Teaching the Foundations of Collaboration: Setting Agreements

In the previous post I described a complex culminating project, the creation of a living museum, in which groups of students collaborated to research,write and perform scenes about life in Ancient Athens. Teaching upper elementary students to collaborate over complex projects does not happen overnight. In my classroom the foundations start way back in the culture of the classroom established at the very beginning of the year. Collaboration requires each student to grasp the idea that the long term common purpose is more important than their individual immediate impulses. In fact “We, not Me*” needs to become the class’s code of conduct, and in this post I shall be describing my process for establishing these foundations.

Most teachers introduce their class rules in the first lesson with a new class, and I did so myself for many years. This has the benefit of making explicit your expectations and, when they are posted on the wall, gives you a convenient third point to refer to when correcting student behavior. This helps to make it more of a procedural issue and less of a personal one. This is certainly way better than having no explicit rules at all and the class running on tacit agreements such as only becoming quiet when the teacher has become really angry. However, I have discovered over the years that there is a great power in investing some time and involving all students in identifying and agreeing upon the necessary ‘rules’ for the class. My Rules become Our Agreements. This brings about a fundamental shift in the dynamic of the classroom from one of power and opposition to one of trust, collaboration and cooperation: what “I am doing to you for your own good” gives way to what we are doing together to help us all learn. 


So, how can a teacher facilitate the creation of class agreements?
I discovered these wonderful questions from Mrs Rouse on Pinterest and adapted them to create my own agreements setting activity. I start the year by rolling out two large sheets of butcher paper each with one of the following questions written in the center,

                           “What kind of teacher would you like to have this year?” 

                 “What kind of students would your teacher like to have this year”

 I have the students respond on the charts in a Chalk Talk activity (see below), one of my class’s favorites, in which you give time for all the students to silently write their responses, link to other students’ ideas with arrows and show agreement to points made by adding a check or a star. Once the activity of responding has died down we gather around one chart at a time and identify the most important ideas. I like to write them out along the top of the paper as criteria. I review the criteria for the teacher, explain anything that might be a problem and promise to uphold their expectations to the best of my ability. Then I give each student four stickers and ask them to place them on the student criteria they think are the most essential. We can easily see where the data clusters by doing this. We discuss whether some criteria are actually covered by others, for example, the class this year decided that Be Ready was already covered by Be Responsible. We also ensure that we have phrased everything in terms of Does rather than Don’ts. If I think that something really significant has been omitted, I will suggest it at this point.

 This year we have just four agreements: Be Kind, Be Responsible, Be Resourceful and Be Respectful.

At the end, I like to add a little drama, so we all stand, put our hands on our hearts and say, “I solemnly swear that I will do my best this year to be kind, responsible, resourceful and respectful!” and then we ceremoniously hang the agreements on the wall in a conspicuous place.

Creating buy-in by negotiating agreed-upon norms empowers the students themselves to become the ones who regulate them. I always post our agreements in the classroom and periodically spend time reviewing them with my class. My key questions are, “How are we doing with our agreements?” and, “Do we need to change or add anything?” I prefer to teach my students not to use names as they reflect on what has been happening, instead to say “some students have been…” because I want them to get the sense that the important focus is on the behavior not the individuals. This helps students to better hear the feelings being expressed rather than become immediately defensive.
I have certainly found that since using this method my classes are much more fun to teach! I am not engaged in a constant battle for control and I have the tools to gently, yet effectively, have students redirect each other’s behavior. In this way I start to teach the values of collaboration, model collaboration at the very highest level of the classroom and begin to bring in the language students will need to be able to negotiate amongst themselves as they move towards complex collaborative projects, later in the year. Although I prefer to use this process in the initial weeks of the year, it could be equally useful to introduce collaboration at the beginning of a specific project later on.

As teachers we all learn from others. Combining ideas into something new and sharing them is, for me a great part of the joy in the work I do and a driving force behind this blog. I am committed to always try to attribute my sources and where possible link back to them. I would be grateful for any feedback if I omit anyone and will be only too happy to make updates to posts. 

As a accredited National Facilitator, I have been heavily influenced by the work I am doing with Critical Friends Groups for teachers, using the materials created by the National Schools Reform Faculty (NSRF) and am interested in exploring how these materials can be used with children as well as adults. The activity above is based upon the NSRF Setting Agreements protocol and the Chalk Talk protocol and has been adapted by me for use with upper elementary students.

“We not Me*” is an slogan I learned from Laura Candler in her highly recommended Back to School Starter Pack available on Teachers Pay Teachers.

I would love to hear about other ways you establish collaboration in your classroom. Please comment to join the conversation!

Have a great week!


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

From Research to Reenactment…..or 55 Kids in Sheets!


Picture walking into an open space filled with decorated stalls and children clad in ancient costume. Visitors wander from exhibit to exhibit as multiple performances happen in parallel. Presenters perform dramatic scenes as if they were characters from ancient times, sharing moments from their daily lives. As soon as a few visitors gather at a stall the scene begins to unfold. Re-enacting history brings history alive for students and visitors, and is an unforgettable experience!
Creating a living museum is an exciting challenge for both students and teachers alike. While it has all the excitement of a play production, it offers students age-appropriate ownership of script writing and direction. It puts students at the heart of the creative process and shifts the teacher’s role from that of director to facilitator. In a play production, the teacher directs students through long hours of rehearsal yet most students end up in the limelight in the final show for perhaps only five minutes, whereas when students present a living museum every scene is performed simultaneously and repeatedly, and every student is a star!
Student research is the starting point. With the key facts in outline form at their fingertips, students collaborate with other classmates to write an original dramatic scene incorporating as much essential factual material as they can. What makes this presentation different from an oral report, and what brings the information to life, is that it is all told in the present tense and in the first person! Add costumes, props, and audience in an open space with display stalls, and suddenly magic happens! Students travel back in time and become, as ours did today, Ancient Greeks in the Ancient Agora. As a concept this could be easily applied to other social studies units. How about reenacting a Colonial Village, a Rainforest complete with protesting endangered species, or an Explorers’ Convention?

The living museum is a culminating activity, an exhibition of learning from the fifth grade year. The task of writing a scene for a reenactment is complex and needs to be built logically upon skills developed in prior activities. I provided my fifth grade students with two key steps before they attempt this task. First, students need to develop the skills of bringing a story to life by showing the action and interaction between characters and creating dialogue which drives the plot. The Lucy Calkins writing workshop approach guides students to show the details of a story as it happened rather than just tell about it. During writing workshop class, students learn to write such stories based on significant personal experiences. A second step, and more complex task, is to learn to write research-based historical fiction. For example, in a presentation focused on a particular aspect of daily life in Colonial America. Each student writes a soliloquy as a character from Colonial Times (plantation owner, baker, slave, silversmith etc) by writing in the first person, giving an account of the daily life of this individual and developing characterization by sharing the character’s wishes, dreams and fears. In this way the third step, and culminating task of scene writing for the living museum, builds upon all these skills but now creates a context where the student must collaborate with a group to develop something yet more complex, incorporating interaction between characters to convey the key facts in a dramatized narrative. Students work together to brainstorm ideas, assign themselves roles, improvise dialogues and devise the details of their presentation. Some choose to include elements of audience participation! Presenters prepare to answer questions or engage in discussion with the audience while still remaining in their character role at the end of their scene.

photo (3)

The Ancient Agora by Maggie Daly

Each year students devise their own original scene to share their research. Some of the most successful have been: Spartans and Athenians disputing which is the better city state followed by an audience vote; farmers sharing agricultural know-how and food samples; traders bringing wares from far off lands to barter; soldiers recalling their heroic feats in famous battles; Greek gods arguing who is the best; ancient doctors healing patients by sleep therapy; Olympic athletes training the audience in the discus, javelin and long jump events; and a chance to debate with the philosophers.

Assessment on the project is threefold. Students are assessed on their research through their individual outline. They are assessed on their group performance in the event itself, and also on the brochure they each create in technology class. This brochure serves as an invitation to their parents, a visitors guide, a reflection on how the project was created and a teaser to raise anticipation about what the audience will do, see and learn.
With students taking on the writing and development of their own scenes, what is the teacher’s role? One key teacher function is time management. The teacher needs to provide sufficient development time and to determine and manage the project timeline. The following process has been tried and tested. Provide two weeks of social studies and language arts time for classroom-based research, a week for brainstorming, a week for writing dialogue and a week and a half for rehearsal. Early on, perhaps after the first three days of rehearsal, hold a first run-through where students present their unfinished scene to the class and receive peer feedback. This provides stimulus and inspiration to groups who are lagging. Gather props and costumes by the end of the first week of rehearsal to further spur progress. This really helps to bring the whole project to life. Performances suddenly improve! Move rehearsals out into the performance space three to four days before the event so that students can incorporate the potential of available natural features, set and props into their performance.
Finally, the teacher/facilitator needs to coordinate materials and people. This is a great opportunity for cross curricula collaboration. Enlist your technology specialist and/or librarian to assist the students to find resources and take notes for their initial research. In art class help students to each identify and create a key prop for their performance. During technology time create a brochure advertising the attractions on display in the living museum. Parents have a role too! Ask them to lend a sheet for a costume and perhaps some extra props to add realism. Notifying parents by email helps to reinforce communication and ensure that all students have a costume on the big day.
The living museum is a high-value learning activity, not only must knowledge be acquired but then it must be interpreted, owned and harnessed to create something original. The task is not just intellectual but leads also to plenty of social learning as ideas must be communicated, listened to, and evaluated. Much of adult life revolves around collaborative work, and it is essential that we integrate teaching the skills of how to ‘make friends and influence people’ into the unwritten curriculum. Students need coaching in how to give one another constructive feedback and how to deal with conflict to achieve consensus. A collaborative project like this one provides a perfect context and I will be sharing the specifics of how I teach the social skills needed to support such a project in a future blog post.
So, are you ready to relinquish artistic control and allow your students to take the responsibility of being architects of their own learning, and write and devise their own dramatic scenes?
If so, then creating a living museum with your class may be just the project for you!

photo (2)

This project was developed in association with my 5th grade colleagues, Ria Maratou and Marla Coklas, whose inspiration, energy and enthusiasm was invaluable in shaping the final presentation.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Look Who’s Talking: The Equity Problem

 Answering questions in Class by Eugenie Kourti Ferrante

If, as I stated in the previous blog post, the person who speaks the most in the classroom learns the most, then establishing equity is an vital consideration in class management. While some children love to contribute in class discussions, others are silent unless actually called upon. Once in a while you will have a student who is such compulsive communicator that he/she completely dominates every discussion in the classroom. How do you regulate the interactions of such differing learners to create the conditions for equity in your class?

Here are four strategies I’ve found useful.

Calling cards

Write each student’s name on a separate small card, perhaps a playing card. Keep these cards handily near your teaching spot. Whenever you are ready to call upon a student to answer a question, resist the temptation to call on one of the waving hands. Instead pull a card from the pack. The result of this small change is that now all the students are forced to prepare an answer to the question in their minds, as no one knows which name will be pulled. This puts an end to the silent fail, students who opt out of answering questions in class and rely on others to do all the brain work while they cruise and snooze.

This is quite a classic in the teacher’s toolbox, but is very nicely described on the wonderful Rick Morris’ site: New Management.

This site, by the way, is a wonderful treasure trove of brilliant ideas for making classroom management simpler and easier to handle.


When I  had a compulsive communicator in my classroom I was at my wits end what to do with her! After many reminders and several long discussions I could see I was not getting through to her. I didn’t want to crush her enthusiasm, but she was completely unaware of how dominating her communication habits were. I finally hit upon the strategy to give her a copy of the class checklist and put her in charge of checking off everyone’s name as they contributed during each lesson. I told her my goal was to make sure that every single student spoke during every lesson and asked her to help me to make sure that we gave everyone a fair share of air time.The effect of this was that she was not allowed to speak again until everyone had participated. She was astounded to discover how little she would be able to speak if everyone had a fair share! A side benefit of this was to make her much more selective about what she decided to talk about and to focus on quality rather than quantity in her responses!

“Get your 2 cents in!”

This is a nice game to play with your class to teach equity. Give each student a paper cup and two cent coins. They should place these in front of them on the desk. During the class discussion whenever they participate they can put one cent into the cup. The goal is to get everyone to get the two coins into the cup by the end of the lesson. This lesson structures communication: students who are normally talkative need to think more carefully about what they choose to say, while it sets a participation goal for those who are normally silent.

Chalk Talk

In this activity only the pens are allowed to do the talking! Hang a large sheet of butcher paper along the wall and invite students to silently respond in writing to a focus question. They can draw arrows to link ideas, add smiley faces, stars and checks to show agreement. The only rule is to read and respond, but no talking! It seems counter intuitive but this change in dynamic leads to greater equity in participation.

Chalk Talk is one of my class’s favorite activities and I first learned it during Critical Friends Group training. This protocol is developed by the NSRF and can be found on their website here.

Do you have a favorite way to promote equity? Please share!


Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Look Who’s Talking!


 Think Pair Share in action, by Maggie Daly 

                   “The person who talks the most in the classroom is the person who learns the most!”

This is a concerning thought, when you can consider how much time teachers spend talking in the classroom! How can we constructively increase students talking about their learning in the classroom? Here are four great strategies you can use in your classroom to increase productive student to student talk.


Think-pair-share is the simplest strategy to increase student participation during lessons. Ask students a question and then, rather than choose one of the waving hands, ask them each to turn and discuss their answer with a predetermined think-pair-share partner. This is a great way to encourage less than confident students who feel nervous to speak out in front of the whole class. Also vocal students now all have a chance to answer the question, so no more groans of disappointment! Finally select one or two pairs to report back their discussion to the class. I often take the opportunity to call on one of my less vocal students who, having now confirmed her answer with a friend, feels more comfortable in responding.
Teach OK!
Teach OK! is a strategy I have learned from Whole Brain Teaching. Teach your students short chunks of memorable material using exaggerated hand mime gestures to reinforce understanding. After you present the concept with students mirroring your gestures, then you ask students to turn and teach to their partner. First A’s teach B’s, then B’s teach A’s. Confident students reinforce concepts for the less confident who then consolidate their own learning by teaching in their turn. Brilliant!


Checking comprehension answers can be a nightmare when young students are unskilled at judging if their answer is sufficiently correct. It seems as if every student wants to give their answer, frequently repeating one another. Does this sound familiar?

Here is the solution! Everyone stands. You choose a volunteer to answer the comprehension question. Anyone who had the same answer should sit down. Anyone who has more to add stays standing. Repeat the process until all students are seated. This way you can deal with misconceptions, discuss the relevance of details, have listeners take notes to improve their answers and finalise the best response! 

This handy strategy comes from Joyful Learning by Alice Udvari Solner.

When teachers give students notes from the textbook, they do all the intellectual work themselves!

If you are tired of working harder than your students, here’s a strategy to shift the load. To jigsaw, divide the assigned reading into sections. Give groups of students the responsibility to read and take notes on their section and teach it back to a student from another group. Students read independently and take notes, then meet with a group of other students who have read the same topic. They discuss and determine the main ideas and eliminate extra details. Then each student is assigned to a group of students who have studied the other assigned sections. They take turns to teach each other explain the material and share their notes. Students love this activity because they take over responsibility for their own learning. They enjoy the challenge of creating their own notes but are reassured by the safety net of confirming their comprehension with the group before taking the on the responsibility of peer teaching.

As students talk through their understandings with their peers they construct and refine their mental models of concepts by a series of approximations. In allowing our students these opportunities we are apprenticing them as knowledge masters who can become architects of their own learning, as opposed to passive recipients to whom the curriculum is delivered. Using these strategies transforms a classroom into a hive of student learning!  

If you have other favorite strategies you use to increase productive student to student talk, please share!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Bitten by the Blogging Bug?

Want to start a class blog? Here’s what I learned in the past four years of blogging with my fifth grade class. 

My blogging journey began in 2010 when I attended a presentation by Dr. Tim Tyson at the NESA conference. Teachers use blogging in many ways: some as a tool to connect with the parents of their class, others as a means to publicize their lesson materials for sale on Teachers Pay Teachers. A third class of blogs, such as award winner Linda Yollis’ 2nd grade blog, are used as a learning tool for the classroom: a place where students can reflect on their learning, respond to discussion prompts and publish their own work. I was immediately inspired by the concept of students writing for students and getting authentic feedback from their readership. Blogging quickly became an integral part of my classroom. 

My 5th grade blog is an open invitation for students to extend their educational experience beyond the four walls of the classroom as they publish stories, reflect on class activities and contribute feedback to one another through comments. With the advent of blogging in my classroom, writing has become an authentic form of communication. The blog has become the web 2.0 version of something between a cumulative yearbook, a news sheet and a class literary magazine.

If you are tempted to have a go yourself, here are some tips on getting started:

Setting up a blog is extremely simple and can be done in less than 15 minutes. My initial blog was hosted on Blogger.com. I later moved it to WordPress.com which gives you more design control. Linda Yollis has developed a very useful wiki on creating a class blog. There are three main issues to decide upon when choosing the settings for your blog: who can post, how the blog will be accessed and whether comments will appear instantly or be moderated before posting.

When setting up a blog you need to consider how you plan to allow your students to post their work. While giving them the status of contributors has the advantage of allowing students to directly publish to the blog, I have preferred to ask my 5th grade students to publish through me by emailing me their posts. This way I can request additional proofreading if necessary and deal with any technical problems, such as posting images. Another consideration is whether to have your blog on open access on the web or whether to have access by invitation only. Obviously some school districts mandate specific access terms, but having tried both, I can say from experience that restricting access to invitation only reduces student participation and makes blogging partnerships well nigh impossible, thus reducing the learning potential of the blog. Currently our 5th grade blog is on open access and I have not experienced any problems. I do get parental permission for our students to participate and am cautious not to connect real names with photographs of students. Finally, setting up the blog so that all comments are moderated by the teacher ensures that I can filter any negative comments, not that this has ever happened.

When introducing the blog at the beginning of the year, I, and the technology specialist, teach students how to access the blog through a permanent link on the class moodle course during a computer class period. We also teach email access and how to attach a document to an email, as these are essential skills to participate in the blog. Occasionally we have students who do not have easy access to technology at home and they are encouraged to use the school facilities to post and comment as equity of access to the blog is a value. Students are given a sneak preview of some highlights from the past years and then encouraged to independently explore the blog further at home.

Posting to the blog is mostly a voluntary activity done independently out of class. When I see students especially excited by a class activity, I often pass someone the class iPad and suggest they take some pictures or video. “Would anyone like to blog about this?” is often all that is needed to incite a volunteer to type up a post during break or at home and they always end their post by inviting classmates to share their opinions in comments. Following the example of previous years, students often choose to post their favorite creative writing pieces to share with their classmates, who enthusiastically respond. Longer pieces are released in installments to build the anticipation, with students writing comments begging for the next episode! Often, when grading, I will invite students to post particularly successful pieces to the blog. For some students blogging becomes a hobby and they regularly post narratives which they have written at home. Occasionally, I will post discussion questions on topics introduced during lessons or assign a blog post as a homework activity.

It is always important to spend some class time teaching the desired format for commenting. I have followed Linda Yollis’ useful guidelines on teaching commenting which can be found on her wiki. I teach students how to write their comment in the form of a short letter and I provide commenting guidelines on the About page of the blog. Correct spelling and punctuation is a requirement to pass through comment moderation. Periodically, I spend Language Arts time checking the comments held for moderation with the class and peer editing them. This has the benefit of raising consciousness and the level of concern about accuracy in conventions. We also collaboratively create a rubric for assessing comment quality as a class. 

Blogging harnesses the potential of technology in the classroom and offers a uniquely immediate relationship between author and audience. Students develop a more natural and spontaneous relationship with writing through blogging. They blog in order to be read by their peers and feedback from their peers inspires them to write more. The immediacy and social significance of peer feedback helps these young authors develop a sensitivity to their audience and to become more skilled in expressing their ideas with that audience in mind. The blog hosts writing of many different genres: from suspenseful story to the steps of a science lab. The overarching goal however is the same: clarity of communication. The blog provides a safe playground for young writers to explore, soar, run with an idea and challenge one another to greater feats. Come and visit us at the OWL blog!

Do you already have a class blog? If so, I’d love to hear how your experience compares with mine. If you are thinking of starting a blog and have more questions, I’d be happy to share more of my blogging discoveries.                What do you think? Does it sound a worthwhile endeavor?

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Teachers: Endangered or Essential?

Are teachers even going to be relevant to education in rest of the 21st century? As I introduce my 5th grade students to blogging and moodle, I sometimes wonder whether, in my desire to engage students using the power of technology, I might not be helping to guide the Trojan Horse into the teaching camp, ultimately leading to the end of our profession…
In this post. I’d like to share some worried, yet essentially optimistic, wonderings.

Looking ahead to the future, it seems self evident that education will inevitably look very different in the digital ages to come. In a world where computers are able to use data analytics based on our every click, our personal computers will come to know our interests and be able to connect us with related resources much more effectively than any teacher. Materials created by the “best” teachers will be available to all who can access technology. Kahn Academy already claims to be filling this niche. Their clear explanations can be played over again and again with no sense of embarrassment for the student or time limits on the part of the teacher.

Will the classroom be a thing of the past or will teachers still have a unique role in such a context? I would like to argue the latter! A good teacher does not just repeat and repeat the same lesson. She questions a confused student to analyze and respond to the source of misunderstanding and then reteaches it the way the child needs to learn. She subtly reads a multiplicity of non-verbal and verbal cues ranging from doubt to incomprehension, wavering focus, or incipient boredom. In response she continually orchestrates a response for the class: varying the pace, energy and level of activity to meet their needs. A good teacher explicitly scaffolds a shared context for new learning by telling stories or eliciting student experiences to connect the lesson to prior knowledge. She brings with her an in depth knowledge of this particular community of learners and uses this to facilitate a collective exploration in which students debate, discuss and spark ideas off one another.

Teachers inspire their students through example and through sharing a contagious enthusiasm for their subject. This can open whole new and unexpected areas of interest that might never be ignited by merely passionless Stumbling Upon a web page. Complex new ideas are often off-putting and a teacher who can pose and answer questions to help a student find meaning is a personal guide as the student becomes familiar with new territory. A teacher ensures structure and direction towards collective growth in the best long-term educational interests of her students. Will the students of the future be learning independently, yet meander in endless fractals, elaborating a small area of interest at the expense of wider knowledge?

Teachers engineer discussions bringing students into conflict with their preconceptions, challenging their established beliefs, and raising ethical dilemmas. They introduce students to the ambiguity of truth. They even set up group projects and activities to challenge existing social dynamics. Will a world of education based on yet more of what we “Like” already, not comfortably ensconce us all within our prejudices so we never need to venture out to associate with, or understand, others who are not “suitable” or “nice”?

A student encounters many teachers throughout their school life. Each different personality brings positive, and negative, lessons in how to relate, what it means to be human, how to work productively in society and an insight into the varied perspectives there are on the human experience. So many of us remember those teachers who took a personal interest in us. The trust that they engendered enabled them to become influential in shaping our lives. Without this essentially human interaction with our teachers will we grow up like Vulcans, rational yet unable to feel?

In the future, will access to insightful teaching become the prerogative of the privileged few or will it continue to democratize the access to knowledge and subvert the standardization of truth?

What do you think?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Unlocking the keys to knowledge.

Why do we spend so much time evaluating how well students can answer questions, yet spend virtually no time at all teaching them how to ask them?

Questions are the keys to knowledge. The ability to frame questions to access knowledge, to think critically and exercise judgement are key intellectual tools which can adapt to any workplace. The best we can predict about the future of the youngsters we are educating today is that their future jobs are unpredictable. Learning subject content will no longer be enough when no one can be certain which content of all will be relevant in their adult lives. Surely, we need to teach students to frame powerful questions now, more than ever!

When teachers ask the questions they control the direction, the pace and the scope of what is to be covered. In setting up a new course of study teachers actually learn a lot themselves by going through the process of inquiry, research, sifting and structuring information, and pulling out the fundamental questions around which to base assessments. By this stage all the interesting creative decisions have been made and all the student is left with is to copy the notes, answer the worksheets and study this regurgitated pap for the test; basically to color in the spaces in a endeavor which is as akin to genuine intellectual activity as painting by numbers resembles creative artwork.

Now don’t get me wrong, I have done as much of this kind of teaching as the rest, but the longer I do this job the more I realize that the real learning is in the struggle, in the preparation, and that if I am to help my students and equip them with the useful skills they will need for life, I need to make them apprentices in this process, and teaching the skill of asking questions is the first step.

In my classroom we have always traditionally begun units of study in science and social studies with group brainstorming sessions, charting what we know and what we would like to learn about the new topic; what is known in the trade as a K.W.L. Chart. However, students’ questions can often be quite limited as they use a “who, what, where, why, how” approach. This year an inspirational colleague, David Nelson, introduced me to the work of The Right Question Institute, and I began to realize that I could teach my students to ask much better questions.

One important factor to writing better questions is to provide a well thought out “question focus”, which can be a keyword, a phrase or a statement. This is written on chart paper and groups of students are asked to silently generate all the questions they can around this idea for about 5 mins. The only rules are to keep on writing until the time is up and not to comment, criticize or attempt to answer others’ questions. The next step is to identify open and closed questions, and to practice changing the open questions to closed questions and vice versa.

Following this plan, we wrote questions around the question focus of a “mystery explorer” before students began their research into a specific explorer of their choice. We repeated the exercise with a “mystery element” question focus before researching specific elements. These pre-research questioning sessions allowed the students to flesh out the breadth of inquiry they would need to pursue in order to give a well rounded account of their chosen subject. Certainly I could see the depth and quality of the students’ questions improving as they became more experienced in asking thoughtful questions, and they found this activity really interesting and engaging.

What I did not do, and plan to do next year, is to go through the process of prioritizing and organizing these questions with the students and have them create the research guide sheet from their own questions. At this stage in my own learning, it is still a challenge for me to truly honor the students’ questions and allow them to authentically steer the research process. If anyone reading this has experience in this area, I would be very grateful if you would contribute a comment below.


Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments