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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: Students Can ‘Own Their Learning Through Creating Questions’

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 28, 2017 19 min read
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(This is the last post in a five-part series. You can see Part One here; Part Two here; Part Three here and Part Four here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

How can teachers use questions most effectively in the classroom?

Part One‘s commentators were Jeri Asaro, Dan Rothstein, Diana Laufenberg, Rebecca Mieliwocki, Jenny Edwards, Scott Reed, Cara Jackson, and Ben Johnson. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Jeri and Dan on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Part Two‘s contributors were Sean Kelly, Sidney D’Mello, Shelly Lynn Counsell, Dr. Jennifer Davis Bowman, Rachael Williams, and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm.

In Part Three, Tan Huynh, Laura Robb, Judy Reinhartz, Ph.D, and Erik M. Francis shared their suggestions.

Part Four featured responses from Adeyemi Stembridge, PhD, Kara Pranikoff, Starr Sackstein, Jackie A. Walsh, Andrew Miller, and Brian D. Schultz.

This final post in the series includes answers from Shanna Peeples, Kathy T. Glass, Maria Walther, Sandi Novak, and Toby Karten.

Response From Shanna Peeples

Shanna Peeples, the 2015 National Teacher of the Year, taught secondary English in Amarillo, Texas for 15 years. Her book, Think Like Socrates: Invite Wonder, Curiosity, and Critical Thinking Into the Classroom, will be published by Corwin in 2018. She is a doctoral candidate in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University and may be reached at shanna_peeples@gse.harvard.edu:

During my second year of teaching, I came to believe that my middle school assigned the meanest 12-year-olds to my class. They hated me, each other, the school, and seemingly life itself.

Sandra Cisneros, in her brilliant short story “Eleven,” makes the case that we are all the ages we’ve ever been “like the rings inside a tree trunk” and when I counted back in my own rings, it helped me see that being 12 is hard.

To be 12, I remembered, is to stand across the gap between childhood and adolescence. Middle school is steeped in insecurities and worries. For many kids, it’s the first time they experience love, rejection or exclusion. This might be what they were feeling, I thought, and it might explain the meanness in my classes.

What, I wondered, would happen if I set up an anonymous system for them to share what was going on inside them? If they could just see how much everyone was struggling, I thought, maybe they would develop a bit of empathy for each other.

This tiny seed of an idea grew into 14 years of work in helping children—and adults—voice the questions they carry inside them but rarely ever talk about or discuss.

I’m not a philosophy teacher, nor am I trained as one, but I wondered if I could incorporate questions inspired by it. Questions, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, about life, the universe, and everything. What philosophy does best is invite inquiry, normalize the uneasy feelings of not knowing something, and encourage thinking and discussion.

To try it out, I handed out index cards to my classes and modeled some of my own deepest, unvoiced questions, thinking aloud about why good things happen to bad people and why people suffer.

Then, I invited my students to share their own questions by writing them—anonymously—as fast as they could think of them, onto the index cards. I asked them to fold the cards in half so no one could look over them, then hand them in. After the school cleared out for the day, I bent over the stack of cards and read:

* Why do people ignore the truth? Can peace really exist in this world? Why do people kill? Why do people have to die?

* What happens when we die?

* Will animals have rights like us?

* How come love never lasts? How come there is always pain in love?

* What am I supposed to feel? What am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to act?

Reading these questions, I felt my heart squeeze inside me, cracking the protective shell I’d kept around it. I wanted to find the authors and tell them: Me too! I wonder these same things. I wanted them to know that they were asking questions that lie at the heart of what it means to be human.

Just opening this small space to think validated them as not only thinkers and meaning-makers, but as humans with a soul. We accept that the drive for personal meaning and purpose is a fundamental drive for adults, but we don’t extend that to children.

Allowing students to own their learning through creating questions is the most fundamental change you can make in your teaching practice. When you step back and allow students to step forward with their own inquiry, it switches them into active participants.

More powerful than changing desks or airtime, encouraging students to co-create their own learning by generating authentic questions grant them the identity of questioners, of seekers, and of meaning-makers.

As teachers, we can leverage their questions into learning experiences that develop their vocabulary, their speaking and listening skills, their writing skills, their reading, and most importantly, their critical thinking.

The authenticity of your own questions are all you really need to get started in the process of changing the text of your classroom. And everything you need is already there inside you. When I ask teachers to share their authentic questions with me—anonymously—I see that they have longtime struggles with questions that can connect to their students’ concerns:

From Montana:

* Why is it so hard to forgive and move on?

* Why is it so hard to listen to other people?

* Why do people/corporations treat the planet in such a crappy way?

From Ohio:

* If I died tomorrow, would I regret how much work has ruled my life?

* Am I being a good person?

* I have deeply loved and valued many beautiful places of the world - will they survive?

* Why do random shootings of innocent people happen? Who is next?

* Why is there so much intolerance in the world?

From Texas:

* Why can’t we value people for who they are and not devalue them because of how they look or what they believe?

* What will the future be like?

* How will the present trauma of so many students affect the brains of future generations?

These are the grounds of our common humanity. What’s more amazing than the fact that we share these ideas around the world is that young children wonder the same things. If we step back and make a space for students to speak and really listen to them, they will show us what is in their hearts and minds.

Editor’s Note: You can download Shanna’s “Draft Protocols For Generating Students’ Authentic Questions.”

Response From Kathy T. Glass

Kathy T. Glass, a former teacher, is a national consultant for K-12 audiences and an author of several books related to curriculum and instruction. She is invested in increasing educators’ capacity to hone their craft so they translate what she teaches to effective classroom practice. Check out her website: www.kathyglassconsulting.com:

Questioning techniques, a hallmark of classrooms, represent rich opportunities to set the purpose for learning, facilitate discussion, and allow students to gain deeper meaning from text. Here are some ways teachers can use them within instruction.

Text-dependent Questions

Text-dependent questions are those that compel readers to use the text as the basis for responses. In doing so, it illuminates the reading and helps students grasp it more fully since they must use the text as evidence for responses. For example, when reading “To Build a Fire,” teachers might ask: What details does Jack London use to indicate a bitterly cold setting? Does London use limited or omniscient point of view? What evidence from the story supports your answer and why would he choose this perspective?

Questions that are not dependent on the text can allow students who are so inclined to invent any response and circumvent the text entirely, such as: What is it like to experience extreme cold? How do people prepare for such situations? What stories might have the title “To Build a Fire”?

When finding or crafting text-dependent questions, heed these tips:

- Questions or tasks should require students to read the text as the basis for a response.

- Students should cite specific and relevant evidence to support their responses.

- The first in a series of questions can be foundational and literal; others should build in complexity.

On Edmodo (www.edmodo.com), the Basal and Anthology Alignment Projects include a rich repository of text-dependent questions and tasks, plus accompanying lessons, for various texts that teachers can use for free.

Socratic Method

The Socratic method thrives on questioning. It is a vehicle for intellectual pursuit to examine and understand ideas, issues, values, and principles emanating from one or more source texts. For instance, students might read (1) two or more texts that represent different views on the same issue, (2) aligned views that can be expressed by different authors, (3) thematically linked subject matter featured in different genres or formats (e.g., a nonfiction article and a poem; a graphic novel and a biography), or (4) two films that are adaptations of the same novel.

Socratic circles involve an inner and outer circle; those in the inner circle participate in discussion while the outer circle members observe and coach. Midway through the activity, participants switch roles. To present expectations of this approach, distribute the Socratic Discussion sheet to reveal what effective (and ineffective) participants do and to set goals. When providing concrete feedback to classmates when coaching them, consider the Peer Observation Form. Two video resources teachers can use professionally and to share with students are “Patience & Practice” and “The ‘N-Word’" from the Teaching Channel.

Guiding Questions

To design curriculum, a backward planning approach calls on teachers to begin with the end in mind by identifying learning outcomes prior to fashioning learning experiences. This process entails devising essential or enduring questions which provide the framework necessary to make meaning and connections for students. Each lesson teachers conduct, each activity students are asked to complete, and each assessment teachers devise all answer a guiding question so students know the purpose of their work.

Divide questions into two types: unit and lesson guiding questions. A series of scaffolded lesson guiding questions aid students in understanding the overarching unit guiding question. For example, a unit question—"How do authors develop characters?can frame lessons around these questions: What is characterization? What are methods of characterization? How does Lois Lowry use methods to develop these characters: the Giver, Gabe, and Jonas?” See Unit and Lesson Guiding Questions for a more comprehensive distinction between the two types of questions.

Teachers do not the corner the market on asking questions. As they use this strategy within instruction, they can show students how it deepens learning and devise lessons to teach the different levels of questioning. Then, invite students to generate their own to pose to peers and answer themselves for different purposes.

Response From Maria Walther

Maria Walther has taught first grade since 1986. Along with teaching young learners, Maria inspires other professionals by sharing her knowledge through customized professional development experiences, and as a co-author of Next Step Guided Reading Assessment and other professional books with Scholastic:

Cultivate a Question-Asking Community of Learners

The first step in creating a question-asking community is to shift the responsibility away from the teacher as “questioner” or “knowledge deliverer.” When we, as educators, model our own curiosity and ask process-oriented questions, we show students how to query and find the answers to their own questions. Along the way, we demonstrate knowledge-building by encouraging children to research and collaborate with their classmates and with the global community. For example, when students inquire, “Why? How? What does it mean? Why is that important? What comes next?” we respond with process-oriented questions like the following:

  • How could you go about answering that question?
  • What steps would you have to take to find the answer? What’s your plan?
  • Do you have any friends who have the same question? Can you work together to uncover the answers?
  • Who could you contact to help you answer those questions?
  • What resources will you need to help you in your quest?
  • How and when will you share your answers with the class?

Certainly, the inquiry experiences that stem from questioning require not only a shift in responsibility, but also an adjustment in the way we structure our day. This leads to the next facet of question-oriented instruction—time!

Allocate Time for Question-Answering Experiences

With instructional minutes at a premium, and with the goal of helping students attain true understanding, it makes sense to carve out some time in the day, week, or month for learners to actively pursue the answers to their questions. We know that engagement and interest stem from choice. When students are given time to inquire about topics of their own choosing, the momentum in your classroom increases because, as the late Donald Graves reminds us, “There is nothing quite like the energy of discovery.” Learning that is guided by student-posed questions engages children in active, inquiry-based experiences where they dig deep to look for familiar patterns, make connections, and figure out the best strategies to solve problems so that they can transfer their learning to new situations. When learners are able to apply and transfer knowledge, we can be confident that they’ve deepened their understanding. But, how will we know that for sure? Again, questions can guide us in effectively watching over our learners.

Use Questions to Drive Responsive, Learner-Focused Teaching

Questions are key to engaging in responsive, learner-focused teaching and useful assessment practices. So, in order to prepare to teach a child, we ask ourselves the following three big questions:

  • What do I want this learner to do independently?
  • What can the learner do right now?
  • How do I provide experiences that will help the learner bridge the gap?

Teaching and assessing with these questions in mind helps in determining what level of support to provide for each child, and when to encourage students to take their inquiry further. That decision is the key to responsive teaching. In my mind, unearthing the answers to questions is what teaching and learning are all about. I’m curious: how do questions help guide your instruction?

Response From Sandi Novak

Sandi Novak, an education consultant, has served as an assistant superintendent, principal, curriculum & professional development director, and teacher. She has authored three books: Deep Discourse: A Framework for Cultivating Student-Led Discussions (Solution Tree, 2016), Literacy Unleashed (ASCD, 2016), and Student-Led Discussions (ASCD, 2014). She also authored the On-line ASCD PD Course, Building a Schoolwide Independent Reading Culture:

Teachers shouldn’t bear all the burden of asking deep, thought-provoking questions. We can teach students to use questions strategically. They can:

  • Generate low-level questions for quick responses to gather surface-level data
  • Ask probing questions for non-evaluative purposes to stimulate deeper thinking
  • Use clarifying questions when further explanation is needed
  • Solicit answers to higher level questions to engage in deep, rich discourse

The Art of Good Questions

After observing students of all grade levels talk in small groups, I have noticed how difficult it is for them to ask thought-provoking questions. Yet, asking good questions is an essential skill that needs to be applied when engaging in deep, rich oral discourse. While students read, they should write questions to gain deeper understanding of content. When students wait to construct questions until after they read, their initial thought, reactions and wonderings often escape them.

Students can then bring questions they wrote while reading to their small groups because without this preparation, the type and level of questions are less rigorous than the ones they develop on the fly when they converse.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Allow students to work in small groups to practice the use of questioning strategies. Large group discussions will allow only a few students the opportunity to practice; whereas small group discussions allow all students the opportunity to ask questions. When setting students up for success, we want to be sure to show them the elements of which they will receive feedback as they apply the skills they learned through our explicit instruction. While observing students during their small group discussions, we should collect evidence to share with individuals or groups. For example, we may use a data collection tool as illustrated in the following table.

Teacher Versus Student Generated Questions

Teachers often feel they can provide support by generating questions for students to use while they are having a discussion. Yet, when it’s time for students to use a question, they either don’t or the conversation stops as the student searches for the correct question. Since they haven’t generated these questions on their own, they haven’t internalized them to apply them while engaging in a discussion. When students generate their own questions as they read and bring them to the table, the conversation becomes richer and more authentic. Students then bear some responsibility for generating the questions used in their classrooms.

Response From Toby Karten

Toby Karten, a staff developer, instructional coach, educational consultant, author, adjunct professor, and inclusion specialist, has taught populations of learners ranging from preschool to graduate level. Ms. Karten’s first publication, Inclusion Strategies That Work! Research-Based Methods for the Classroom, is an international best seller, now in its third edition. Her recent publications include Navigating the Core Curriculum, Building on the Strengths of Students With Special Needs, and Developing Effective Learners:

The best questions are the ones that engage students in higher level thinking skills that breathe beyond classroom walls. Questions are used to establish prior knowledge, gauge student learning, and spur on more inquiry. Questions that allow learners to inhale and exhale multiple representations and active learner engagements do not limit a student’s response to circling a letter on a written multiple-choice test or an iPad click. Teachers, who invite learners to think, realize that quality questions are the ones that lead to increased discussion, additional questions, and ultimately ongoing concept application.

These elementary, middle school, and high school questions on fractions, The Civil War, and a novel offer glimpses into how inquiry connects to curriculum topics and positive learner skills and traits. These models are not intended for one 40-minute classroom period, but are offered to invite ongoing critical thinking throughout a unit of study. Since diversity is today’s reality, the answers to these questions include visual, auditory, and kinesthetic tactile links, along with technology applications, and reflections for both students and teachers.

Elementary: 3rd Grade Class Math

Question: “Why are fractions our friends?”

Class Activities:

  1. Learners watch educational videos on fractions.
  2. Students identify what fraction of the class is wearing sneakers, has pets, likes grilled cheese, and goes to a gym or ballet class...with human representation as numerators over the denominator-the whole class.
  3. Learners bring in a favorite family recipe and double and halve the ingredients.
  4. Students cooperatively rotate to fraction learning stations to complete assignments.

Evidence of learning:

  1. Exit cards are completed at each fraction station.
  2. The learners divide into cooperative groups of four-five students and use vocabulary words in one of the following assessments—fraction skit with dialogue or pantomime, poem, song, fraction collage, Quizlet.

Resources to consult:

Brainpop Fractions

Illuminations Activity

Math Playground Fractions

Quizlet Fractions

Follow-Up: Learners interview school staff, students, and family to discover when, how, where, and why fractions are a part of their lives. The responses are compiled into digital book—Fractions: Our Friends with students as editors.

Middle School: 7th Grade Civil War Social Studies Lesson

Question: How has the American Civil War impacted the world today?

Class Activities:

  1. Students engage in learning with an animated Civil War map.
  2. Students take cloze notes as they view Civil War videos
  3. Learners engage in a kinesthetic debate on Civil War and today’s political events.

Evidence of Learning:

  1. Learners create an annotated timeline of Civil War events, from 1860-1865.
  2. Students design a comic strip storyboard with dialogue from perspectives of abolitionists, Union and Confederate soldiers, and African American slaves
  3. Learners cooperatively complete Civil War activities from a choice board that includes musical, verbal, written, and technology.

Resources to consult:

Civil War - Middle School

History Detectives - Civil War

Civil War Animated Map

Searching For Black Confederates

History Place - Civil War

History Channel - American Civil War

Follow-Up: Learners compare and contrast current political events to Civil War study-using newspapers and interviews.

Bottom line: Consummate learners always ask questions and creatively explore the answers; teachers’ effective use of questions catapults this process.

Thanks to Shanna, Kathy, Maria, Sandi, and Toby for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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