Questions: What If They Don’t Come Up with the Right Ones?

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A quick visual used in history class!

Last year, our health teacher came to me to work on an annual research project, in which her students researched and reported out on a health issue. The students arrived with a list of questions to answer, and proceeded to search for the answers and put those answers into the slides of a Power Point presentation. As they went through the process, I sat with them and asked them other questions about their topic, like, “What is surprising about this?” or “Is there any stigma to this illness?” and they stared at me blankly. “That’s not on our sheet,” one answered.

The following quarter I suggested we have students come up with their own questions. The teacher looked at me nervously. “But what if they don’t come up with the right ones?”

I understand this fear. We are obligated to guide students through particular curriculum, and there is immense pressure to cover all of the material. And if we provide them with the list of what they need to look up, we can ensure that it is all covered.

And while students will compliantly look up the material, they will not analyze or synthesize that material in any way.

Since then, we have transformed the research into one where students develop an essential question (Are we doing enough to support those with schizophrenia?) and supporting questions (How many people have it? What treatments are available?), and then compile their information into a mini-TED-like talk. In history class, we have taken a Supreme Court hunt-and-peck unit and have provided an essential question (How does this Supreme Court Case impact our law today?), and then asked students to come up with their own supporting questions–what do they need to know before they can answer that essential question? From there, they developed a website that outlined all of their cases. In Spanish class, we have undertaken a similar remodeling-(Which Spanish-speaking country would you want to visit and why?)-providing them with an essential question, asking them to develop their own supporting questions and then doing a fun, Pecha Kucha presentation (20 slides, 20 seconds per slide) where they “sell” their countries.  Across the curriculum, we are shifting from regurgitative fact-listing projects to more authentic products driven by meaningful, deliberate inquiry and student-driven questions.

And we are finding that it works. Students have to think to formulate their own questions. This is a difficult task and not one they instinctively do well, especially when they have to come up with an essential question. It forces their brains to be analytical and to work in backwards design, which is often a new intellectual process for them. As they work through this, we find that they need modeling and practice. Without experience in this, they will not immediately ask thorough enough questions, but with conversation and guidance, they arrive to where they feel confident in this kind of thinking, and when we ultimately are able to step back, we discover that students not only ask the same questions we would have, but they actually ask better ones.

Across the board, in each class, we have watched our students understand their topics better. There are no more blank stares. They add to their questions as they go through the process, and they work to prove a point with each presentation. Their understanding is deeper and they feel more ownership and purpose.  The quality of their knowledge and final products has been immensely improved.

My husband likes to remind me that we teachers (especially me!) are control freaks. And rightly so–there is a great deal of pressure resting on our shoulders, and it is terrifying to relinquish the strangle we sometimes urgently feel in the rush to get it done. In the end though, we need to ask our purpose. Do we want students who know how to look up facts on Google? Or do we want students to know how to think through a problem? If it is the latter, we must switch the focus to guiding our kids’ learning processes, rather than controlling them, allowing them to flourish in unimaginable ways. We have to trust ourselves and our students in this unfolding of understanding, knowing that with practice, they will come up with the “right” questions.

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Time, Time, Time

I am certain that I am not the only teacher who has given students an entire period or two or three (or a week!) to research a topic only to find that they have a few piddly facts scribbled down. I’m further certain tclock.jpghat I’m not the only teacher whose students find they don’t have enough information and turn in subquality and surface-level work that has clearly been done the night (or lunch period) before. I’ve seen it in every discipline, at every grade level I’ve taught.

But a few weeks ago, something very interesting happened. Another teacher and I, who are co-teaching an independent action research/capstone project class together, started class with a quick impromptu research project. Each student drew a card from Apples to Apples and had 30 minutes to find information about the topic, and put together a meaningful presentation.

And they did. In fact, they pulled together projects that were of the same (or better!) quality than what we’ve seen students turn in after a week’s worth of work.

We then gave them a list of deadlines for the gargantuan project that they were about to undertake and modeled the first piece of notetaking and had them get to work. But they didn’t. They clicked on sites. They watched some relevant videos. They went to the bathroom. They talked about their mornings. And after a few days of independent note-taking they had a few thing marked down, but nothing that looked like three days’ worth of hard work. I thought back to that initial thirty minutes when they were so productive.

What was going wrong?

Teaching Time Management

In the classroom, we often sacrifice explicit skill instruction for the focus of content. We assume students know how to take the steps if we tell them how to, and we get frustrated when they don’t follow through. We’ve all heard teachers say (or have said ourselves!) that students are “lazy.” That they are “time wasters.” That they “don’t care.” Or that we can’t “hold kids’ hands.” And there is some truth to some of that in someinstances, but when we can make a sweeping truth about the general downfall of a group of students, it generally means we’ve gone wrong somewhere.

And where we’ve gone wrong here is not teaching students how to think about how to use their time.

Helping students structure their time, particularly in large, research-driven projects, does not have to be synonymous with holding students’ hands. Instead, it should be a metacognitive practice that guides their progress, allowing them to feel the success that comes with timely work completion.

Ways to Help Students with Time

  •  Do the 30 minute challenge. Have students draw a card with a random topic on it and research and present. This sets the groundwork for productivity. It opens up a discussion about how they used their time and what worked for them.
  • Do a 5 minute challenge. In some classes, we have done a shorter version of this: students read resources that are relevant to their current topic of research and take notes for 5 minutes, and then in 5 more minutes pull together a quick visual presentation. After this task, I have had students say that they want to work for 5 minute bursts with a 1 or 2 minute break between. I have had students say that they couldn’t believe that they could actually learn so much in 5 minutes. Sometimes they just need to be shown what they are truly capable of.
  • When delving into a longer project or paper, ask students what they envision at the end–what do they hope their final product to be or look like? What kind of quality are they shooting for? And then ask them what steps they need to take to make that happen. Often, students know what they want something to be, but require conversation to determine how to actually get there.
  • Have students self-structure their classtime. Instead of saying, “You have the next 45 minutes to take notes,” ask them, “What do you need to accomplish today?” and have them jot that down on a notecard. Some kids may make a checklist; some may write a quick narrative. At the end of the class period, have them reflect on the back of their notecard how successful they were and why or why not and have them report out to one another. It’s a twist on the exit form.
  • Use calendars. Have students list all the steps they need to take and then give them a calendar and the time to plug those steps into the different time periods they have. What can they get done in class? What do they need to do at home? Check in frequently on progress and hold them accountable for meeting these self-designated deadlines.

Many students will say “I need to take notes.” or “I need to read.” Challenge them to write more specific tasks. What do you need to take notes on? What specifically do you need to read? How much? Direct them to really think about what needs to be accomplished in the time they have and to write qualitative daily goals.  This explicit time management instruction benefits our students long term–they learn strategies to complete work in a timely manner and they feel the confidence that comes with turning in work they are proud of without the stress of rushing in the end. And while taking the time out of our content instruction to work on these skills may feel like adding “one more thing,”  we will discover instead that the quality and quantity of work accomplished in our classrooms improves.

Remember, our students’ brains are still developing–even our most advanced high school students- and if none of us works with time and skill, we are failing to help them build the necessary neural pathways that will help them manage their time independently in college and life. It can start with an Apples to Apples topic, a calendar, a timer, and an index card.

Teaching Research is an Act of Citizenship

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My senior advisory boys are 18 and they are preparing to vote in their first election ever. But as we sit and talk about what that means, they say things like, “Hillary is a criminal.” “The media is trying to rig the election.” “I’m voting for Johnson because he is the most qualified.” “Trump is just like Hitler, only worse because he’s friends with the Russians.” When I ask for facts to support their assertions, they cannot give them to me. They throw around catchphrases and show me memes that they have seen splashed across social media with zero actual evidence.

I wish I could say that this was only true for my 18-year-old boys who are entering their first political decision, but unfortunately I’m seeing the same sort of ignorant polarizing pronouncements from many people, many whom I even love and admire. I am angrier than I have ever been during an election and am having difficulty not taking umbrage at the circus that is representing my country right now.

At times, I feel disheartened that we have come to this, dismay tainting my outlook on humanity. But as a teacher, if I want to stay effective, I cannot approach the world with pessimism. Our profession must instead move forward every day with a secret curriculum of the heart that is rooted in the belief that we can help our students develop into thoughtful, tolerant, critical thinkers and problem solvers. We need to believe that what we teach is essential for our students to become educated members of a greater community, and we need to understand that what we don’t teach sends implicit messages of priority to our children.  So how do we weave this into our classrooms?

We teach research.

And I mean we teach inquiry-based, authentic research that relies on the ethical consumption of news as often as possible. We give students the opportunity to ask real questions, find real answers, and develop real conclusions. In the classroom, research is my passion, but now more than ever, I must emphasize that teaching research skills is not just critical for academic purposes; it is our civic responsibility. Our students must become masters at assessing resources, reading for bias, analyzing purpose and legitimacy, synthesizing multiple sources, and drawing their own conclusions based on data and facts. They must be smart in their strategies and able to recognize dubitable material. They must have the stamina to read deep into accounts and ask the right questions.

The very fact that so many voters this election season cannot distinguish fact from fiction; real events from conspiracy; or allegation from truth is an indictment of an education system that has not caught up with the on-demand-news-cycle world and we must take control of it now.

Teaching our students to research well is the most critical skill we can help nurture in order to move the national dialogue to one that is civil and based on reality.  Research is an act of citizenship. An act of humanity. An act of decency.

Do it for your students’ futures, yes. But do it for all of ours, please.