“Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?!” That iconic line from the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off demonstrates the futile nature of asking unanswered questions to a group of disinterested students. But, we’ve all been there, haven’t we? We wonder if it’s the question, our instruction, the students? Whatever it is, it is not the Dead Poet’s Society classroom we had envisioned when choosing teaching as a profession. We’d like to craft the questions that draw students to engage in lively debate. How do teachers do that? What is the magic spell they cast over their students?
While I can’t promise to make your classroom performance Oscar worthy, there are some strategies that WILL get your students talking. Here are five:
- Ask questions worth asking. Oftentimes our questions aren’t that interesting or just rote drill. Ask questions that require students to explain concepts, their thinking or personal connection to the content. Questions that include verbs at a higher Depth of Knowledge level typically are “discussion worthy” and will lead to greater debate, discussion and engagement. Also, asking more open ended questions, for example, instead of asking “What is the first step here?” you might ask “How might you solve this problem?” which provides students the opportunity to make their thinking transparent to the class.
- Prime the pump. After asking a question, require ALL students to respond to the question with a partner, on paper, or in some way in order to commit to a response, and THEN pose the question for class discussion. You’ll find that your students will be MUCH more eager to respond.
- Declare a minimum. Wait time is important for students to formulate an answer (6-10 seconds is ideal), but saying something like “I need at least 8 hands” OR “Raise your hand when you know,” which implies that everyone should raise their hand at some point, often yields great results.
- Catch and release. When a student responds to a question, avoid the urge to either approve or disapprove of the response. When a teacher declares something right or wrong, the conversation is over. Rather, ask the rest of the class if they agree or disagree with that student’s response and explain their reasoning. You can also ask, “Does anyone want to add on to that or amend it? If so, in what way and why?” That keeps the discussion flowing and engages the class.
- Declare no student off limits. We want all students to formulate an answer to our questions, not just a select few. If it’s worth asking during class time, then it is a valuable exercise for all students. One of the areas that new teachers, in particular, struggle philosophically is calling on students who don’t volunteer. Often they share that they are worried that they might embarrass a student who doesn’t know the answer. I will encourage them with this, “If you allow students to prime the pump and ask open ended questions worth asking, students will be much more comfortable responding.” If you find a student answers, “I don’t know.” You can respond with, “What did you and your partner discuss?” or “Tell me what thoughts you had when thinking about the question.” If we create an environment that only tolerates correct answers and does not make transparent the conceptions and misconceptions around ideas, then students won’t risk sharing ideas at all. It’s up to teachers to make sure students know that it is natural part of learning to process to expose and refine ideas.
Like all new routines in classrooms, these questioning shifts will take a few days to a week to hone. But, if you are faithful in implementing them, you WILL transform your classroom discussions! If you have an instructional coach in your building, invite him/her to observe you and help you tweak your mad questioning skills. A second set of eyes always helps.
Let’s do it, “O Captain, my Captain!” Get them talking!
As always, I’d love to hear what works for you (and might for me 🙂 ).
Depth of Knowledge Wheel Webb, Norman L. and others. “Web Alignment Tool” 24 July 2005. Wisconsin Center of Educational Research. University of Wisconsin-Madison. 2 Feb. 2006.
I am a member of the #MTBoS (Math Twitter Blog-O-Sphere). If you are a math teacher, you are too! To find them, you need only jump on Twitter (@ExploreMTBoS) or search the #MTBoS hashstag and enjoy all that is available to you. #MTBoS teachers share everything from their philosophy on what is BEST Math Teaching PRACTICE to the details of the lesson they did TODAY. The #MTBoS has challenged its members to blog once a week for the next month. This week, the challenge is to blog about our favorite thing(s). Here are some of my FAVORITE THINGS I’ve learned about/stolen from this group.
- WODB (@WODB) or “Which one doesn’t belong?” has been a fabulous resource for eliciting high level discourse with students.
This puzzle can be found on the WODB website and also on Chris Hunter’s “Reflection in the Why” blog.
These WODB K-12 puzzles are low entry/high ceiling problems that will meet your students exactly at their level of understanding. Your job is to push their thinking by asking questions. I’ve shown an Algebra example to the right, but there are graphs, number, shape puzzles, etc. Enjoy them!
- Class Norms Signs – If you’re looking for GREAT classroom signs and resources, Sarah Carter (@mathequalslove) is your girl! She makes some SNAZZY stuff! But, these signs definitely served
Here you can see “Class Norms” above my board in my classroom.
two purposes in my classroom. ONE: They are darling and decorated my room nicely and TWO (and most importantly): They served as principles that guided the collaborative work in my group. I only had to say “Helping is not the same as giving answers!” or “Can you read the green sign I am pointing to? What does that mean? Please be a respectful group member and do that now.” I LOVED having them to point to!
- Sum ‘Em Up – This is a game/activity that requires both individual and group accountability from your math students. The idea is from #MTBoS’s Kate Nowak’s (@k8nowak)
“Function of Time” blog. For each skill, you make four problems of various degrees of difficulty and for students you’ve placed in a heterogeneous grouping. Each student works individually and then, students sum up their totals. At that time, they can ask the teacher if they are correct. If they are NOT correct, the students have to decide which student(s) made the error and why. This leads to great mathematical discourse and “critiquing the reasoning of others.” You can find more details to this fabulous activity in the link above.
Obviously, this is just a taste of what you can find from teachers on Twitter, but I wanted to whet your appetite for more. The treasure of #MTBoS is yours (and mine)…enjoy! Go, search #MTBoS and see what happens…
Okay, it’s time to face reality. Your winter break is just about over and in a few days you’ll be looking into the faces of your sweet students. If you’re like me, you’ve been dreaming about how you might do things differently next semester. Ah, where to start…
- Reflection is one of the most difficult but helpful practices for teachers. Nonetheless, a teacher who wants to make positive changes towards growth, should make it a regular practice. If you’re looking for a second semester change, ask yourself a few reflective questions about the first semester. Reflect on WHAT? How about…
- Classroom Management–This is easy! Ask yourself: what behavior is the most annoying? Is it students distracted by cell phones? Is it language? Is it off task behavior? Can you get students undivided attention when you need to? Do you have a “quiet signal?”
- Classroom Climate–Does your room have a positive or negative vibe? Do students want to or even look forward to coming to your class? Are students kind to one another?
- Student Collaboration–Are they really collaborating or just seated closely? Is there individual and group accountability? Do students hold each other accountable?
- Instruction–Are you bored by your own lessons? Is your instruction teacher or student- centered? Do your lessons require students to go beyond note taking? Are students invested enough to debate and argue? Are students given the opportunity to grapple with tough questions and space to problem solve?
- Assessments–Are your students given opportunities to think critically? Do your tests reflect higher order thinking? Is everything on your test “Googleable?” For more advice on creating questions that are not “Googleable,’ click here. Do your assessments give students opportunities to demonstrate what they really do know and understand? Are your assessments tightly aligned to your standards/targets/objectives?
- Curriculum–Are you “covering” too much? Does it feel like your students are only getting a superficial understanding instead of a rich understanding? Is it time to consider removing content that you’ve typically covered?
- NEWSBENJIVERTS. I’m not even sure how that’s spelled. I was introduced to this acronym while watching this episode of the Middle where Brick, the little brother, tries to coach his sister, Sue, for her audition for the school newscaster position. Brick starts with this small acronym to help her to remember key newscaster skills: NEWS; Natural, Eye contact and Winning Smile. But, Sue needs so much help it grows to NEWSBENJIVERTS. During her audition, she is so overwhelmed by her the huge acronym that she performs with huge eyeballs, an awkward smile and, frankly, looks ridiculous! All this to say we often look ridiculous to our students when we tackle more than we can handle. We end up back-tracking on our commitments, which only breeds a lack of confidence in our words and actions. Choose ONE, maybe two, things to tackle. Larger, sweeping adjustments can come next year.
- Ask yourself probing questions to problem solve. After you determine what you’d like to change, ask yourself how this student behavior, instructional approach, classroom culture, etc. has become a pattern in your classroom? What is the root of those behaviors? Come up with at least several causes beyond student motivation or administrative mandate to these problems. After all, you have no control over them. Look for causes within your circle of influence. Make a plan to address them. This is where the internet and your colleagues are great resources. If you have instructional coaches in your building like I do, you might want to elicit their help in brainstorming solutions or processing root causes.
- Everyone needs a pep talk. Okay, it’s your first day back. Imagine your classroom is a locker room full of athletes and they are looking eagerly to you, their coach, as you prepare to give them an inspirational half time pep talk. Don’t let them down, Coach! Remind students that you are there for them, care for them, and want them to be successful. Tell them what they, as a class, did well last semester and point out areas where they are growing but aren’t quite there yet. Tell them second semester offers a fresh slate. Tell them that you expect that second semester will be challenging, but that you’ll get across the finish line together. However you word it, speak it from your heart. Kids can smell insincerity a mile away.
- Take a moment to reconnect. Show pictures of how you spent your break. Give them an opportunity to share about their adventures. When we do this, we are creating a safe space for students and communicating that we care about them. It also allows them to open the doors of communication with a topic that is comfortable for them. This will make it easier when you ask them to engage in content related discussions.
- Honesty is the best policy. Okay, time to get real. It’s time to make a change. You don’t have to pretend with students. Unlike administrators they are there every day and know exactly what it is like to be in your classroom — for real! Share how you’ve reflected over your break and your plan to reset for second semester. One caveat: if you say you are making a change, you have to stand by it. Telling your students means they WILL hold you accountable–as they should. When choosing a solution to your problem, choose a plan that you can carry out. Avoid developing systems that will be difficult to manage. You’re too busy for that!
Who doesn’t love a fresh start? Let’s make a resolution to keep making resolutions. After all, the key to our growth as educators (and people) is reflection, plan, change, REPEAT. Keep fighting the good fight, my friend! The fruit of growth is always joy.