Patience: A 21st Century Teaching Skill

I was at a fabric store a few days ago running an errand for my wife.  She needed some fabric for a quilt she is making for our son.  After having the one yard of fuzzy brown fabric cut, I waited in line to check out.  As it was exactly one week from Christmas at the time, the line was long.  Many people were there making last minute Christmas craft buys.  There was an older woman in front of me.  The entire time we waited in line, she complained.  The complaints only got louder as we got closer to the checkout counter.  She said, “I can’t believe they only have two registers open.  My daughter is waiting for me in the car.”  The complaints grew more rude as time went on.  I’m sure she just didn’t want to wait as she knows she has limited time on this wonderful Earth, but why make the experience for others worse in the process?  Enjoy the time you have.  Greatness happens when you least expect it.  Sometimes amazing things happen while waiting. 

My wife and I were waiting for the right match to manifest itself, when we got a call, out of the blue, about a boy who needed a forever family.  That boy became our wonderful son.  If we had stopped waiting or rushed through the process, we would have missed that opportunity.  The same goes in the classroom.  If we rush through things just to be sure we’re covering the curriculum, do we leave time for teachable moments or genuine learning to take place?

Guns n’ Roses had it right, sometimes it just takes a little patience.  We need to be patient when working and interacting with children.  They will make mistakes, they will be slow at solving problems, things will go wrong, and they will frustrate us.  Through it all though, we need to be patient and guide them through the pinball game of life.

What frustrates me though, are not the students but some of my colleagues.  I don’t know how many times on a regular basis I hear people say, “I don’t know how you do it.  Those sixth graders are crazy.  They are so frustrating and irritating.  How can you deal with them?”  The better question is, how can our school deal with people like that?  We need teachers who want to help and guide all students and not just ones they like.  I don’t understand why adults who are easily frustrated and irritated get into the field of education.  If you don’t have patience, why did you become a teacher?  When they were searching for a career path, what led them astray?  Who said being a teacher was easy and filled with no stress?  Perhaps our life readiness centers are defunct and need an overhaul because clearly the wrong message is being sent to young adults around the globe.  So many people go into teaching for a year or so and then fail out or can’t handle it.  Where’s the perseverance and patience?    And we wonder why so many of our students are failing.  It’s not the students failing.  It’s the teachers who are failing our students.  We need teachers who want to teach because it’s hard and challenging.  We need people who can persevere.  It’s time we overhaul our educational system and find some patient teachers who want to help and guide students.  It just takes a little patience.

Holding Their Focus

As a teacher, sometimes I feel like the old man in the movie Up when the dog darts off everytime he sees a squirrel.  Teaching sixth graders is sometimes like herding dogs in a forest.  To keep their attention, you need to be more engaging than the squirrel.  Now, this can be difficult when covering topics like the mating rituals of slugs or the quadratic formula, but it’s doable.  Sometimes it comes down to attitude.  If you look like you’re having fun as the teacher, the students will see it and have fun too.  Attitudes are contagious like smallpox or the flu, but in a good way.

Today during Humanities class, I was discussing what the students were going to do.  Instead of just explaining the daily agenda, I asked the students to explain what they needed to do regarding the I-Search process.  I called on a few students who had their hands raised after I posed the question, “What are we going to be working on today in the I-Search process?”  I then restated the instructions provided by the students in words that everyone might understand. I also clarified a few points about what to do once they gathered their resources.  To help keep the students focused and engaged while I spoke and facilitated the discussion, I meandered about the room and did not stand in one place at the front of the room.  While the active whiteboard did have my main talking points written out, I didn’t stand at it and guide my way through them.  Doing this allowed me to help those students who needed guidance to stay focused, a chance to reset by tapping them lightly on the shoulder or adding their name into my discussion.  The text on the board helped those visual learners that needed to see what I was saying.  I also called on random students throughout the short explanation to be sure everyone knew what was expected of them during the work period.

During the discussion, there were some students who seemed unfocused.  A few students played with their pencils, rocked in their chairs, or stared at a particular spot in the classroom while I spoke.  To be sure they heard what was being said and processed the information, I called on them to answer questions.  Indeed they were attentive and easily addressed the question.  While I used to think that students who weren’t looking directly at me with nothing in their hands weren’t focused or paying attention, I’ve learned that I was very wrong.  Every student is an individual and learns in his own way.  We need to embrace that but also check up on some students periodically because there are times when those same students aren’t paying attention.  Walking about the room allows me to do this.

I do wonder though, does walking around the room distract some students?  Would it be better if I lectured from the front of the classroom?  The research I’ve read says otherwise.  Plus, I have as much trouble standing still and staying focused as my students, and so staying put in one place is not feasible for me.  I need to move about.  I talk with my hands and use various props around the room.  I feel as though this helps keep the students engaged and focused.  By calling on random, those students who I believe might not be paying attention, students, I’m able to refocus those students who need it.  I’m also able to make sure every student understands the task at hand.

Another strategy I use is energy.  I raise and lower the volume of my voice and change the tone and dialect at times as well.  My hope is that it helps keep the students listening actively.  I also use examples from my own life or pop culture to explain various topics.  This seems to help with engagement as the students can easily connect with what I’m talking about.  This also allows for humor.  Getting the kids laughing is a sure-fire way to ensure the students are engaging their long term memory.  They’ll never forget the time I introduced air mass types by using my rotund belly to explain the tropics as being closer to the sun than the poles.  Humor is my secret weapon in the classroom.

Getting students to focus and pay attention can be difficult and challenging, but is the only way to assure genuine learning and doing is taking place.  It starts with engagement and relevance.  Make the tasks fun and engaging and keep the direct instruction limited or else you’ll never be able to hold their focus.  Learning must be fun for our students.

How to Teach Empathy: Have Students be the Teachers

While I feel as though I’ve always been a kind individual, as long as you don’t ask my mother, empathy was not a value I possessed until much later in life.  Sure, I knew when someone was upset or happy, but I struggled to imagine why they were upset or what I could do to help.  Probably not until my sophomore year in college did I start to develop the skill of empathy.  Why was that?  Is it because empathy is an abstract concept and the human brain develops in such a way that it is only focused on egocentric thoughts?  Or is it that we as humans need to learn this trait as it is not innate?

In the sixth grade classroom, we try to help our students begin to develop this skill of empathy regularly.  Community building, compassion, and empathy are integral parts of our curriculum.  By the end of the year, our students are quite good at thinking about how their peers are feeling.  Selfishly, though, wouldn’t it be great if our students could empathize with us as the teacher too?  It’s hard work doing what we do to help guide students.  If our students knew how we felt and understood what we did, perhaps they’d work more diligently or stay more focused.  One can dream anyway.

However, without realizing it would be a consequence, a group of three students learned how challenging and tiring it is to be a teacher.  Today in STEM class, three students taught the class a lesson on ratios.  Their lesson included a slideshow, partner quiz, and fun group activity.  It was awesome.  At the start of the lesson, we told the three boys that we, the teachers, would be students today and that they would be the teachers.  They liked this thought, that is, until things got difficult.

It started out fine.  The students listened as one student went through the slideshow and explained ratios.  Everyone listened intently.  Then, there was a quiz on the slideshow that the students needed to complete with a partner.  Because the group didn’t discuss how this was going to be done or who was going to ask the questions, they weren’t prepared.  Middle school boys can smell fear and a lack of preparation miles away.  This is when it went south for them.

Two students picked up on this and started shouting out how the quiz should be instructed.  Other students began to get impatient and started meandering about the room.  Meanwhile, the other two group members were setting up their group activity because they forgot to do it at the start of the class.  The student leading the lesson told the students shouting to be quiet or they would leave the classroom.  Those students kept arguing with him.  He kicked one student out of the room but the student refused to leave.  He didn’t believe him.  I didn’t step in at any point.  I want the students to learn how to problem solve and figure things out.

The lesson continued with more talking and arguing, which wasn’t addressed.  So, some of the boys got louder and more out of control.  Then came the group activity.  Things spiraled out of control fast here.  While the three boys explained the directions clearly, they were not specific and they made the challenge too difficult.  The students needed to look for 34 colored tiles and then put them together as a ratio.  The tiles were hidden so well that the students began throwing books and carpet squares around to find them.  The boys stepped on one another and pushed people.  No one was hurt, but things were a bit out of control.  The three student teachers never stepped in.  Then after five minutes of this anarchy, the teachers finally had the students return to their seats.  While they did manage to have a few students clean up the classroom, things were not put back properly.  It was a mess.  The student teachers then reviewed the answer to the activity with much talking from other students.  The three boys never reminded the students of the rules but merely threatened them with consequences.  Did any learning happen in this lesson?  Oh yes indeed, learning did happen, but for whom?

At the close of the activity, the three boys debriefed the lesson with the students.  I was amazed.  They learned the power of reflection.  Then it happened, “You guys were so disrespectful to us.  I don’t know how Mr. Holt and Ms. Nai do it everyday.  It’s hard work being a teacher.”  Wiser words may have been spoken, but all I heard were those in that moment.  Sure, we wanted to have the students teach each others about math concepts, but if the student teachers do the learning too, even better.  The three boys leading today’s lesson now have an appreciation for teaching and what their teachers go through daily.  Perhaps this will help them be better role models in the classroom and encourage their parents to bake us giant chocolate chip cookies filled with empathy.

The students learned more than math today in STEM class.  They learned about empathy and how difficult it is to teach others and keep the class focused.  It’s not easy being a teacher, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.

How Can We Best Support our ELL Students?

Growing up, there were no ESL or ELL students in my school.  Almost every student was native to the NH area.  I never had the experience of having international students or ELL students in my class; and therefore, I never had the opportunity to watch a teacher help or support such students.  This was unfamiliar territory for me.

Not until I began teaching at my current school did I encounter ELL students from different countries around the world.  It’s been an amazing and enriching experience.  I’ve learned about cultures and languages that were foreign to me.  I’ve also learned how to work with students whose native language is not English.  While I’ve never taken any formal training on working with ELL students, most of the strategies I’ve used to support native English speakers has worked with our international students.

However, in recent years, my school has begun accepting more and more international students who cannot speak more than a few basic words of English at the start of the academic year.  This is a struggle for me.  How can I help students who can’t understand me? What can I do?  I can’t say anything because they don’t understand me.  So then what?  Picture prompts work occasionally, but even those are limited when we are covering physics or writing.   While most of our ELL students do make much progress over the course of their year in sixth grade, it seems to be a constant struggle for both the students and us as the teachers.  How can we better serve them and meet their needs?  How can we help them grow as learners and English speakers?  We’ve tried positive reinforcement and using native speakers to translate, but that only goes so far until that student needs to work independently.  It’s also a challenge when occasionally an ELL student doesn’t want to be at our school.  Despite not speaking English, they also don’t want to learn anything.  How then do we work with them?  What about the ELL students with learning difficulties but their parents don’t want to get them tested it because it would make applying to secondary schools a challenge?  While we can make accommodations in the classroom, we’re not trained in special education.  Plus, because we can’t get the students tested, we don’t even know that the actual learning difficulty is.  Then what do we do?

We use extra time in between athletic and academic commitments to work with those students and offer one-on-one support.  That seems to be the best way to help them grow.  However, our free time is limited and so that time was cut this year.  So now what?

We’ll keep trying new strategies and approaches and learn new ways to support our ELL students, but we worry that we’re doing them a disservice.  How can we best support those non-native English speakers grow and develop as students and learners?

Can the Students be the Teacher?

In college, when I didn’t understand a concept, skill, or assignment, I didn’t ask the teacher; I talked to my classmates.  I asked my peers in the class the question I had.  If I struggled with a particular problem, I asked my roommate for help.  I didn’t go to the teacher because I knew that there weren’t teachers to ask when I encountered a problem in the real world.  I needed to learn to solve my own problems and so starting in college was great practice.  To this day, I rarely ask the Director of Studies or Dean of Faculty at my school questions as I solve them myself.  In the classroom, I want my students to do the same thing.  It’s better that they learn to use all of the resources around them now than wait until college.

In STEM class yesterday, the students worked on a project regarding air masses.  At the start of the work period, we had the students set a goal for themselves that they hoped to meet by the end of our time together.  Periodically throughout the period, we would announce reminders about how much time was left to meet their goal.  This helped to keep many of them focused.  Because the students had a choice in what project they completed to meet the objective, everyone was working on something different.  Some boys were writing lyrics for their song about air masses while others worked on their air masses model or foldable.  A few students were so focused that they almost finished their project by the end of the class.

As we have a rule in our class about asking two students before the teacher, the boys have figured out that most problems they encounter can be solved by themselves or their table partner.  In a typical class period, we may guide only 3-4 students.  The boys act as each other’s teachers.  In class yesterday, one student who was struggling to brainstorm ideas, helped his peers understand the concept of fronts and what happens when they interact.  The boys bounced ideas off of each other as they worked.  They were their own teachers.

Our job as teachers yesterday was to tell a student he could go outside to test his model, assess a student’s air mass foldable, and help students locate materials in a locked cabinet in our classroom.  We didn’t have to answer questions because the students were doing that for each other.  The quality of their work was higher because they needed to understand the concepts covered in a meaningful manner so that they could address each other’s issues.

While trained teachers are needed as guides in a classroom, they are no longer the one’s needed to do the teaching.  Students are much better in many cases of helping their peers understand the material covered because they use student language that teachers usually miss.  Sure mini-lessons taught by the teacher are needed in most cases but this direct instruction needs to be limited.  Allow the students to answer and ask questions during these lessons, being sure the content covered and skills introduced are aligned with your curriculum.  We can’t forget that in order to prepare our students for lives in a global community, they need to know how to solve their own problems.

Is there Educational Value in Community Service?

In school, I never had to do community service.  As a Catholic, I had to complete many hours of community service in order to be confirmed in the church.  In high school and college, I took it upon myself to find community service opportunities.  In all my schooling, I was never mandated to perform community service.  In retrospect, that seems baffling to me.  How did I learn to be kind and help others?  I suppose I learned a lot about compassion and helping others from my parents.  However, I wonder what might be had I been given the opportunity to serve others throughout my schooling.

At my school, community service is a vital part of our mission.  To prepare our students for lives in a global society, they need to know how to help and serve others.  However, most of the opportunities our students are given seem superficial and forced.  Helping the headmaster with menial tasks is not true community service.  So, in the sixth grade, we’ve made it our mission this year to make community service a meaningful and integral part of our curriculum.

Today in Humanities class, the students continued working on the community service projects that they began working on in November.  They generated the ideas and process.  Today they continued growing the plans, gathering materials, and talking to people at the school who would be able to help and assist them.  We, as the teachers, meandered about and asked questions, but did not offer much guidance.  We want the students to own their community service.  Some of the ideas include organizing a community sledding party for the local townsfolk, creating a community-wide reduced cost fuel oil plan with the local provider, creating a community garden that is created and maintained by the students with the bounty being shared with the local food pantry and senior center, and a community skating party.  The students brainstormed more ideas and started putting the wheels in motion.  The community skating party is already set for January 11.  The oil group is going to meet with a representative from Irving in early January.  The other groups are very close to bringing their ideas to fruition.  The students were engaged and on task throughout the double period today.  They were excited about helping others and devising ideas.

Was this an effective use of our time?  The students spent 80 minutes working on bringing their ideas to life.  Was this too much time?  Did it take away from the curriculum we need to cover?  Was it a useful activity?  How does it allow the students to meet any objectives?  Why are we really doing this?  These are all questions that have popped into my head since we started working on these projects.  We want the students to see the value in being a good neighbor as they learn about the town in which the school is located.  Rather than tell them what we think they should do, we wanted to give them options and choice.  Our students look at the world from very differing perspectives and so to let them drive this was crucial to the whole process.  They need to own the ideas in order to be engaged.  Is that why they were so focused today in class?  While we don’t have any objectives in our curriculum regarding community service, they are learning how to work together, delegate tasks, talk to adults in appropriate ways, advocate for themselves, and solve problems.  Aren’t these the big skills they need to be successful in a global society?  These projects, one might say, are part of our hidden curriculum.

So, while the community service projects the students worked on in class today are works in progress and will take much more time to develop, they are a productive use of our time together as the boys are applying what they are learning about our town.  They are learning to be compassionate and kind young men and realizing that community service is more than raking leaves and picking up trash.

How Do We Help Our Students Choose their Challenge?

In school, everything was given to me.  My English teacher gave me worksheets, the lunch lady gave me the same food as everyone else, and my math teacher gave me the same textbook my peers used.  I was not allowed to choose anything, not even the person I sat next to.  Because choice was not in my school equation, learning was not fun or engaging.  In fact, I never really tried to learn more than what I was told to because I didn’t care.  I wasn’t invested in my learning process.  One of the reasons I wanted to become a teacher was so that I could offer my students choices so they could make learning fun for themselves.

In STEM class today, our students began working on the science phase of the Weather Unit.  We constructed the weather unit in a way that allowed the students to choose their projects.  For each of the three learning objectives, the students can choose from three teacher-created project ideas and one student-created project.  The projects were created using Bloom’s Taxonomy to offer students levelled choices.  For the first objective regarding air masses and how their interactions result in weather changes, the students can choose to create a unique song or rap, build a model, or create a foldable, or generate a self-created idea to explain their understanding of the standard.  This allows those students who struggle to understand the material and content, choices, while also challenging those accelerated students with higher-level critical thinking projects.  The students who like to think outside the room the box is in have the ability to design their own project as well.  Choices are everywhere in the science portion of the unit to allow for student engagement and challenge by choice.

While the students chose their projects in class today, one student said, “I don’t want to do the foldable project because it’s too easy and taking the lazy way out.  I’m no good at rapping and so the song project isn’t for me either.  I’m going with the model one because I have a great idea.”  So, the students appreciate the options provided.  Our international students needed guidance to select a project that would best suit their needs and appropriately challenge them.  The foldable project allows this.  The right choices were needed for this phase of the unit to be embraced by the students.  They were excited by the opportunities provided.  While many of the students had selected their project before we even began working in class, everyone was able to find the right choice for them.

The students were mostly focused and on task in class.  They were finding songs, designing models, and researching air masses and fronts.  The visual learners could play with models used in a mini-lesson at the start of class, the auditory learners could watch videos, and the readers could research from various text sources.  The boys were DOING science that they chose.  They asked insightful questions and used their peers as resources.  It was inspiring to watch them work.  We, as the teachers, were guides and observers.  The students did the work.

Had we not offered our students choices in how they learn the material and demonstrate their understanding, would they have been as engaged during class?  Would they have been excited?  Would they have worked as diligently in class had we simply lectured at them or had them read a packet regarding the material?  By using choice, did we inspire our students to challenge themselves without realizing it?  Did we offer too many choices or just the right amount?  Is choice the answer when teaching our students?  Is project-based learning effective for all students?

While I’d like to think I know the answers to the questions that circle my mind as I reflect on today’s class, maybe I’m wrong.  Perhaps these choices are too vast and broad.  Maybe the students won’t be able to effectively display the appropriate knowledge because there is too much wiggle room.  What if the students don’t read the instructions or spend too long researching or watching videos that they don’t actually finish a project?  How will I assess them?  Are the risks worth the outcome?  Having done projects like this in the past, I’m hopeful that the students will be able to learn the skills needed to be successful weather students.  Offering choice in how the students challenge themselves is a vital way to bring about genuine learning.

Talk to Your Students for the Best Advice About Teaching

Thinking back on the teachers I had in school, my favorites were the ones who made a connection with me.  They tried to get to know and understand who I was as a student and person.  They asked me questions and talked to me.  While I didn’t necessarily learn the most from those teachers, I remember those teachers and classes more positively and descriptively.  I remember the good feelings I had going to sixth grade English class because Mrs. Lacombe went out of her to find me books that I wanted to read.  She got me hooked on Roald Dahl.  She was amazing.  My love for reading started in the sixth grade because of her.  As an older student and teacher now, I try to encapsulate what she did for me, in my work with my students.  I talk to them, ask them questions, get to know them, and find out what they like and dislike so that I can best help them grow and develop as students and people.

Today during lunch, I had the opportunity to engage the students at my table in a discussion around teaching.  As I always do during every lunch period, I asked the students how their classes were.

One student responded, “Same old classes as always.”  I thought to myself, that’s so sad.

I asked him, “What would make it different?  What do you wish your teachers would do?”

He said, Projects.  I want to do more hands on projects.”  The neuroscience behind learning completely supports his answer.  Students need to be doing and engaged in the learning process for tangible learning to take place.  Why not do projects?  Why not allow the students to explore and test?

This same student then said, “In English class, all we do is read our book aloud as a class the whole period every day.”

I was flabbergasted.  “Really,” I asked.  “You just read aloud from your English book for 40 minutes?”

Then another student from that same class chimed in, “Yes, that’s all we do every day.”

How is that possible?  Why is that style of teaching still permitted?  Do the students step into a wormhole when they enter that classroom?  The students are clearly bored and disengaged, and so why does this teacher continue teaching in this same manner?

Then, I opened the discussion to the other 6 boys at my table.  “What do you wish your classes were like?”

One student said, “I want more time to do my homework.”

I then thought to myself, why do our students have so much meaningless homework?  What’s the point of it all?  I asked the table, “What if we reduced the amount of homework you were given?  What if you had no homework or only homework that was meaningful and important to the learning process?”

The table erupted in, “Yes.  Great idea.”  What’s the purpose of homework anyway?  Is it to reinforce ideas, practice new skills, regurgitate information learned, to bore students, or something else?  Most homework seems to be in the form of worksheets or busy work.  Why?  Where is the learning?

One student said, “I actually hate doing homework and so doing it makes me not learn anything.”  Yet, teachers give it anyway.  If meaningless homework turns students off from the learning process, why do teachers still assign it?

Another student talked about turning in late work and how it negatively impacts his grade.  If students do work that meets or exceeds the graded objective, why does it matter when they do it?  If the objective isn’t about timeliness, then why should they lose points?

So, I gained all of this information from a few students in about 20 minutes.  Now, I already knew most of this from my previous training and research, but it was reaffirmed today.  Imagine what else we could learn from our students if we just talked to them more.  All teachers should be asking their students, “How do you learn best?  What do you want class to be like?”  We would get more buy-in from the students and learning would be genuine if we did this regularly.

So, like Mrs. Lacombe did for me, teachers need to talk to their students and get to know them as learners and individuals.  Our classes could be so much more beneficial for our students if we just ask them what they want.

How Much Teacher Talk is Too Much?

When I was a wee young lad in school, most of my classes were very teacher-directed.  The teacher talked at us for hours on end.  There was no time for us to really DO the learning because we had to listen to old ladies, in my case anyway, drone on and on about history, books, math, and writing.  I learned very little in elementary school because of this overuse of direct-instruction.  I’m very much a haptic learner.  I need to do something in order to genuinely learn a concept or skill.  I wish my teachers had implemented project based learning in the classroom.  I would have gotten so much more out of school if I had more opportunities to talk and explore.  Now, I know that even great teachers have to do some talking or teaching to help students understand and learn a concept; but, how it’s done is what separates the great from the boring.  As a teacher, I still struggle with this idea.  What’s the optimal time or amount of direct-instruction?

Today during Humanities class, our students worked on their I-Search Process paper.  Today’s focus was on gathering resources.  Before the students got to work, we wanted to be sure they understood how to gather their resources, what resources they would need to collect, and how to document this process in writing.  So, I started the discussion by asking students about primary source documents as they need to have one for their research topic.  As the students did not seem to already know this term, I asked them to remember some of the artifacts they saw in the Canaan History Museum.  While this seemed to jar their memory, I also gave them a definition that would hopefully be tangible for them.  I then asked the students to share how they planned to approach gathering resources for their topic.  The boys had great insight and seemed prepared.  My co-teacher and I then provided the boys with a few more strategies to help them better approach the research process.  Following this discussion, I then went over the process they would use in class to gather their resources.  It was posted on the front board and so I merely elaborated on what was already written.  I then reminded them of the specific resource types they would need to collect.  After answering a few questions, they got right to work.  The students were relatively focused throughout the remainder of the work period as they gathered resources, sifted through information online, and explained their research process.  While we did have to remind a few students to document the process they used to locate resources, many of them did this without a reminder.  The double-block seemed to go very well.  We were impressed with the caliber of work the boys accomplished.  They learned some great facts, dug deeply for information and resources, and charted their progress well.  The boys seemed happy about their progress even though a few boys struggled to locate any resources.  Those students persevered and kept looking though.  So, great class, right?  Was it?

Did we talk too much?  We probably used about 25 minutes for our discussion and explanation.  While only about half of that time was filled with our voices, was it too long?  Would the students have been as productive had we just listed the agenda on the board and let them get to work?  Would they have known what to do?  Isn’t problem solving a key skill we need our students to learn?  Is there a more effective way to explain the process?  The students didn’t seem to have too many questions during our discussion, and so, was that because we told them everything they wondered about or because they already knew what to do?  Did we hold back some of our accelerated students by having them sit and listen to our discussion?  Although we did try to engage the students and asked them questions throughout the process, was it enough?  Should we have done this lesson differently?  How much teacher talk is the just right amount?

I don’t have any answers.  But, I would like to experiment a bit.   I’d like to try not explaining our next class activity.  I’ll list the instructions and agenda on the board with the graded objective and take questions before the students begin working, but I will not elaborate on anything unless the students ask about it.  Might this elicit a different result?  Will the students be confused or more focused?  What might happen?  I am curious.  Perhaps I’ll learn that less is more.

Do All Discussions Need a Guiding Question?

One of the greatest philosophers of all time, Socrates, invented an inquiry-based discussion method now referred to as the Socratic Method of Discussion.  It is question-based and each successive person adding to the discussion builds upon what was previously stated.  Generally, the discussion begins with a guiding question of some sort.  This form of discussion is used when discussing a text or particular topic from which support and examples can be drawn.  The discussion is driven by the students with no input from the teacher.  Even if false statements are spoken, the teacher will not correct until after the discussion has ended.  The thought is that the students will regulate and correct each other as they are actively listening.  The history teachers in my school employ this discussion method regularly with great success.  The students enjoy driving the class while also utilizing critical thinking skills needed for success in our global society.

In the sixth grade, we work towards this format for our discussions over the course of the year.  Critical thinking and inquiry are abstract ideas than many sixth graders need to learn and develop.  Today in our Humanities class, the boys participated in a discussion regarding reading and their current books.  The students, in their reading groups, talked about their books during the starting Quick Whip.  Each student shared a tidbit about the book he is currently reading.  Following this, the floor was open to discussion.  The students began by asking a question about favorite books.  This then led into a back-and-forth about which book series was better and why.  The students even challenged each other to add support and explain their answers.  Awesome.  As the teachers, we were not involved.  We were on the outside observing and taking copious notes for the assessment of the students’ ability to effectively participate in a class  discussion.  The discussion could have gone on forever, but we had to cut it after about 25 minutes.  The students enjoyed bantering and discussing books and authors.

While the discussion never got to a high-order level of thought, the students were engaged throughout.  I do wonder though, if we had given the students a specific and critical thinking guiding question, would they have been able to grow the conversation in a more thoughtful manner?  Does every discussion need a guiding question?  What is the purpose of a guiding question?  If discussions didn’t have a guiding question, would the participants ever get to the heart of the matter?  Are topics enough to drive a discussion?  Are question guides crucial to enhancing and driving critical thinking during discussions?  Although I could hypothesize, I feel as though I’m not entirely sure what would help lift class discussions to a critical thinking level.  I’ve tried all different ways.  I’ve used guiding questions to no avail and had the same result with a more open forum.  I’ve had success with guiding questions and topics alike.  Is it the type of question or topic used that helps effectively drive a conversation?

Food for thought.  Gathering data on this topic might prove insightful and interesting while also informative.  Perhaps I’ll keep this in mind during future discussions.  Either way, my guiding question will be, “Do all discussions need a guiding question?”