This is a quote from my first professor in my Masters program at the University of Kansas. “Mr. Dolezal, if teachers spent the majority of planning time crafting high quality questions over text before reading it with students, reading scores would go up dramatically.” That rings in my head every time I observe a teacher asking questions while they read a text with students. Especially when those questions are shot from the hip and not preplanned.
Crafting high quality, discussion based questions over the text they are reading could be one of the most important factors in raising student achievement in the KCK district. In reality, once a teacher has gotten good at it, it takes very little time. I remember the last English class that I taught. For every lesson plan, I would preview the reading and choose stopping points in the text for discussion. I would craft a question that I wanted to ask for every place I stopped reading to discuss. The level of engagement and rigor increased as I got better at it and I realized that I made my job so much easier. The more students got used to engaging in discussion, the deeper we could go into understanding and mastering standards through the reading of text, not in isolation of it. These questions were not recall or to see if students were following along but very subjective questions that required thoughtful response.
I think about the Professional Learning Community time that teachers spend on writing assessments, creating activities, creating calendars for assessments and reading segments. (They also spend a lot of time venting which is sometimes a catharsis to all of the mandates put upon them.) All of this time was spent well but do they skip the creation of lesson based DEEP questions and activities to process those questions?
The first years of my teaching, much of my training came from one of my many mentors Kelly Young. I remember he would take a room full of adults and engage them deeply in a unit of study created for students. (The very same units teachers would be teaching to their students.) Teachers would engage in deep meaningful text-based discussion. Funny thing was, I believe that the majority of the work Kelly did for training was simply the selection of high quality text, and knowing when and where to stop and have the adults process the text. There was very little to no coloring of pictures, very little identification of solitary literary elements and pieces of figurative language, no complicated lesson plans, no confusing graphic organizers, but the true authentic processing of text. There was modeling and the gradual release to adults assuming full responsibility of the ideas they rendered from the reading. It embodied summarization, evaluation, visualization, questioning, and synthesizing. Is this not the type of learning that we want for our students?
I am not downplaying the importance of a standards based education. Standards are important. I think it is time that educators zero in on the essential components of standards. They then connect these standards with high quality questions for processing in every piece of text that students encounter. I just keep asking myself the question…”What if?”
What if we spent a large portion of our common planning time creating banks of great high level discussion questions for the text we were reading? What if we looked at those questions and chose structures that we would use to have students process those questions independently, in pairs, in groups, as a class, modeled by the teacher and other students? What if then we used those same questions to have student write deeply about those questions to check for understanding? What would that do for our students?
Think about the arsenal a teacher is now equipped with when they have a multitude of great questions to utilize in every lesson. Text to text, text to self, text to the world, the possibilities are endless. They could connect multiple texts students have read together in a stream of questions that could hit every level of metacognition. It could cover all those essential standards that students must know and also surpass many of the lower level abstract and confusing standards that no one really knows what they mean. All they would have to do then is fill in essential background information, plug-in cooperative learning strategies to have students process, and create simple checks for understanding.
We have made teaching too hard with all the accountability measures we have put into place. Teachers spend too much time trying to understand standards and grade books, creating tests that will measure these standards, test prepping students for high stakes assessments, and way too much time spent worrying about the amount of time it will take to teach the allotted standards. They are forced to spend less time on the instructional delivery of those standards. I am not downplaying the importance of understanding standards nor the assessment of them. They are critical. But have we lost a balance that is so critical to our work?
I encourage teachers to spend some time writing high quality discussion based questions for their upcoming lessons and see what impact it has on learning….this is my challenge to the system.