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Jefferson Elementary teachers meet with author and literacy expert

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MASSENA - One of the keys to reaching students in the classroom is to make the lessons meaningful to them, according to a SUNY Albany professor, author and literacy expert.

Peter H. Johnston met Friday with teachers at Jefferson Elementary School to talk about ways they could better immerse students in the classroom.

“When it means something to them, they’ll accomplish something,” he said.

Mr. Johnston, a Vincent O’Leary professor, is in the Reading Department at the SUNY Albany and has published 10 books and more than 80 articles.

In his current research, he investigates the consequences of teaching decisions, particularly language choices, for the kinds of literacy children acquire, how teachers and students build productive learning communities and the implications of focusing on engagement.

Among Mr. Johnston’s 10 published books is “Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives,” which a group of Jefferson’s teachers are reading as part of an after-school reading group. The book was provided to all of the school’s teachers.

It is designed to help teachers learn prompts they can take back to their classroom to use with students. In the book, he shows how the words teachers choose affect the worlds students inhabit in the classroom, and ultimately their futures.

He said one of the keys to getting students immersed in their learning is to make them talk about the subject.

“If you focus on complex texts, some kids will never get complex thinking,” Mr. Johnston said. “I think it’s really about getting kids to think in a complex way.”

For instance, he said, rather than focusing on the action in a book, teachers can focus their students’ attention on becoming the characters - to “get into their head.” The teacher can tell the students, “Show me with your face what this character is thinking” so they’ll know if the students are grasping the story correctly.

“It pays off,” Mr. Johnston said. “It’s not hard to get kids to do it. It’s really easy to get kids to do it and it changes everything. Once they get into the characters’ heads, they get engaged. Kids are actually becoming people. They’re living lives in your classroom.”

Students can also become engaged with non-fiction reading by identifying with the author. “It’s constantly keeping this as a people thing,” he said. “You’re not teaching math, but mathematicians. You’re not teaching science, but scientists. One of the things scientists have to do is clean up after themselves.”

Faith Bish, literacy specialist at Jefferson Elementary, said one of the methods she has used to be keep students engaged is “pair share,” giving groups of two students a subject to discuss and then report back on.

“It was so amazing to watch them go back and forth with each other. They were not wrong or right. They were able to justify their answer. The conversation they had, I didn’t have to do anything,” she said.

“They’re using strategies,” Mr. Johnston said. “Every time someone says, ‘No wait,’ they’re using a strategy. Then it shows up in their writing.”

Once students develop strategies in the classroom, those will carry over into their regular thinking, becoming a part of their habits, he suggested.

“If they really get the hang of doing it so it becomes something they know how to do, they’ll probably do it elsewhere. They develop a sense of doing it confidently and become engaged. Then school becomes an interesting place to be. They know what it means to know something well, and that’s their yardstick for doing other things,” he said.

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