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Teaching Opinion

Response: Ways to Use Questions Effectively in the Classroom

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 18, 2017 29 min read
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(This is the first post in a five-part series)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

How can teachers use questions most effectively in the classroom?

Teachers ask students lots of questions. And, we encourage students to ask questions. However, I know - at least for me - that I can do much better at asking questions to maximize student learning and preparing students to do the same.

This series will be discussing suggestions on how teachers can accomplish that goal.

Today’s commentators are 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.

I’ve compiled an extensive collection of related resources at The Best Posts & Articles About Asking Good Questions.

Among those posts and articles are two that I have written about successful lessons that I do with my students to cultivate better questions:

The Question-Asking Exercises I Did With My Students Last Week (Hand-Outs Included)

Excellent (& I Mean EXCELLENT!) Post On Asking Questions

“Are Harder Questions Better Than Easy Questions?” -- A New Activity

Response From Jeri Asaro

Jeryl-Ann Asaro loves her job as an eighth-grade English teacher. As an educational writer for www.inspiringteachers.com, she specialized in offering guidelines to novice teachers. Jeri is also a contributor to the book, Classrooms that Spark and the NJASCED Report on Professional Communities (PLC) and Character Education. She has taught at four levels -- elementary, middle, high school, and post-graduate, but she has found that teaching adolescent-aged students is her true calling. Spending her days in her classroom with her 14-year olds is her favorite place to be -- crazy, but true:

The one thing we know for sure; the future is an unknown. Our students must prepare for this reality by cultivating their natural curiosity.

“It’s all about the WHY!” This chant fills my classroom. They’re expected to answer me by providing the WHY, but I also nurture an environment where students develop WHY questions for each other. Having the confidence to continuously question is a life skill that educators have to foster. Building an atmosphere where questions are encouraged is essential, but “building” is the key word. It’s a slow process.

Student trust is mandatory; student fear is preventable. Growing a classroom culture of acceptance is a necessity. Students don’t want to feel like amateurs in front of their peers. Increasing the next generation of problem solvers will advance our industrialized world, and that self-driven, inquiring mentality is how the future will be formed.

  • Use strategies like “wait time,” “think-pair/group-share,” and “one-minute journals.”

    Students THINK and WRITE their answers before sharing them. They will have more confidence and take better ownership of their ideas.

  • Scaffold your questions.

    Build the question level, from easy to difficult. Ask questions about their ideas; connect questions to experiences to encourage further discussion.

  • Your initial reactions to their responses can make all the difference.

    Be patient, polite, encouraging, and have a sense of humor, even when you receive an incorrect response. Question back to their responses, and they learn to provide the WHY!

  • Model HOW a proper question sounds/reads.

    Ask “open” questions which require individualized answers. Pose “divergent” questions which have multiple responses.

  • Use reflective procedures like exit cards, Survey Monkey, and Google.Forms to assess learning.

    Let students ask questions on these tools. The next day, use these reflections to create your anticipatory lesson. Students LOVE to see teachers using their questions (without names), especially if you explain to the class WHY the question was terrific. Gauging strengths, weaknesses, and understanding, prior to the next lesson, brings about corrective action before student embarrassment occurs.

  • Design a flipped classroom lesson.

    From your lesson, students create questions for class discussion. One idea: Play “Pass-it.” Their questions are written anonymously on index cards and passed quickly around the room. Call STOP. Randomly, choose students to read the question passed to them, and let the conversation begin. Facilitate the dialogue, while gently teaching the rules of discussion, but let students slowly take control. Sooner or later, they become experts at collaborative exchanges. Learn more about flipped learning here and here.

  • Use a Popcorn strategy.

    No hand-raising! Let them use the rules of discussion, and without your input, allow them to discuss and ask their own questions. Place a rubric on their desks to show expectations. Afterwards, have them “grade” themselves, offer future improvement ideas, and prove where they did their best questioning/discussing. Keep and distribute those reflections next time.

  • Provide students with advanced question stems.

    Have students collaboratively create questions for other groups using the stems but requiring that the higher-level stems be used. Switch questions among groups, and let the answering begin. Or, create a game from their questions/answers. Students love contests, and it’s this competitive spirit that promotes the best questions from students. Find question stems here and here.

  • Manage a blog.

    To alleviate embarrassing moments, have students use anonymous screen-names until the end of the assignment. Ask multiple, higher-level discussion questions about a reading/video. Let students CHOOSE which question(s) they feel they can answer best. But, have them also ask an intelligent question of their own. In the next round, require students to answer a peer’s question and include the WHY.

  • Complex, collaborative research is “real world.”

    Jigsaw, a cooperative learning technique, encourages questioning. Using graphic organizers, which require students to develop their own questions (along with guided questions, if needed), encourages students to work together to generate answers.

  • As your class becomes more comfortable, a Pinwheel Chat, a debate, and a Socratic Seminar are terrific student-led discussion/questioning ideas to use. They can be modified for the lower grades.

Many students fear answering/asking questions, but it is needed to become self-driven learners. As we encourage this type of learning, students will follow their curiosity until they find the creative answers to the burning questions of our unknown future. Albert Einstein said it best. “It’s not that I’m so smart. It is that I stay with the questions longer. The important thing is not to stop questioning.”

Response From Dan Rothstein

Dan Rothstein is Co-Director of The Right Question Institute. He is the co-author of Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions (Harvard Education Press) and the new ASCD book, Partnering with Parents to Ask the Right Questions:

What if we expanded the notion of teachers’ “use” of questions? What happens when teachers tap into, that is, “use” student questions as a way to advance teaching and learning goals and get students more engaged in the learning journey? How can teachers democratize access to the very powerful skill of question-asking they themselves have honed over years of experience? What if more students learned to ask their own questions? How would that enrich the classroom experience for both teachers and students?

Would this mean that a teacher would never ever again ask a question in the class? No! Of course not. Teachers will continue to ask questions for many reasons, but deliberately fostering students’ ability to ask their own questions and then finding ways to use students’ questions can become a core part of the teacher’s role in effectively guiding instruction. When students are involved in shaping the learning agenda through working with their own questions, many teachers observe them becoming more engaged and excited about learning than they had ever seen before. A struggling high school student in a Boston, MA high school, offered his explanation for this: “When you ask the question, you feel like it’s your job to get the answer.”

In the last few years, we have been impressed with the ingenuity and creativity of teachers around the country and beyond who are indeed using student questions by developing new applications of a simple protocol; the Question Formulation Technique (QFT). There are now more than a quarter of a million teachers using the QFT around the world to stimulate curiosity and foster student engagement and learning. Here are two examples of the creative “use” of student questions in the classroom:

In her fourth grade class in Manchester, New Hampshire’s largest city, Lucy Canotas was continuing a unit on fractions and presented her students with an image of a circle marked off into 8 parts, with five of the parts shaded differently. She placed it alongside of another visual showing 15 carrots inside of a rectangle and 9 carrots outside. Under the first image, she showed the numerical representation, the fraction 5/8 as well as the fraction, 15/24 under the second. f the circle’s fraction value. Instead of asking of her students “what do you see here?” Canotas presented the circle and fraction and led them through the Question Formulation Technique so that they asked their own questions about what they observed. Their questions probed the image; “why is the circle shaded?” which led to why are some parts shaded and other parts are not? In their questioning and attention to detail they were uncovering the secrets of fractions. They pushed further ahead with their questions, comparing the two pieces of data in front of them: “Are they equal?” and then, “how are they equal.”

Their questions not only informed their continuing learning and created a learning agenda, they also helped Canotas sharpen her teaching focus. She was able to use student questions as a kind of formative assessment. In a video with scenes heard questions that indicated they had missed some of the key points of previous lessons, but some also asked questions showing they were ready and eager to move ahead more quickly. You can see a video with scenes from this class.

About 50 miles away from Lucy Canotas’ class, in a school in a rural area in southwest New Hampshire, Joshua Beer “used” student questions in another ingenious way, for summative assessment purposes. In his eighth grade social studies class, the students were nearing the end of a unit on late 19th century U.S. history. He presented them with this statement: “Questions that someone knowledgeable about American imperialism at the turn of the 20th century should be able to answer.”

The students worked in small groups generating their own questions, working with them, improving them and then prioritizing their questions. Their questions reflected a range of perspectives, starting with a big question: How long have countries been practicing imperialism?” Then, they probed further, raising specific questions about topics and key figures studied in the unit, asking “What was Seward’s Folly? Why did Alfred Thayer Mahan have the stance that he did on imperialism? How was Alfred Thayer Mahan’s book influential towards imperialism?” Their questions ranged widely and deeply, including a fundamental question that impressed members of a think tank at the Naval War College: “Why did the U.S. need naval bases?” They asked many more, reflecting their deep knowledge acquired in the unit, including: What was the reason for America starting the Spanish American War? Why is it so important for America to have overseas bases? Why did the United States want to annex Hawaii?”

One student explained in a video the power of asking her own questions as a tool for learning: “You can ask one main question and then build questions off of that question, and it makes you think more. And, you have to pull stuff out of your brain, and when you do that you have to remember it again. And, the more you take it out and remember it again, the deeper it gets into your brain and the easier it is to remember it.”

This statement from a perspicacious 8th grader is worthy of study by neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists. It is a fine description of an often difficult to articulate deep learning experience. This is one of many insights reflected as well in the quality, breadth and depth of the students’ questions. As final proof, their teacher, Joshua Beer, used 9 of their questions for the 10 question final exam he gave to them. And, by so doing, offered his own evidence of one more great example of teachers’ creative use of student questioning; in this case, for summative assessment purposes.

Response From Diana Laufenberg

For 16 years, Diana Laufenberg taught 7-12 grade students Social Studies in Wisconsin, Kansas, Arizona and Pennsylvania. Most recently, Diana Laufenberg partnered with Chris Lehmann to start Inquiry Schools, a new non-profit working to create and support student centered learning environments that are inquiry driven, project based and utilize modern technology. She currently serves as the Executive Director and Lead Teacher for Inquiry Schools:

Questions are the window to so many aspects of a dynamic and thriving classroom. One of the most simple applications of effective questioning is related to the many small things that students bring to the adults in their lives. How do I do (fill in the blank)? Where does this go? What do I do next? My tactic was to try and never answer that with an answer, but rather counter with another question. What do you think might come next? How might you figure out how to do (fill in the blank)? and so on. While students didn’t love this at first, what I noticed is that they stopped bringing me those types of questions because now they knew how to work through that basic level of question more independently.

Questions can also be employed to increase student engagement. A sad reality is that far too many students spend their days at school acutely aware of how little their own questions and ideas will impact the day. Teachers are often ‘in charge’ of the minutes - how they are spent, studying specific content in a particular way. Questions can be one of the ways to invite students back into the conversation of their own education. By encouraging student questions and inquiry we can give students agency over what to study and how to evidence their learning. This requires the teacher and the student to take on different roles, often requiring a span of time to acclimate to the approach.

Questions can also be simple hooks to lessons - rather than ask students to answer comprehension questions - ask them to read for more questions. Then they can investigate further on the aspects of the reading that seemed engaging, curiosity inducing or interesting to them. During a bell ringer warm up - have them analyze a graphic or data visualization and come up with three questions along with three observations.

Once you decide that your classroom is going to be driven by the curiosity of the learners, there is almost no turning back. Students experience the responsibility of actively participating in their own learning and teachers learn to become an expert questioner.

Response From Rebecca Mieliwocki

Rebecca Mieliwocki is the 2012 California and National Teacher of the Year. After teaching middle and high school for 21 years, Rebecca is currently working as a teacher on special assignment for Burbank Unified School District specializing in professional development and induction activities for secondary level educators. She is a huge believer that kids and their teachers can do better and be better every day:

Questioning techniques are a powerful tool teachers can master to help reveal and probe student understanding. Sadly, the art of questioning is not taught in any thorough or meaningful way to teacher candidates. That means we tend to fall back on questioning tactics we remember from our own classroom experiences, which tended to be yes or no questions or questions that didn’t compel us to think too deeply. Couple that with wait time practices that don’t allow students to truly ruminate before the teacher moves on, and you have the conditions for some less-than-powerful instructional time. With a few minor tweaks, teachers can transform q&a time into a powerful lever for deeper learning.

First, truly ground yourself in an understanding of how wait time can increase learning, deepen thinking, and allow for increases in equity in your classroom. There are fascinating articles out there on what happens when teachers deliberately slow down answer times to allow kids to think. Knowing that it takes 10-30 seconds for children to process your question is the first thing you need to know. Too many teachers are calling on students before they’ve even fully understood what you’ve asked. It takes another 20-30 seconds for students to scan their brains for the answer and another 15-30 to arrange the answer mentally to prepare it for verbalization. In the time it takes for an average kid to do all that, many teachers have moved on.

Next, make sure you are using questions worth asking. Surface level informational questions might be necessary for a quick review of who did the reading or knows the concepts, but once that is known, shift up to the next level of abstraction. Ask why and what if questions. Ask about causes, effects, and moral implications. Ask students to draw parallels to other events, literary selections, or their own lives. The deeper you go, the more you can illuminate how deep and strong your students’ understandings are. You will gain insights into where your students have misconceptions, where they are strong and interested in going deeper, and where you might begin your lesson tomorrow. The best roadmap for a teacher is listening to the signposts our students put up during class discussions.

Additionally, find ways to bring multiple students into q&a sessions. Never do “one and dones” where you ask a question, one kid answers, and then you move on. Tell students you will be doing a whip around where you’ll have 3-5 kids answer each question and each student must add something new to the previous answer. This way you add layers of information and knowledge to the body of what’s being said. This layering helps students to see the depth and complexity behind the issues you’re discussing. It’s helpful to the advanced & kids and the kids who are still grasping content the first time. Remember that it takes kids several seconds, if not whole minutes, to form answers so make sure you aren’t just calling on the first few who raise their hands. Add a few kids into the mix who take longer to be ready to respond. To do this, use randomizers or cards. Pick 5 cards, reveal the names and tell them they’ll all be responsible for answering the question. Reveal the question and give them time, individually or in a group, to formulate an answer. After they are done, ask the whole class if there’s anything the group missed that needs to be added. Basically, you want as many voices as possible in building the best answer possible.

Finally, help students learn the language of discussion. Give them sentence starters and stems for conversation and coach them on how to utilize them. There are stems for agreement, for disagreement, stems to pivot away to another point, stems for seeing another side of the issue. Model them yourself every chance you get. When students learn the art of civil conversation, debate, and discussion, class time devoted to talk gets better and better. This art underpins our civil society and thus it’s incumbent upon on to prepare our students to do this well.

While it’s sometimes difficult to turn over valuable class time minutes to question and answer sessions, have faith that in doing so you are placing student voice and knowledge at the center of what you do. It is an art learning to ask strong questions, listen to the answers, and prepare expert follow-up questions that keep your classroom wondering and it’s pure joy to watch teachers who do this well. Students remember teachers who kept them on their mental “toes”. Let’s decide together to be better questioners and coaches this year than we ever have before. What’s the worst that can happen? I’ll wait for your answer..

Response From Jenny Edwards

Jenny Edwards, PhD is a Training Associate for Cognitive CoachingSM and Adaptive Schools. Her books include Cognitive CoachingSM: A synthesis of the research (thinkingcollaborative.com), Inviting Students to Learn: 100 tips for talking effectively with your students (ASCD, 2010) and Time to Teach: How do I get organized and work smarter? (ASCD, 2014). She served as co-editor for Invitational education and practice in higher education: An international perspective (Lexington, 2016):

Costa and Garmston (2014) developed a powerful method of asking questions to mediate the thinking of others. According to the authors, the questions are “invitational” (p. 64).

First, we can use an approachable voice in which the chin goes up and down, making the voice go up and down. Our hands are up, as we are asking for something. This is based on the work of Grinder (2016). This is in contrast to the credible voice in which the chin stays flat, and the voice curls down at the end of the phrase or sentence.

Also, we can use plural forms. What might be the difference between, “What is your goal?” and “What are your goals?” In the first question, the person asking the question is presupposing that the person only has one goal. In the second question, the person asking the question is presupposing that the person has many goals.

We can combine language that is tentative with plural forms. “What could be some of the possibilities?” “What might be some of the areas that you have not yet considered?” “What might be some of your hunches about some possible solutions?”

Next, we can intentionally embed positive presuppositions into questions to imply that the student is motivated, intelligent, and self-directed. “As a self-directed learner, what might be some of the ways in which you might be studying for the exam? By intentionally embedding positive presuppositions into questions, we can help students to want to live up to how we perceive them.

We can also ask open-ended questions that imply that numerous answers are possible as opposed to asking closed- ended questions that can be answered with a “yes” or “no,” such as “Did you do your homework?”

Then, we can embed words that will make students think, such as “analyze, comprehend, synthesize, summarize, evaluate, and hypothesize.”

Finally, we can either ask questions to encourage students to expand their thinking or become more specific in their thinking. “What might be some of the possibilities that you have considered for your project?” could help students to expand their thinking, while “What, specifically do you mean when you say that?” could help them to become more specific.

In addition, we can provide students with adequate wait time. Rowe (1986) found that teachers generally waited less than one second between the time they asked a question and the time they called on a student to answer it (wait time 1). She also discovered that teachers waited less than one second between the time a student finished answering a question and the time they called on another student (wait time 2). In addition, she found that when teachers wait 2.7 or more seconds before calling on a student,

  1. The length of student responses increases between 300% and 700%, in some cases more, depending on the study.
  2. More inferences are supposed by evidence and logical argument.
  3. The incidence of speculative thinking increases.
  4. The number of questions asked by students increases, and the number of experiments they propose increases.
  5. Student-student exchanges increase; teacher-centered “show and tell” behavior decreases.
  6. Failures to respond decrease.
  7. Disciplinary moves decrease.
  8. The variety of students participating voluntarily in discussions increases. Also, the number of unsolicited, but appropriate contributions by students increases.
  9. Student confidence, as reflected in fewer inflected responses, increase.
  10. Achieve improves on written measures where the items are cognitively complex. (pp. 44-45)

Rowe also found that with increased wait time, teachers had more flexible responses, asked more questions, asked different kinds of questions, and had higher expectations for some students.


Costa, A. L., & Garmston, R J. (Revised by J. Ellison & C. Hayes). (2014). Cognitive Coaching foundation seminar learning guide (10th ed.). Highlands Ranch, CO: Thinking Collaborative.

Grinder, M. (2016). ENVoY: Your personal guide to classroom management (13th ed.) Vancouver, WA: Michael Grinder and Associates.

Rowe, M. B. (1986). Wait time: Slowing down may be a way of speeding up. Journal of Teacher Education, 37(1), 42-29.

Response From Scott Reed & Cara Jackson

Scott Reed and Cara Jackson are members of the National Taskforce on Assessment Education:

Questioning is a quick way to gather evidence of whether students are grasping the concepts being taught and to identify misconceptions. It’s also a valuable tool for fostering critical thinking skills and academic discourse. Teacher education and professional development initiatives in mathematics on “noticing” and in science on “ambitious science teaching” emphasize the importance of eliciting students’ ideas and using these ideas to frame instruction. Yet in the Measures of Effective Teaching study, analyses of data from the classrooms of 1,333 teachers in grades 4 through 8 indicated that fewer than half of all lesson segments were rated “proficient” or better on the Framework for Teaching in using questioning and discussion techniques (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 2012).

Higher-Level Questions

Unfortunately, the questions that are easiest to ask and the quickest for the students to answer are generally the worst at gathering information about the students’ understanding. Transforming “what” and “when” questions to “how” and “why” ones is a good start. Even our youngest learners are capable of extending their own thinking and reflecting on the ideas of their classmates when we ask them to respond to higher-level questions, and by asking these questions we demonstrate the expectation that our students use evidence to support their thinking and engage with one another’s ideas.

Reflective Questions

Even the most thought-provoking questions posed by teachers are answered by only a handful of students, and student engagement may be low. When students are instead asked to reflect on their learning and how that learning applies to their lives, many more students are actively involved. Teachers can enhance students’ capacity to self-reflect during and after learning new concepts by asking students to complete statements such as “this made me curious about” and “I still have questions about.”

These reflection opportunities can become more formalized throughout the year by incorporating an understanding meter or spectrum of understanding on each assessment. As students become more proficient at reflecting on their learning, opening and closing questions can be used as well. Asking student to respond to questions linked to learning targets at the beginning and end of class and providing them with an opportunity to reflect on their individual understanding of the concepts can provide the teacher and individual students with essential information about a student’s current level of understanding.

Student-to-Student Questions

Student reflection leads to greater ownership of the learning process, which in turn enhances the role that a student takes on throughout instruction. Authentic questions that arise from students’ engagement in learning often have more relevance for the students than predetermined questions. Student-to-student questioning that occurs during a moment of discovery often incorporates ideas that are meaningful to the students and are rich with intrigue and interest. The challenge for a teacher is to inspire such questions from the students.

One approach is to reshape highly structured teacher-directed activities into open-ended activities and challenges. An end-of-a-lesson worksheet becomes more significant to the students’ learning when it is rewritten as an activity where a team of students is given an opportunity to determine the solution to a more complex problem collectively and demonstrate that their answer works. The questions posed by students to students during in-class tasks such as these naturally resolve student misconceptions, foster critical thinking skills, and increase academic discourse. In time, the students learn to transfer these skills to every learning experience and transform each one into a more meaningful and individualized experience.

Response From Ben Johnson

Ben Johnson has 32 years of experience in helping students and teachers to increase learning capacity. He has a doctoral degree from the University of Phoenix in Education Leadership and Curriculum and Instruction. He is the author of Teaching Students to Dig Deeper; Ten Essential College and Career Readiness Traits:

According to Dr. Robert Marzano, at least 80% of what a teacher does in terms of instruction is ask questions. Questions have the power to ignite curiosity, engage, and inspire. To be effective in questioning a teacher must consider three elements and prepare them before instruction: 1. Purpose of the Questions 2. Structure of the Questions 3. Delivery of the Questions. Below I have provided only one example of delivery options. You can read more examples with more detail in the second edition of my book,"Teaching Students to Dig Deeper: Ten Essential College and Career Readiness Traits.”

Purpose of the Questions

Questions can be used to determine what a student knows (review knowledge), they can be used to guide students to think in a certain manner (prepare for new knowledge), or can be used to inspire learning (create new knowledge).

Structure of the Questions

Questions can be created that lie on a continuum of easy to difficult; simple to complex. Difficulty is determined by the level of cognitive skill needed to process the question (ie. Blooms, or Costa). Complexity is determined by the number of factors that need to be considered in the question (Erickson). Simple knowledge based questions can be complex if there are several factors to consider while an evaluation question can be cognitively challenging even though it is not a complex question. The most challenging questions are both complex and cognitively challenging. Effective questions must be created before instruction as part of the lesson planning.

Delivery of the Questions

The least effective question method is the volunteer method. Only slightly better is the Mary Budd Rowe method: say the question, wait three seconds and then call a student by name. Others include popcorn questions (quickly asking questions in random fashion) and (The issue with both of these traditional methods is that only one student at a time is engaged.) Creative (and much more effective) questioning methods include teacher directed questions: choral response (and total physical response), Socratic circles, two sided debate, or four corners debate; and student directed questions: paired line questions or A & B partner questions, or collaborative group questions (questions created by the students are most effective).

Teacher directed questions. The teacher creates the list of questions and directs students to answer (or respond to) the questions all at the same time. This works best when students are standing. The teacher observes the students to make sure that all are participating, listens to individual student answer and responses and wanders the room. This is a low stress method and effective if the student 1) know that simply voicing the answer will help them remember it and 2) if they do not know the answer they need to listen to (or watch) the other students to gain the answer.

Student directed questions. In the paired line technique, student each are assigned a partner and face them in two lines down the center of the room. The teacher provides cards with concepts to one one of the lines. Students in that line will have to create questions about the concept to ask their partner in 30 seconds. The student then passes the card to the next student in line. 20 questions can be asked and answered by each student in ten minutes. (Excellent method for review).

If 80% what we do as we teach is ask questions, then it is critical that teachers take the time to prepare effective questioning by deciding what the purpose of the questions are, what type of questions are suited to the learning, and the most effective ways to ask the questions.

Thanks to Jeri, Dan, Diana, Rebecca, Jenny, Scott, Cara and Ben for their contributions!

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