Sunday, June 14, 2009

Student Agency? Questions as meaning-making tools...

(Most of this post was written on May 7--I'm finishing it up today)

A quiet, generally hard working 9th grader in class today wasn´t helping out his group. Today wasn´t the first time this has happened... He´s well liked and does his homework showing a well-developed level of responsibility (HW is a stretch for many of my students).

I had recently partially reconstituted this 4-person table, switching out a couple of students that needed a lot of support and added a couple of pretty active students to that table. These fairly active students joined 2 quiet and 'responsible' students. I did this about a week ago.

So now when I re-visited this table several minutes later, only 1 of the new boys was working. I quickly deduced that the main problem was that the 2 boys who were originally from the table didn´t know what to do and were being pretty passive about this. I chose the boy mentioned above to start with...

I asked him what their table´s experiment was about. I probably used a dangling proposition, then, too. He couldn´t tell me. So I went about asking several questions trying to see where his thinking was at. I quickly saw that he was lost so I changed my track. I said, OK I´ve got a deal for you, ask me any question you want to try and figure out what you need to know to help your group.

He couldn´t come up with a single question even with my help. Why? Was he on the spot and his mind shut down? I was rather matter of fact about things so I didn´t put him in a pressure cooker but still this might have been part of the explanation. Was he resisting my questioning and directions? In other words was he silent as a way to retain some control--AKA ´the silent treatement´? Maybe...but he wasn´t acting sullen or angry...

I didn´t know what was the deal but the group was ticked with him and he wasn´t helping so I asked him to step aside and that I´d be with him in a few minutes. I then helped the remaining members and they got up to speed, quickly.

About 3 minutes later I went back to where he was standing (I´ve got a huge room) and asked him if he knew what he could have asked me and he was silent then shook his head. I could see this wasn´t going to be a quick intervention so I asked him to stay after class to talk for a few minutes (I had prep next period). He agreed and went back to his table.

The bell rang; classmates cleared out. We sat down and I worked to understand why he hadn´t sought to understand things, just, ¨I don´t know¨. I certainly gave him plenty of prompts to ´ask me a question´. He said he doesn´t ask questions in any class. Our team of teachers know him as a good natured, generally hard working student that is sometimes frustrating to teach, too.

After more talking, I figured out that he doesn´t know how to use questions as a tool to dig himself out of confusion. This was a major revelation, I've been teaching many years and knew that sometimes students were so lost they didn't know how to work their way out of it, but I really think I need to focus more on this next year.

I've used "sentence starters" like, 'give me an example of what you mean', 'what are you talking about', 'why are we studying this', 'what does x mean' etc. I taught this student these and over the following days helped him practice them and indeed he did take a more active role in his group :-) including knowing what was going on more and being able to ask me questions. This is a start.

Many students may need extensive help to take control over their learning. What support in a GCoS classroom can I provide them?
  • How does this support look?
  • How can I include this support, especially at the start of the year, on a day to day basis?
  • How can I assess where students are at on this skill? Probably scenarios would be helpful.
  • Obviously many educators have created lessons and structures to support this. It would be nice not totally re-inventing the wheel...

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