by Tricia Ebner, NBCT
During one of my first post-observation conferences as a novice teacher, my principal told me that while I had many strengths as a teacher, my questioning skills were weak. He said I needed to improve those in order to continue strengthening my practice. It was something that I stewed over for days afterward, but then I began to reflect on my practice and expectations. I wanted my seniors to be highly engaged, excited about the British literature we were studying and eager to share their ideas in discussion and writing. I was working really, really hard to generate that kind of engagement, and yet nothing was happening. The texts were rich, the writing tasks seemed solid. When I was truly honest with myself, I had to admit the questions were the weak point. It simply wasn’t possible to generate the kinds of rich discussion I wanted with basic who-what-where questions. I needed to pose better questions.
While this observation and my subsequent realization happened over twenty years ago, my reflection on question hasn’t stopped. At the time my first principal made his observation, the internet was new enough that I didn’t have access to it. (Yes, this was shortly after dinosaurs stopped roaming the earth, or so it seems to my middle school students today.) I read all I could. I perused the college textbooks I had kept. I searched my growing library of English Journals from NCTE. As I worked on my master’s degree, I read resources in the university’s library.
My quest for asking good questions still continues. While I have changed and improved, my students have also changed. The types of questions that resonate well with my 6th, 7th, and 8th graders are those that dig deeply into our studies. When I ask deep, powerful, open-ended questions, we all learn. The connections and insights students make through these kinds of questions are key. They foster critical thinking. Asking these kinds of questions also models the kinds of questions students need to ask independently, of themselves and their reading and research.
I’ve found the lessons on the www.achievethecore.org web site to be particularly strong and powerful. They’ve helped me better understand what strong, solid question about text look and sound like. Recently I used the questions surrounding the short story “Eleven.” After reading the text independently, we began going through the text a second time, this time stopping to note various plot, characterization, vocabulary, and writing style choices. At one point, I asked the student to consider why Cisneros had chosen to start five sentences in the first few paragraphs with the word “And,” a question suggested by the lesson plan on the web site. As they shared various thoughts, the class realized that this approach conveys a more conversational style and gives the narration the voice of an eleven-year-old. Then one student said, “It reminds me of what Gary Paulsen did in Hatchet.”
This kind of powerful connection was possibly largely because of the kinds of thoughtful questions we were discussing. Asking questions like this gets students to consider the author’s purpose and reflect on how writing style can support the purpose. The critical thinking that goes into answer questions like these and then extending them into observations and connections with other texts is powerful. It’s also the kind of reading we need our students to engage in as they continue learning and growing in this 21st century.
The challenge of questioning in the classroom isn’t one solved quickly. There are no five-minute strategies to developing strong, powerful questions. It takes time, effort, and practice. Sometimes question sets I have developed have been flops, with students quickly answering in short, surface-level responses. Every flop has taught me more about crafting better questions. It’s a journey and process, and one that is well worth pursuing. By crafting deep, powerful, meaningful questions, we are helping students to stretch their learning, use texts as resources, and become more independent, empowered learners.
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