"Calder Pillay was all ears. He had never heard a teacher admit that she didn't know what she was doing. Even better, she was excited about it." From Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliet
Reading the book, Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett, has reminded me of the magic of essential questions in the classroom. In the book, the cool sixth grade teacher, Ms. Hussey, announced to her students on the first day of school that what they were going to work on this year "all depends on what we get interested in - or what interests us". Ms. Hussey is an expert at asking questions that spark her students interests. When she asks her class, "Is writing the the most effective way to communicate?", students who love writing respond, "Yes of course it is" and those students who hate writing argue, "What about numbers? What about pictures? What about plain old talking?" The question, and disagreement the question provoked, lead the class into an in-depth investigation; and in the process they learned about cave art in France, papyrus scrolls in Egypt, Mayan petroglyphs in Mexico and stone tablets from the Middle East. They tried making stamps out of raw potatoes and covered the classroom walls with symbols. They invented a sign language for hands and feet and they communicated for one whole day using nothing but drawing.
Why essential questions?
Essential questions lead to inquiry learning. Inquiry learning not only motivates and engages students in learning, but it has been shown to be one of the most effective ways to help students achieve deeper understanding AND better test scores. And schools that use them have better attendance and lower drop-out rates. Listen to Jeffrey Wilhelm talk about the benefits of inquiry learning and essential questions.
Essential questions make connections across the curriculum for kids. Essential questions lead to big ideas and understandings. If you organize around good essential questions, kids naturally start to make lots of brain compatible connections as they transfer the big ideas to new situations and subjects.
Where do essential questions fit into my use of Web2.0 tools?
Jeffrey Wilhelm says, that when thinking about a book or topic you are going to teach, you need to ask, "Why does this matter? Why should the kids care about it? What deep understandings will it develop?"
I've planned many Web2.0 learning activities that are engaging AND help students learn content area skills and concepts. But, have I really challenged myself to ask the questions that Jeffrey Wilhelm suggests? For example, I am thinking about trying the Mystery State Skype Call this year. As a learning activity, it already sparks kids interests. There are a lot of great purposes for doing it. Besides the fact that it is fun, it connects kids to kids around the country, it teaches cooperation and collaboration in the classroom as kids try to solve the mystery together, it teaches kids facts about other states, it teaches how to use clues and resources to solve problems, it teaches map skills and geography, it teaches technology skills and more.
But, does a Mystery Skype call really matter? Why? What deep understandings does it have the potential to develop? Where does it fit in with big ideas across other subjects and situations in my classroom?
Some possible essential questions that would connect the Mystery State Skype Calls to my curriculum might be: Our focus on community "What is a community?" Our study of Connecticut "What makes a place unique? How does the geography and location of a place influence the people who live there?" The focus on communication: "Is writing the most effective way to communicate?"
How do I create questions that matter?
Creating these questions does not come nearly as easy to me as it does for Ms. Hussey. In fact, it is almost painful at times. I am never one hundred percent happy with my questions and find myself going back and revising them over and over.
I use the following guiding questions to help me reflect on the quality of the question I've created:
Will it pass the Jeremy test? Jeremy was one of my students that was easily disengaged and unmotivated. Would he care about this question?
Is it a question that recurs through other subjects and situations, allowing for wonderful connections to occur?
Is it a question that is relevant to the age group I teach? In my case, is it connected to the world of 9 and 10 year olds?
Is it genuine? Is it a question that I don't know the answer to?
Is a question that recurs throughout one's life? For example the questions, "How does one person's actions impact others?" In the classroom this year, we will explore this question through the study of people, characters and ourselves. I hope exploration of this question helps my students think about the impact of their actions later in life.
Is it a question that has no right answer? I find this is hard to decide. But sometimes I may think I know the answer, but in fact it is really an opinion based on facts or experience, or it is only piece of the answer.
It is non-judgmental and free of hidden agendas? Like "What lessons about life can stories reveal?" instead of "Why is reading important"?
When you ask it, will kids have a lot to say about it? Will it spark their interest? Might it create some differences in opinions? Will they be able to connect their prior experiences to it?
Does it have the potential to provoke deep thought, unpredictable outcomes, new understandings, and new questions?
Some questions I plan to ask this year are:
- Is telling the truth always the right thing to do?
- What influences people's choices?
- What influences people to change?
- What impact can one person's actions have?
- What lessons about life can stories reveal?
- What are an individual's responsibilities to the community?
- What is a community?
- Is writing the most effective way to communicate?
What essential questions will you be asking this year?