Saturday, October 18, 2014

Engagement and Questions

Two things I’ve been thinking about this week are (1) what students experience in school and (2) how great it is when they ask questions about what we know they need to know and about what they actually want to know.

(1) What students experience in school: When I read this blog by an instructional coach who spent 2 days shadowing 2 high school students, I thought, how glad I am I am not a student, having to sit and study 6 to 8 things a day in rapid succession, that someone else has determined is good for me. The author discovered how deadening it is to sit and be a sponge class after class, and listed several takeaways he would immediately integrate into his classes. 

When I reposted the blog, my daughter, in her final year of preparation to be an English teacher, thought it was rather obvious. Hmm. Maybe they’re doing better preparation for English teachers now than 30 years ago. (One would hope!) Maybe it’s because she’s still a student, on the experiencing rather than the inflicting end (the explanation she offered). 

At any rate, it is good for teachers, even teachers who work hard at making their classes active and engaging, to remember how stir-crazy we go after a single day of sitting through 6 hours of a professional development seminar. 

So thinking on this this week, when I handed out a project/presentation prompt that included a review of slide ware do’s and don’t’s, I didn’t assume students would read it on their own and ask questions, and I didn’t lecture through it. I gave them 2 minutes to read through the handout, and 2 minutes to talk to a partner about (1) the most obvious do/don’t and (2) the one they see most frequently broken. Then I took remaining questions.

(2) How good it is when there is both the structure and safety in the classroom that students will ask questions. Two examples this week:

"What is a topic sentence?" If a 10th grader doesn’t know, this is an important question  for him or her to be asking. A student asked me this week because when students turn in an essay rough draft, I ask them (among other things) to underline topic sentences and number them with the corresponding point from their preview. I was able to pull out a sample essay we’d read and point out the topic sentences which (1) preview the paragraph topic, (2) transition from the previous paragraph, and (3) connect to the thesis.

"Is there more than one Johannesburg?" In preparing a slide for a presentation on background information for the novel Cry, the Beloved Country, a student had searched Google Images for “Johannesberg” and gotten a lot of verdant pictures. She knew that didn’t fit well with her own mental images from reading. When I pointed out the spelling glitch, and she changed -berg to -burg, suddenly the images were full of high-rises, highways, and city lights. She let out a sigh of relief—she WAS right. I’m so happy she was puzzled enough and free enough to ask. 

On the other hand, there was a student with an incomplete assignment who I talked to this week. After I took the initiative in talking to her and offering her some pointers, she said, “You mean, I could just email you any time with random questions?” I assured her she could, adding, “That’s one of the reasons we have writing time in class, while I am available for questions.” 

I’m glad some students are asking questions. I’m always looking for ways to invite more, by structure and by safety.

Would I want to be a student in my class, and how can I structure and invite more questions? Food for thought.

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