Posted on November 27, 2016
The door of the English classroom next to mine holds a quote by George Carlin. I had never heard of George Carlin before seeing the quote (apparently he was a comedian), and I’m not sure if I would have agreed with anything he said or believed, but this quote struck me nonetheless: “Don’t just teach your children to read. Teach them to question what they read. Teach them to question everything.”
In my classroom I have the desire to teach my students to question what they read. Yet, I realize my curriculum is set up to help students think of answers, but not necessarily to help them question. The handy graphic organizers that nicely fit with each short story or informational text conveniently ask all the questions. Students go on a treasure hunt for the answers and are looking directly in the text for the exact words they need to find in order to show that they “struck gold” with the answer.
To be fair, many of the questions found on these graphic organizers do help readers think and analyze. After all, most educators understand and believe in helping students reach the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. However, the reality of my classroom for the first few months of this school year and the first few years of my teaching career was this: I ask the questions; students give the answers.
In the classroom there are built in times to ask questions, and students learn quickly when it is appropriate to question. But many students do not take steps toward questioning at all, and actually need to be taught how to think in a way that creates questions. This idea of teaching students to question is somewhat lost in education today. I am too busy trying to teach them how to find and think of the answers, forgetting that good thinkers don’t just answer, they question as well. On top of that, students also need to learn that some questions do not even have complete answers. The act of questioning itself and then searching out the possibility of an answer can teach students critical thinking skills and endurance.
So what can we do as educators? Teach students the process that we as teachers go through to craft and create questions. Give students topics that they can question, and help them find ways to locate answers and create more questions from the answers they find. In English, have students annotate their texts, interacting with them by asking questions while reading. Students can write their thoughts and questions in the margins of a book, and those questions can be turned into predictions. Students who come up with a question about a character or possible theme can seek to answer their own questions while reading. Some questions may be dead ends, and some may lead them on a path to deep analysis. Either way, giving students the platform to be the question “askers” will help them to grow as thinkers and learners.
Posted on August 9, 2016
I have seen firsthand how a safe and encouraging classroom allows children to spread their wings and take chances. My “light bulb” came on at the end of this year as one of my shyest students volunteered to come up to the front of the room to play the part of Romeo while we were reading Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. I was so shocked; I emailed his mother immediately, to praise his bravery and growth. She was even more surprised than I was. I thought long and hard about what made this student so willing to volunteer, and I truly believe classroom culture/environment was the key. By the end of the school year even my shyest students began to feel comfortable. This particular “Romeo” had watched everyone around him get positive feedback and be successful, and he was eventually willing to take the risk for himself. How did this happen? The following steps were essential…
- Create clear classroom expectations
It starts with me. Early in the year I must set up classroom expectations that encourage students to speak kindly to one another, work together in structured ways, and respect one another. This takes a large amount of effort on my part, but I know the payoff is worth it. How does one set up such a classroom environment? First, I explain the expectations to my students. Simple as that. I have found that kids are actually very good at meeting expectations. On example of an expectation I share involves what students should do as soon as the bell rings. I always place a “Warm Up” on the board while students are walking into class. I tell students that when the bell rings each student’s job is to take out his/ her journal and follow the directions for the warm up. Consistency on my part is critical. I cannot go back on my expectations and allow them to chat with friends, wander the room, or finish homework during this time. I need to show the students that each and every day they will find the same expectations to be true in my classroom even if that means I am redirecting and correcting a significant amount until that expectation becomes a routine.
- Collaboration – with Proper Guidelines
Whenever collaboration is going to take place in a classroom, it is important that all students are made to feel valuable and part of the group. This can be difficult, because there are many different personalities, friendships, and interests in every classroom. Therefore, before assigning students to groups, I remind them that each member of the group is to be heard and respected, and I do not expect to hear any negative comments made about my group choices. I have two ways I primarily handle situations that arise where classroom expectations are not being met. First, I take a proactive approach by constantly walking around the room during group work and monitoring conversations, as opposed to taking group work time as a “free” moment for me to answer an email or grade papers. This cuts out most off-topic conversations. If during my time circling the room I notice that one student is being left out, I remind the group that each individual needs to be participating and try to suggest ways that child can be included. Second, if a student is off task or behaving inappropriately, I remind that student of the expectations set for the activity and pull him/her out from the group if necessary so we can have a private conversation about behavior based on the level of distraction he/she is being. To help reinforce the the group-work guidelines, I always have the directions for an activity on the board, and reminders of expectations posted so I can always refer to the aforementioned directions.
- Opportunities for Students to Praise One Another
Most group assignments in my classroom end with a presentation. Presenting information is risky, so it is critical that students are able to feel like they will be accepted. I model positive reinforcement for my students after each presentation by standing up in front of the room in between presentations and saying something specific that I enjoyed about the last presentation. Then I take volunteers to share what they enjoyed. Students sometimes fill out graphic organizers of positive feedback and other times we simply give oral replies. Hearing students compliment each other is encouraging and helps provide that safe environment where children can take risks and the next “Romeo” can confidently take the stage.