The Power of Teacher Questions

I recently facilitated a PD on Questioning. While I met with my colleagues throughout the day, we shared the kinds of questions we are comfortable asking, wondered aloud how we could ask questions that would lead our students to deeper thinking, and brainstormed ways we could get kids to ask more of the questions posed into our classrooms but I think there was a vital question that I didn’t consider until after I left school that afternoon:What do the questions we pose in our classrooms reflect about our beliefs as teachers to our students?

Teacher questions show students what we deem important.

All teachers deeply believe that the content we teach – whether it be choir or American government – has the power to make our students better human beings. Our questions usually lead students to the specific aspects of our content we deem most important. As I sat in my last session of the day, I was excited to see a dear friend of mine, Michelle, come in. Michelle serves as Learning Specialist and co-teachers English 9 -12. She brought up a thoughtful perspective that I hadn’t considered before. As her 10th graders are reading Catcher in the Rye, she shared that she wanted to ask students if they thought Holden was right or wrong in his behavior but she shared with our PD group that she was apprehensive as she didn’t want her questions to give her bias toward his behavior away. She wanted to take the morality and judgment out of the question so her students could authentically share with her what they were thinking rather than what she wanted to hear.

As an English teacher, this really jarred me. I ask questions all the time about characters’ behavior in books that I have strong opinions about and I know that my questions and the way that I ask those questions have unintentionally shared my beliefs. If I really want to know what my students think, like Michelle does, then I need to make sure my questions aren’t giving my thoughts away and allow for students to come to their own conclusions about my content.

Teacher questions show students what we think they are capable of.

While observing in my friend Brian’s American History classroom, I watched students’ participate in a simulation to learn more about capitalism and communism. When I walked in, each student had two Herhsey’s kisses at their desk. The simulation consisted of students finding a partner and playing Rock, Paper, Scissors – best two out of three. The winner took all four kisses and left the ‘loser’ with nothing. Some kids were understandably upset and others were basking in the glory of their recent victory. Brian followed up the initial round of the simulation with the following questions:

  • What were you feeling?
  • Is this fair?
  • Was this distribution of wealth fair?
  • Why or why not?
  • What do we learn about how capitalism works because of this competition?

This series of questioning met students where they were because Brian knew that some kids really felt that justice had been denied in their classroom that day. But the series went on to probe students to think deeply about what they had just experienced and ultimately the series ended with Brian tying his fun simulation to the content that he wanted students to comprehend.  It also pushed the students to come to conclusions on their own.

During my recent PD, one of the most common sources of ‘teacher guilt’ came from teachers’ feeling that too often they give kids the answer because time is of the essence. Brian executed these questions in a way that communicated with his students that he believed they could get to the meat of the material on their own – with his masterful guidance of course. When we give the answers to kids, it communicates that we either don’t have the time it takes to wait for them to figure it out or it’s just easier if we give them the answers – either way, this isn’t the message we want to send to our students.

Teacher questions model for students how to ask good questions.

Michelle, who I mentioned earlier,  co-teaches 10th grade English with Breanna. Both are master teachers who ask thoughtful questions to students EVERY DAY! Michelle and Breanna have been intentionally planning mini-lessons to model how to ask good questions and questions that you care about. When I was visiting, their learning target was, “I can ask questions to help me dig into a new novel.” Michelle taught the mini-lesson while I was observing and she shared what she was contemplating about Catcher in the Rye. After modeling her questions, Michelle provided some sentence stems to get kids talking. Here is the conversation I listened to about Holden during class:

Student #1:My question is; Is he sarcastic? And then my answer is that he doesn’t care about anything or he is being a smart ass so he’s being sarcastic. I think that because of the way he acts in the book. Like he says someone asked him if he’s going out.

Student #2:  That’s not sarcastic. That’s being indecisive.

Student #1:Yeah it is. It says, he’s got about a 100 pages to read before Monday…and then I think he’s sarcastic because in chapter three he says…I’m trying to find it…(Student looks through book and annotations) Oh like saying “nobody won” in chapter three….

While I think student #1 is still trying to figure out why in fact Holden is sarcastic, these young men had a very thoughtful conversation about questions they deem important because Michelle and Breanna prioritized asking questions in class and modeling how to ask questions. Prioritizing questions that teacher and students truly care about lead to students being able to sustain a conversation based on textual evidence, which is the ultimate goal of most English teachers I talk to!

So here’s what I think about questions now…we need to plan for them. We can’t hope that a spontaneous question will come to us in the middle of teaching and we will pose it to our students and they will thoroughly engage with the material we so dearly love. We have to plan to ask questions that will simultaneously: allow all of our students to fearlessly share their answers, communicate that we know they are capable of finding the answers, and, ultimately, help them to ask their own questions. Here’s some food for thought from Warren Berger’s A More Beautiful Question as you think about incorporating questions into your next lesson plan:

“If you randomly try things in life, it can lead to haphazard results; but it you bring thought to trying new approaches or experiences – if you take time to consider why they might be worth trying, and what might be the best way to test them out, and then assess whether the trial was a success and worth following up on – it’s a more practical way to bring change into your life.”  (2014, Berger)

Teachers As Writers

After completing my work in Lit Lab with Cris and Sam, I began the 2015 -2016 school year dedicated to my professional commitment to stay up on current research in education. I was the last human on earth to find Twitter and podcasts but I quickly learned these were quick and easy opportunities for me to see into the minds of experts who I otherwise would have no access. Through Twitter feeds and podcasts, fellow teachers and instructional coaches have helped me to think deeply about my practices and my responsibility to participate in our profession, through thinking, through Tweeting, through talking, and through writing.

After Donalyn Miller posted a particularly thought provoking essay on Nerdy Book Club entitled “Getting on the Bus”, I was engrossed in the responses via Twitter. One response really struck me and it was from Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski at Two Writing Teachers. She asked several questions about teacher writers but here is one that pushed me to get online, buy a domain name, and start writing.

“Is the experience different for a student learning from a teacher who writes, as opposed to learning form a teacher who never writes? In what ways?”

The difference, for me, between students who learn to write from a teacher who writes versus a teacher who does not write is the teachers ability to review student writing with humility. When I began my work with Sam, she told me that before I could give my students an assignment, I needed to first do the assignment myself. I clung to every piece of advice Sam gave me so I quickly got to work. When the time came for kids to get to work in class, because I had done the assignment, I didn’t ever scoff at their struggle because it had also been my struggle. I never once thought, “When I was in high school, this would have been so easy” because I wasn’t relying on my memories from over a decade ago. I was recalling my experience writing a few weeks ago and I remembered how hard it was to get started, or to cut that sentence that I loved but knew it didn’t fit, or find the word that I was looking for that truly expressed what I was trying to say. I met kids where they were because it was where I had been. Too often I hear teachers recalling a time in their past when they too had to write and they received praise and accolades for said assignment. Although I believe many of my colleagues are great writers, I doubt that these assignments were completed without struggle. I think we forget the struggle when we aren’t inundated in the process and this disconnects us from our students.

In addition to approaching my students with humility, I am able to more intentionally plan for them. When I sit down to do the work, I see more clearly what students need from me to successfully complete the upcoming assignment – a lesson in transitions, in active voice, in using strong verbs, in playing with punctuation, in sentence structure.

Prior to being asked to do my own assignments – which has been a life changing professional practice – I thought I was able to help kids write because I was their English teacher, because I had written oh so many essays when I was their age, and when I was in college, and when I was in grad school, successfully. The thing is that isn’t the message I want my students to receive from me. I want my students to know that I am qualified to be their writing teacher and sit beside them while they transform their brilliant thinking into brilliant pieces of writing because I, too, write. Because the struggle is real for me; to get started, to maintain focus, to find what I care about, to find my voice.

So the continuing struggle for me is this: How do I continue writing beyond my own assignments? First, I can start listening for the questions posed of the educators around me; both in my building and in my online community andrespond to them. I can collect questions and determine which one I deem the juiciest and worthy of my time and I can craft responses. I don’t have to wait for someone to tell me, this is the question that needs answering, regardless of your interest in it. Second, I can start generating my own questions. Kelly Gallagher recently asked, via Twitter, “What percentage of student writing is dictated by teacher questions? What percentage of your students’ writing is self-generated?” At this point, almost 100% of my studens’ writing is dictated by my questions and that largely reflects my need to write to a prompt. Just like my students, I am a product of the education system and have rarely written to a question of my own asking. So now I need to look for questions, ask my own questions, figure out what I care about and get writing!