Saturday, March 29, 2014

Why Ask Questions? To Change the World

During spring break I enjoyed one of those wonderful father-daughter experiences. For six days we travelled in the Northeast to look at colleges. It wasn't about further bonding. Instead, I revelled in suddenly realizing what a self-aware young woman she had become. Even though I've been watching carefully--and I like to believe I'm an engaged parent-- the transformation felt sudden. I really sensed it when she talked about how a college might provide what she craves and needs as a learner. Naturally, I found myself wondering what experiences had fostered this growth. To some extent it results from her nature, and I'm grateful to her teachers who have nurtured it. All good schools will claim, quite earnestly, that they want their students to be reflective. However, that doesn't seem to be an innate part of young people's make-up, at least not in overt ways they want us to know about. So I also found myself doubting whether schools do enough to prompt the desired, very necessary reflection.
I'm sure that some of this pondering has gained momentum because I'm reading Warren Berger's excellent A More Beautiful Question. In it Berger points out the many reasons we may be reluctant to ask questions and don't ask meaningful questions when we do pose any. As you likely imagine, schools receive quite a bit of blame. I have to say, deservedly so. Without summarizing his points, I'll simply give my very general reasons since they have been percolating in my mind for a long time. In a way they come down to what some of our practices suggest we value. Assessment practices usually come down to being able to provide a "right" answer to a teacher-generated query. This is true whether in class on a daily basis or on a test. There are, of course, wonderful exceptions...but they remain just that--exceptions. That truism ossifies in an era of standardization. One also fairly can ask, when students are posing questions, if they are learning about what makes for good questions and how many are strictly about material rather than their learning. I believe we can better balance the two.
Towards that end, I'm trying an experiment in the seventh grade writing classes I'm currently teaching. I'm embedding asking questions into the work. For example, I am not handing the students a rubric for their essay. Instead, as we work on certain topics, they are coming up with questions that then become part of the rubric, with the students deciding which ones to include. For example, we've been working on word choice, especially vivid verbs. For a possible rubric question, one student wrote, "Do my words activate specific images in a reader's mind?" In the first round of peer review, students had to write down nothing but questions in response to what they heard from the author. Each question had to begin with one of three terms: why, how might you, or what if.
The students find this process quite challenging, mainly because it' so new for them. It requires patience on my part, and I'm struggling a bit with how much to show them up front and how much to let them figure out. Somewhere is the sweet spot, and we will find it. I truly believe taking this approach should help them in the long run. I've always considered asking great questions more important than spouting facts. Now, with pure knowledge growing so easy to access, that is even truer. It's true for curation, and it's true for creativity. It's also true for contribution in the grandest sense. As Berger quotes a professor in his book, "We create the world we live in through the questions we ask." No one is going to change the world for the better without asking the right questions.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Excited and Daunted: Back into the Classroom

     After spring break I'm going to teach a special writing course to our seventh graders. I'm very excited about it; but I have to admit, I'm also kind of daunted by the prospect. It really hit me yesterday as one of our tech folks was helping me set things up on KidBlog and Google Drive. Sure, I quickly saw loads of possibilities, but suddenly I felt all kinds pressure to practice what I've been preaching for so long. That, and continue to fulfill my other duties as head of school.
     In spare moments I've been doing planning, gathering and re-thinking materials, reworking schedules. It's been quite invigorating in many ways, and it's tempting to spend all my time working on it. I'm not, but I could. I also think that these next couple of months should help make me a better head, as it's always helpful to see things from the perspective of those you lead. I initiated our 1:1 iPad program, but this will be the first time I teach in it. Having to re-design and re-invent my pedagogy will be healthy and already has prompted extensive reflection. So--and maybe I'm just trying to convince myself--I'm seeing this not so much as an add-on but as a great opportunity. Plus the best part is that I'll have the chance to work closely with some awesome kids for an extended period for the first time in a few years.
     The reflection also has been good because it's provided affirmation of some core beliefs. I have limited time with them, so I've pondered one key question more than the other dozen smaller ones: What is my main objective? Yes, I want to improve their skills in terms of basic composition. But more than anything, I want them to come to see writing as a means to express their unique, creative voices and to enjoy the process. Can I accomplish that by the end of this school year? Not totally. But I can make a great start.
     In the meantime, I plan to enjoy spring break. After all, I'm going to have an even busier than usual final couple of months...and an even more fulfilling time.