Classroom questioning of students is an art, not a science. Whether a teacher does it one-on-one or in a group of five or for an entire class of 30, questions are at the core of the teacher’s quest to have students grasp content and concepts. Or to have students probe more deeply what their classmates and the teacher assert. Or to stretch students’ skills of speaking in groups. Or fixing mistakes when students stumble. Getting the best sequence of questions asked of students, that is, using an initial one and then follow-up questions constructed like a ladder takes time and thought. Different aims in a lesson generate different kinds of questions and such questions are the meat-and-potatoes of teaching.
Much knowledge of asking classroom questions comes from direct experience in teaching, some is intuitive, and some comes from trial-and-error. And even some comes from books. Framing the question is what the teacher does prior to teaching, say, in a lesson plan and also during the lesson in the midst of back-and-forth exchanges between teacher and students. Which students to call upon and how to call upon them (e.g., cold calls, choral questions, name first or name last) is also more art than science.
I raise all of these points about questions (but not student answers) from watching Anne Giocondini, a 9th grade teacher of English in her first year at Summit Prep, conduct a lesson on poetry on March 22, 2016. Her written-out questions on the white board, in the handouts she gave students, and in the ensuing discussion reminded me for the umpteenth time just how crucial to student learning are the skills of constructing and asking students questions.
Giocondini, a graduate of Grand Valley State University (MI), became a Fulbright teacher at Kirovohrad State Pedagogical University (Ukraine) where she helped teach preservice TESOL teachers and translators for a year before coming to Summit Prep. Why Summit? The school “aligned with my values, doing project based teaching, and mentoring.” As a first-year teacher she has the same room all day to teach her block lessons of 90 minutes each, periods of Summit Reads and Mentoring. What she had on the walls of her room and how she arranged classroom tables for students to sit mirrored her aims for the 9th grade English class.
The day’s agenda (see above) was clear. The teacher began the Warm Up when the class began at 8:15 with the question directed at 24 ninth graders who had been creating their poems in previous sessions: “Did I include Imagery?” On a slide projected on the screen in front of the room, Giocondini lists what students are to do with their partner’s poem and then their poem:
*”Open PLP (Summit’s online Personal Learning Plan)
*Open Partner Poem
*Open Partner Poem Revision Task Card 2
STOP AT CHECKLIST
All students open their Chromebooks and go to their PLP and their table-mate’s poem. I scan the room and every student is either reading their screen or clicking away to answer questions that are on Task Card 2. Giocondini walks along the aisles, stopping at one table and then another asking questions and listening to student queries. This continues for about 10 minutes.
The teacher segues to next task on agenda and tells students that they will revise their partner’s poem to include imagery. Before they move to that task, she put a slide on the screen: “Imagery is the name given to the elements in a poem that sparks the senses.” Sight, taste, touch,smell, and sound are enumerated on slide. To pin down the concept, Giocondini asks students to practice imagery with their partner using prompts on a slip of paper she hands out (e.g., “I do not like junk food”). She then cold calls on two different students to repeat what tasks they will be doing in next few minutes. Each one repeats the tasks correctly. Students go to work. A stop watch on the screen beginning at 5 minutes ticks off. Teacher moves up-and-down aisles to see what pairs of students are doing, offer suggestions, and answer questions.
I scan the class and every student is engaged with one or two other classmates.
After time elapsed, Giocondinia stops the class and asks class for examples of imagery that they added to prompts written on the slip of paper. She “cold calls” a student–to “read out” his. And then onto others to “read out” their images. To some of the student answers there is laughter at vivid images. Students clap at each other’s contributions. Teacher asks entire class which of the five senses is written about in examples of images; students respond chorally. Giocondini now moves to next part of lesson–Work Time: Partner Poem Revision (see above photo of agenda). She tells students they have 20 minutes to revise their partner’s poem. They open Chromebooks and begin task; many talk to their partner and compare stanzas and images (two pairs work next to me and as I click away taking notes on the lesson I can hear their conversation). Teacher goes around the room making suggestions, inspecting revisions, and answering questions. Students carry their Chromebooks as they move about the room to check in with classmates on revisions they made in poems.
In looking around the room, all but two students are engaged in task; within a few minutes, the teacher gets to the two and they return to task.
Teacher announces that 10 minutes remain. Students work until teacher asks students to close Chromebooks–she uses the phrase, “professional courtesy.” A student next to me leans over to a nearby classmate and tells him to close his computer. Teacher says “if you can hear my voice, clap once,” quarter of the class claps. “She then says if you can hear my voice, clap twice.” Two-thirds clap twice. Quiet descends in room.
Giocondini then moves to next part of lesson, the Theme Poem. She explains what a theme poem is and projects a slide of a Maya Angelou poem (with her photo) that they had read earlier in the year called “Still I Rise“. Giocondini reads the poem to class. Slide appears on screen with question: What is the theme of “Still I Rise?”
To refresh their memory of theme taken up in an earlier lesson, the teacher shows slide of what constitutes a theme and whether the theme is specific, universal, etc. (for Giocondini’s plan about theme poems, see here). She asks class what is the theme of “Still I Rise.” She calls on students who raise their hands. Giocondini asks students to support their answers with words from the poem. What emerges from back-and-forth discussion among students and between teacher and class about the theme of the Angelou poem is that people can overcome obstacles by rising above hate. Giocondini then moves to final task of lesson which is for students to pick a theme poem from a playlist she has compiled, read it carefully, and analyze it with their partner for its theme. She gives students 20 minutes to do this task. They open their Chromebooks and commence working. I scan the class five minutes later and, apart from one student secretly glancing at his cell in his lap, all appear to be working on task. Giocondini walks up and down aisles conferring with students, making suggestions, and responding to questions.
When time came to end for this task, the teacher says: “Who can hear my voice, clap once.” She continues until the ninth graders are quiet. After asking students to close Chromebooks, chattering rises and Giocondini uses drill with clapping. One student behind me shushes others near him who are talking; another student says to a nearby classmate to use “professional courtesy,” that is, close the Chromebook.
Giocondini compliments the class for all that they have done in the hour and a half period and then previews the work they will do for the next time they meet. She then cold calls a student and asks him to tell the class what the homework is and what they will be doing the next time they meet. The young man repeats all of it correctly. Students begin to pack up in the final minute and then Giocondini releases students to go to Summit Reads, the next class on their schedule.
Teacher questions of all sorts permeated the 90-minute block period and drove this lesson on poetry.