Why Would You Want to Answer Someone Else’s Question?

This week’s post comes from a conversation I had with an amazing teacher and critical thinker, Carolyn.  A couple of years ago, we were talking about inquiry and how to encourage students to ask questions, and Carolyn made the point that often our classroom inquiries revolve around teacher-generated questions. “Why would you want to answer someone else’s question?” she asked. That comment sent me on an inquiry about how to help students generate questions that they actually want to answer.

Although I tried the strategies below in all my classes, I decided to take the most significant risk with my ENG 4U course. On their exam, students were given a short story, and then they were told to ask themselves a question about the story. Then they had to answer it. I was so nervous about how this exam would go that I threw on my own question just in case they didn’t ask questions that would take up a two hour exam period. For every single student, the question I asked was answered with the least depth and support when compared to the question they asked themselves.  I think they rushed to get to my question because so many of them had so much to say about their own questions. I’ve never enjoyed marking an exam as much as this one. It provided substantial evidence for my students’ abilities, and I learned a lot about the short story.

Of course, this didn’t happen without a lot of preparation in advance of the exam. My students were very nervous about the quality and validity of their own questions, so it took some time to build their confidence and capacity. Also, I had a lot to learn about my own practice as I tried to let go of my control over their thinking.

I started by heavily relying on Q-Charts. We would read something, and I would hand out these giant poster-sized Q-Charts and stacks of sticky notes (in hindsight the Q-Chart does not need to be the size of four desks. It kind of gets in the way!). Students were asked to generate questions about our reading. I then asked them to rank their questions in order of complexity.  Each group submitted a question to the blackboard, and we ended up with six questions that required a lot of deep thinking. Initially, instead of answering the questions, we talked about the qualities of a great question and what would be needed to answer the questions. We made an anchor chart about questions for future reference, and everyone picked one question to answer. The lesson then moved from asking questions to supporting an answer.

Another strategy I find useful is the Causal Model, an approach I learned from the I-Think team at the Rotman School of Business. One of my favourite teacher learning partners, Jen, used it in a class that was studying the Hunger Games. Together they asked, “What caused Katniss to win the Hunger Games?” Their thinking went in all kinds of neat directions, but they ultimately landed on the death of Katniss’s father as one of the leading causes of her survival. They looked past all the surface level reasons for her survival and found this turning point moment- a moment that actually happens before the novel even begins. Inspired, by Jen’s success, I use this model all the time with our big questions about the texts we read. Together we decide the question, and we go down the causal model path. I’m always surprised at where it takes us.  If you’re interested, you can see  Jason, yet another amazing teacher (and my go-to guy for book recommendations), use this strategy in his class here.

I found these exercises particularly productive when I was strategic about the texts I use for the activities.  I have to use a text that I haven’t had time to consider in depth. When I first tried it, I used my favourite short story, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” I love how students react to this story. I think the story is warning about what happens when we don’t ask questions about systems and traditions. However, I recognized the irony when I heavily guided my students’ questions to the point where they were more about my ideas and questions than theirs. I was trying to teach them that asking questions is important, but I was still teaching them that my questions and ideas were more important.

So I had to start reading. A lot. I’m continually searching for new short stories and poems, so feel free to leave any recommendations in the comments!

I started reading new texts so that I could put away the ones that I could quote verbatim. As a result, I let students talk and ask questions more, and I learned so much about these new texts. In one class, we read Richard Wagmese’s Indian Horse. Of course, I read it before I taught it, but I didn’t know it like I know other novels that I’ve taught ten times or more. We learned some amazing things about this novel. One student traced a single word-“glory” throughout the novel. I hadn’t even noticed the word! Another student noticed that hockey is an escape for Saul, the main character until he starts playing hockey indoors rather than outdoors. This led us to look at the role of nature in the novel.

I really enjoyed teaching the novel this way. Now I need to think of a way to avoid heavily guiding my next class that reads this novel; my department can’t buy new texts every year. I’m sure this challenge will turn into another post.

Out of one conversation with another teacher, I’ve learned to talk less and listen more. I’ve also learned to be comfortable with not knowing everything there is to know about the text. It’s uncomfortable when a student asks me something I can’t answer, but I think it’s my job to help them learn to find their own answers rather than give them the answer (and sometimes tell them the exact page number where they can locate support).  Of course, inquiries really don’t end, so now I have other questions about student voice and choice. But, we’ll save that for another Friday.

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