It’s my second year teaching high school. I work in a big school with about two thousand students. In Grade 11 Advanced English we study Macbeth.
“Miss, do we really have to write another essay?” a lanky boy in the front row asks.
“What are you proposing? Do you have another idea?”
“We should make a play,” a girl suggests.
Another girl says, “We could invite other classes to watch!”
The students slouched in the back of the room adjust, leaning into the discussion.
“How would we begin?” I ask.
The students talk at once, shocked that the idea of substituting an essay is possible. The volume in the room grows.
“We’d have to decide how much of the play we want to do,” a girl says.
“And we could have jobs—”
“—I could do costumes!”
“I want to be a witch!”
“Everyone can do something backstage too.”
“We can turn our portable into a theatre—”
“What if I brought in lights my dad uses at Christmas for our stage?”
“—and I can bring in a cauldron.”
“Jo can make a head for the end!”
I stand by the board at the front of our portable, trying to capture their thoughts in chalk as they fire them out one after another. They brainstorm until the board is full.
“So does this mean we can do it?” a boy asks.
I pause for dramatic effect, squinting my eyes, squishing my lips up into a thinking face. “Hmmmm,” I say. “You make a really good case. I would love to support you on this—where does the writing fit?”
A girl stands up, talking and moving her arms. “I know! We can write a reflection on our characters or a reflection about what we learned.”
Working with teenagers I witnessed creativity every day. We staged Macbeth in our portable that semester. Students collaborated to make props, to paint large sheets of paper to use as a backdrop taped to our chalkboard. Students decided which scenes to include. From directing to acting to finding an audience for the work, the students engaged in every step of the creative process. We had some challenges with meeting deadlines, getting along, balancing different levels of enthusiasm for the project—but the students persevered. Our audience (another Grade 11 class) surprised us by showing up in Elizabethan-inspired costumes. We all learned a lot about how to bring an idea into being, about how to create.
Creativity is the swirling energy that starts with an idea and expands with each new connection, idea by idea, until the ideas land somewhere, turning into something to be shared. Creativity is about process, the ways of bringing an idea into being, the act of creating.
To begin take some time each day to capture ideas–as many as you can. And then when it feels right, try some of them on.
I have always loved questions.
My earliest memory of using questions in my teaching was about fifteen years ago. Grade 11 high school English. We studied Lord of the Flies by William Golding. Using a piece of blank 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper, I wrote in black sharpie the names of themes around the edges of the page, leaving the centre blank. Friendship, good, evil, life, death, nature, survival, rules, and so on.
I set a timer for twenty minutes. Students filled the white space with questions about all the themes listed around the border. They filled their page with questions, only questions.
The next step was to review their questions and highlight three that were burning, that fascinated them most. I collected the sheets. I typed up the three questions from each page into a master list. The next day I distributed the master list and students prioritized the list of questions from most difficult to easiest, or most pressing to least. This list of questions became the focus of our study of Lord of the Flies. Sometimes the students used the questions as writing prompts in their daily journals.
We selected one question a day to work on together as a class. Big questions like: what is the meaning of life? We brainstormed on the chalkboard in crazy mind maps developing theories and tried to link them to the story. Sometimes one question lasted several days. As I used this approach in later years we often ended up going really deeply into one or two questions for the whole book.
As a young teacher I realized my high school students in university prep courses could write well. All the technical features were there. I had very little feedback to give them on paragraph structure and word choice. Where the students fell short was in critical thinking. They were parroting back our conversations from class in their essays, often sharing my ideas. It shouldn’t be about my ideas. It should be about the student’s learning. A senior student’s writing may not have had spelling errors but when I went back to check it for meaning, it was dull.
I wanted innovative students who knew how to question, make connections, challenge each other’s thinking. I wanted my students to be creative and critical thinkers.
All students can generate questions.
When I taught Drama I experimented with question improv games. Students created scenes on the fly but could only use questions when communicating verbally. Questions are inclusive, levelling the playing-field for students. If everyone asks questions all the time then no one feels shy contributing.
When I first started teaching I thought it was my job to assess and evaluate the students’ answers. I’ve learned that the questions are far more important.
In an age where anyone can access information, critical and creative thinking skills are vital: essential skills for 21st century learners. From kindergarten to Grade 12, all students can learn through questions.
Now when I visit classes I’m inspired by the use of inquiry. Kindergarten students are encouraged to wonder. Grade One and Two teachers are sometimes using an emergent lesson design that follows students’ interests and questions. Teachers are creating the conditions for intentional interactions.
A number of the teachers at my school are curious about the impact of inquiry on student achievement. I can see it’s igniting the teachers’ love of learning and bringing teachers together in new ways to collaborate on how to help students generate and explore their questions.
As a school leader I want to use questions more too.
Our staff learning sessions are organized by using questions as agenda items. I try to include a couple questions on the weekly memo. Last week the question for student well-being was: how can we support our students in learning how to develop and maintain friendships?
Questions promote reflection and encourage collaboration. Questions celebrate diversity, inviting multiple perspectives. How are you using questions as a teacher? As a leader? As a learner?
From technology to psychology, questions are revolutionary. Maybe the answer to “what is the meaning of life?” isn’t in the words at all, but in the question mark itself. We are all searching.
A teacher in my school shared this video yesterday. Questions inspire. So, how can we ask more questions in 2015?
“You have to name the learning,” she said. “NAME the LEARNING.” Teachers have lightbulb moments too!
It’s an exciting time to be an educator. The research on learning and student achievement has reached new levels and at a rapid rate since the Internet became Queen. Edu-geeks around the world are finding each other across the Twitter-sphere, the uni-Facebook, and many blog-topias.
Research-based teaching strategies are now accessible to most teachers in North America, certainly in Ontario. I have access to more exciting research in education from my recliner at home then I did when I spent hours in the Faculty of Education libraries during my B.Ed and grad school.
What was life like before Edugains?
Before Edugains, as a high school teacher, I relied on my colleagues to share their experiences, to pass on the giant binders of knowledge when I started teaching a new course. The tradition of binder sharing was focused on the content, the stacks of comprehension questions about Hamlet, the lists of essay topics, and the folders of group seminar projects. The focus was on what students knew about the play. We interpreted curriculum based on student learning about the characters in stories. My main source of learning as a teacher was from my colleagues.
I was lucky to work with an amazing English department. The staff were conscientious, hard-working, passionate about being teachers. But I wonder what it would have looked like in my early years of teaching if I had access to all the great stuff out there now…the great stuff out there about LEARNING.
The first workshop I attended outside of my school was in my fifth year of teaching–and I was the presenter!! Professional development and teacher learning didn’t seem to be a priority for my first ten years of teaching. I didn’t have access to anything outside of my school building.
Edugains is one of many dynamic sites out there leading the way in linking research with practice.
Why didn’t I focus on learning then?
If I could go back and teach high school English again I would toss the binders out the window. I would sit down with my curriculum, underline the verbs for that course, and put together a program that is skill-based. I would focus on what students need to learn rather than what I need to teach.
Why do students write essays in English class? To share their learning. Easy answer. But in twelve years of teaching English I didn’t ask my students about their learning. I asked students about their thesis and outline and essay. I commented on paragraph structure and grammatical errors. We discussed the relevance of their quotations to their arguments. But I can’t recall ever engaging in an explicit robust discussion about learning. What do we learn from Hamlet? What did YOU learn? What do we learn from essay writing?
I bet my students would say that an essay was a product of what they knew about Hamlet. Where in the curriculum has it ever said that students need to know Hamlet? I bet my students missed many other great things we can learn from essay writing because we didn’t name our learning. We named the minute details of story.
Literature is important but it is a vehicle for learning communication and thinking skills, a support for students to understand themselves and their world. I would want my students to be able to name their learning. I wonder what students would say if I probed deeper when they answered that they learned about Hamlet with a simple repetition of “what else? What else did you learn? And what else?”
I began teaching over fifteen years ago. My edu-view has shifted. It’s all about learning now. My learning, student learning, and staff learning. What are we learning? Can we name it?
So last week I’m sitting among my enthusiastic staff at a Professional Learning Community (PLC) session, when a teacher in our NTIP program shared her lightbulb moment. “You have to name the learning!”
Then she asked if she had now earned her edu-geek badge.
What I love most about education research is that it all fits together. The pieces seem like separate “initiatives” (educators cringe at this word), but there comes a moment of awakening in every edu-geeks development where the pieces all become part of something greater. It all comes down to one word: learning.
It’s embarrassing to admit but I didn’t know how to define the word “learning” after being a teacher for ten years. When a prof in grad school asked us to define “learning” I drew a blank. It seemed so abstract. The definition for learning is so simple: change. Learning is change.
Before students can name their learning, educators need to know how to name their own learning. So my hope is to do regular blog posts about my learning.
My theory of action is: If I become better at sharing my learning, then I will be able to better support my staff in sharing their learning who will be better able to support students in sharing their learning.