Friday, October 14, 2016

Of Good Questions and Swiss Army Knives

Thinking about how audience and purpose shape argument calls for some intense concentration.

How is a really good question like a Swiss Army knife? 

It can serve many learning purposes! This week I discovered a set of good questions that focused student writing, conferencing, and reflection.

Reading the first draft of 11th grade researched argument essays, I realized that the most effective one had a sense of audience and purpose. The rest had much less focus. Were they thinking of an audience of peers? of adults? An audience who were vehemently opposed to their claim? or undecided? Did they want to move their audience to consider another point of view? to commit? to act?

So on our revising day, I posed these three questions:
  • Who is my audience?
  • What is my purpose?
  • How does knowing my audience and purpose shape my argument?
I told students we were going to use those questions in 3 ways:
  • To focus the revision of their papers (along with the comments I’d written on the drafts).
  • To structure mini-conferences with me while they were revising. 
  • To reflect on their final draft when they hand it in. 
Results: Students got traction on their revision, I got traction on the day’s conferences, and I’m committed to reflection when they hand the final drafts in next week. (Sometimes when pressed for time I’m tempted to skip that step, and I’m always so impressed with the learning when I don’t.)

A little more about the conferencing: I have to confess that as an introvert, I have a certain dread of conferencing. What if I can’t provoke a good conversation? What if it falls flat, is a waste of time, and now the student is off task because I disrupted his concentration? Some of that will come with experience. And one thing I’m learning is that I need to go in with a good question or two. “How are you doing?” is not one. It generally elicits, “Fine.” Back to my turn. But this was a great conferencing start: “Tell me about your audience, purpose, and how determining that is helping you shape your argument.” (And sure enough: The paper I’d identified as having the best sense of audience and purpose? The writer said she and her friends frequently discuss the merits of veganism.)  

One final plug: I doubt I’d have come up with those questions if I were not participating in a weekly discussion with nine colleagues of Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggans. Each week we not only discuss one chapter, we also set a goal about implementing something we learned and report on it the following week. I knew I wasn’t using my documented essential questions well in 11th grade, so my goal was to be sure the 11th graders knew the essential question, or to write a new one. I absolutely love this type of professional development, and highly recommend it. 

What’s a Swiss Army knife of a question you’ve asked students recently?

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