why Alaska has twenty-four hours of darkness for part
of the year and twenty-four hours of daylight for part of the year.
Such requests to spend recess pursuing research and other forms of writing are not unusual. Indeed, Opal and Trinity asked if Tara could print out the dialogue she had transcribed during the class discussion of The Lotus Seed5 so they could reread it during recess and highlight key parts to see if they could draw any new conclusions. Armed with highlighters, sticky notes, and enthusiasm, they poured over the dialogue for more than one recess. Norah, a first grader, asked if she could stay in for recess to write a letter—a thank-you note to a second-grade boy for growing her thinking and helping her to come to new understanding during a conversation group the previous day.
This is a strong, connected learning community. The children are fully engaged; they have positive relationships, a sense that they are in control of their interesting lives, and a full, competent membership in a literate community. They are aware of each other’s projects and interests and contribute whenever possible. This book is about how to build such learning communities and why we must. Again, the children’s engagement, positive relationships, sense of agency, competence, and belonging are all causal predictors of academic achievement and well-being. Norah’s sense of gratitude is also a powerful predictor of personal well-being.6 That the children are aware they contribute to each other’s knowledge promotes positive social identities.7 In such a community, asking for help when you have reached the end of your expertise is considered normal and sensible, an important benefit for the students who in other classes would be considered less successful.8 Not only do children in these classrooms do well academically on formal and informal assessments, but teachers in subsequent years recognize that they stand out from their peers because of their maturity and social competence and their ability to think together and take different perspectives. Teachers report that these children often help their peers learn how to have productive problem-solving and knowledge-building conversations.9
Inquiry, Initiative, and Agency
That children must become lifelong learners is possibly the most agreed-upon goal of schooling. It requires that children become disposed toward curiosity and inquiry and that they take their inquiries seriously. A student in Merry’s second- and third-grade classroom giving a book talk on Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish noticed the publication date, 1963. Another student wondered whether Peggy Parish was still alive and offered to research that question on Parish’s website. They noted that the book’s copyright information had the year of her birth and that she was alive when it was published. Merry invited them to figure out how they might calculate her present age. A question arose as to which book was the last she authored. Two more students offered to research that.
This willingness to ask, and seek answers to, questions is not only fundamental to research, it is also necessary for citizenship. Failing to sustain it in school undermines the possibility of democracy. In this book we show how to help children become disposed to inquire, to research, and to act on their research.
Self-Regulation and Change
Good self-regulation is a characteristic of more successful students and adults.10 We are very conscious of our responsibility to develop our students’ self-regulation. Recently at afternoon meeting in Andrea’s first-grade class, Maddy made the following request: “Mrs. Hartwig, can we celebrate Emmie? She almost got really mad in music today because she lost a game. Instead of yelling at everyone and running away, she just sat down quietly. Right, Emmie?” Emmie nodded. She was working on appropriate reactions to problems, so this was something they talked about as a class. Emmie knew that she was not the only one who needed to manage her feelings and behaviors because the class had talked nonjudgmentally about these matters before. She had changed a lot. Her peers supported her in that change, learning about possibilities for their own change at the same time. Recognizing change reminds the children that change is possible. Recognizing the ways we have agency in that change undermines the disabling belief that differences in performance are markers of some permanent general (dis)ability.11
These public conversations make fruitful self-narratives and productive social and self-regulation strategies available to all. In this book, we explore the development of self-regulation and a sense of agency toward one’s own life narrative.
For a Better World
For us, schooling is not just about developing individual children’s intellectual and social abilities. It’s also about expanding their moral development and building stronger communities. One spring day, Martin, a second grader in Laurie’s first- and second-grade classroom approached her with a problem. He couldn’t understand why the kindergarten students could not sit with the other grade levels during lunch. He had pondered this situation for some time while he worked with his classmate Anna who had researched tigers and, through the book she was writing, was trying to convince her friends of tigers’ importance, the challenges they faced, and their need for protection.
Martin’s problem was the kindergartners’ segregation. He felt it served neither the kindergartners’ interests nor those of the older children. Indeed, he anticipated that in the coming year the first graders in his class would be classmates of some of these kindergartners. Familiar faces, he noted, are always welcome at the start of a new school year. Also, he argued, desegregating would open possibilities for everyone to make some new friends, even at this time of year. At present, he observed, they see each other on the bus and the playground but don’t really know each other.
Martin could see how the problem arose. Taking the perspective of the assistant principal and the kindergarten teachers, he imagined the kindergartners would need to sit together so that their teachers and other adults could help with everyday things that many had difficulty with: opening juice boxes, handling hot lunch trays, opening containers in lunch boxes, and their winter struggles with boots, snow pants, jackets, hats, and mittens. But he pointed out that it was now late spring and the kindergartners were different; they were much better at the things with which they had originally struggled. Although he had no younger sibling or friend in kindergarten, he felt that somebody should do something. He set about crafting a letter to the assistant principal, persuasively seeking a change in the social structure of the lunchroom.
It was a grand day for Martin when the assistant principal wrote back to him announcing that she had taken his perspective to heart, talked with the kindergarten teachers, and agreed that a change was in order. When the change took place, seeing kindergartners mixed in with the older students laughing and talking, Martin beamed. Laurie also beamed. This is exactly what she works for: children researching problems, understanding different perspectives, and working to make a difference. She wants her students to acquire literacy along with a caring, critically engaged understanding of life’s social, moral, and intellectual complexities, to take up different perspectives and have a sense of moral agency. In this book, we take these aspirations seriously because, in all our classrooms, in the process of becoming literate, children are developing as moral beings.12
Meet the authors
Peter H. Johnston
Peter H. Johnston grew up in New Zealand, taught elementary school, and came to the United States to do his PhD in educational psychology. He has published over eighty scholarly articles and a dozen books, some now in multiple languages. Recognition for his work includes the Albert Harris Award from the International Literacy Association for contributions to the understanding of reading disability, and the State University of New York Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Research. Most recently, the Literacy Research Association honored him with the P. David Pearson Scholarly Influence Award, citing his book Choice Words as having “demonstrably and positively influenced literacy teaching in classrooms and districts nationally,” and the Oscar Causey Award for outstanding contributions to reading research. He is a member of the Reading Hall of Fame. Peter’s research and writing spring from his fascination with, and admiration for, children’s learning and, no less, teachers’ teaching.
Without a doubt, Kathy Champeau loves being a teacher. Starting out forty years ago as a first-grade teacher, it was apparent that she had a lot to learn about helping her students become literate. This insatiable quest to learn drove her to become a Title I reading teacher, reading specialist, adjunct instructor at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and a past president of the Wisconsin State Reading Association, where she has been acknowledged for her contributions to literacy in the state. Kathy served on Governor Walker’s Read to Lead Task Force and is an Herb Kohl Teaching Fellow recipient. As a consultant learning alongside students, teachers, and literacy researchers, she is a strong advocate for teachers as thinking professionals and values how the research and practitioner worlds need to be inextricably connected in intellectually stimulating ways. She presents locally, nationally, and internationally on the lessons learned through this journey.
Andrea Hartwig earned her undergraduate teaching degree from St. Norbert College and her master’s degree in reading from Alverno College. She has spent ten years teaching first and second grade in southeastern Wisconsin. Andrea enjoys traveling; she lived with her family in Galway, Ireland, for a year when she was in elementary school and spent her preservice teaching period in Accra, Ghana. Andrea currently lives in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, with her husband, Brian, who is also an educator, and their two young daughters. In addition to spending time with her family and friends, Andrea enjoys reading, baking, and crafting.
Sarah Helmer earned her teaching degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has taught kindergarten and first- and second-grade multiage classes in southeastern Wisconsin. Although she has written many books in writers’ workshop, this is Sarah’s first time being published. Her passion for emergent literacy and what is possible for our youngest learners has truly been nurtured by her collaborative partnership with these teachers, whom she is proud to call her mentors, colleagues, and friends. She currently lives in New Berlin, Wisconsin, with her husband, Mitch, and two young children. Besides her family and teaching, Sarah also loves decorating cakes, drinking coffee, and shopping at Target.
Merry Komar was born and raised in Hawaii, which is where she began her teaching career and received her master’s degree. As a teacher there, she had extensive literacy training as a participant in the Kamehameha Elementary Education Program (KEEP) for at-risk students, which included strategies for effective language instruction with a focus on writing as well as classroom management and organization. She was selected to be part of the KEEP Demonstration Classroom Project, which required careful monitoring of instruction and student progress using portfolio assessments. She received commendation for the success of her students, her innovation, and her reflective practices.
She taught in Hawaii for five years before they moved to Wisconsin. She has taught in Wisconsin for two decades plus, and it is where she and her husband, Vince, raised their two children. She and her husband are now happily empty nesters and are enjoying this new season in their lives. She currently teaches third grade in Wisconsin.
Tara Krueger always knew she wanted to be a teacher. Her teaching journey began at the University of Minnesota where she received a Master of Education degree. She began her teaching career as a Title I reading and math interventionist at a K–8 school in Milwaukee. Working with mostly English language learners, Tara was able to utilize her Spanish skills to support student learning and continue to develop her passion for education. With a strong desire to be a classroom teacher, Tara continued her career as a multi-age first- and second-grade teacher in Muskego-Norway School district. That position led her to work closely with this wonderful team who enabled her to truly envision new possibilities for teaching and learning.
Tara currently serves a diverse student population as a reading teacher in the city of Denver. She leads the reading intervention program at her school as well as early literacy professional development for staff.
An avid equestrian, wife, and mother of two, Laurie McCarthy received her undergraduate early childhood degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and master’s degree in critical literacy from Carroll University. For the past fifteen years, she has worked as a multiage first- and second-grade teacher in the Muskego-Norway School District. In 2018, Laurie was recognized in her district receiving the Compass Award for her positive impact on students, staff, parents, and community; her commitment to continuous improvement; her leadership and service; as well as for being a champion for innovation, creativity, and best practices. Laurie and her family currently reside in Eagle, Wisconsin.
1. Clay, “Talking, Reading, and Writing,” 9.
2. Scoffham and Barnes, “Happiness Matters: Towards a Pedagogy of Happiness and Well-
Stiglbauer, Gnambs, Gamsjäger, and Batinic, “The Upward Spiral of Adolescents’ Positive
School Experiences and Happiness: Investigating Reciprocal Effects over Time,” 231–242.
3. Chang, Huang, and Lin, “The Psychological Displacement Paradigm in Diary-Writing
(PDPD) and Its Psychological Benefits,” 155–167.
But for complexities, see: Fivush et al., “Children’s Narratives and Well-Being,” 1414–1434.
4. Dyson, Negotiating a Permeable Curriculum: On Literacy, Diversity, and the Interplay of
Children’s and Teachers’ Worlds.
5. Garland and Kiuchi, The Lotus Seed.
6. Tian, Du, and Huebner, “The Effect of Gratitude on Elementary School Students’ Subjective
Well-Being in Schools: The Mediating Role of Prosocial Behavior,” 887–904.
Diebel et al., “Establishing the Effectiveness of a Gratitude Diary Intervention on Children’s
Sense of School Belonging,” 117–129.
Watkins et al., “Gratitude and Happiness: Development of a Measure of Gratitude, and
Relationships with Subjective Well-Being,” 431–451.
This is more often studied in adolescents where the effect is the same.
7. Cheng and Guo, “The Formation of Social Identity and Self-Identity Based on Knowledge
Contribution in Virtual Communities: An Inductive Route Model,” 229–241. Admittedly this is
with older subjects and in virtual communities, but . . .
8. Ryan and Gheen, “Why Do Some Students Avoid Asking for Help? An Examination of the
Interplay Among Students,” 528.
9. This is consistent with other research: Sun et al., “Emergent Leadership in Children’s
Cooperative Problem Solving Groups,” 212–235.
10. Duckworth and Seligman, “The Science and Practice of Self-Control,” 715–718.
11. For the most comprehensive and accessible review: Dweck, Self-Theories: Their Role in
Motivation, Personality, and Development.
12. Rattan and Dweck, “Who Confronts Prejudice? The Role of Implicit Theories in the
Motivation to Confront Prejudice,” 952–959.
Xin et al., “Children’s Moral Reasoning: Influence of Culture and Collaborative Discussion,”