I was working with a small reading group last week when one of my students asked an interesting question. We were reading about explorers from our social studies textbook and I had them look at the map of Washington State printed inside the front cover. “What’s that?” asked Jesse, pointing to Vancouver Island.
“That’s Vancouver Island. It’s about 300 miles long; mostly wilderness. It’s beautiful there,” I replied, remembering my honeymoon 30 years ago.
“But why does our school district own it?” he replied, pointing at the words “Property of Edmonds School District,” stamped neatly on the island.
Had it been anyone else – any adult, that is – I would have come back with something snarky. Perhaps, “That’s nothing, you should see the District’s holdings in Northeast Saskatchewan!”
But I was nice. “That’s a stamp, Jesse. The School District stamps all their textbooks in case they get lost. They just happened to stamp it on Vancouver Island, which is part of Canada. That was an excellent question, by the way.”
And it was a good question. I know it was because six of the eight kids in the small group also thought our school district owned Vancouver Island. Because all the books had the same stamp in the same place.
So thank you, Jesse, for asking a not-stupid question. And for reminding me of something that’s so basic to my job: you never know what your students don’t know.
You can estimate it, of course, and plan accordingly. You can make sure to review multiples and factors, for example, before launching into long division. You should probably review paragraphs before you start teaching your kids how write essays. That’s just common sense.
But you can never know what your students don’t know.
And that why it’s so very critical to create a culture of safety in our classrooms. You have to make sure kids are comfortable asking questions about anything. But how?
First of all, a disclaimer: I am by no means an expert. I haven’t written books on creating a warm classroom climate, and frankly it’s not really what I would call my “strongest suit.” I can only offer what I do in my classroom and add that it seems to be working.
I start by modeling curiosity. When I’m wondering something, I ask it out loud. I do it all the time. “I have no idea why people don’t ride zebras,” I wondered once. And then I found out, and shared it with my class the next day. As teachers we need to act like learners. We need to act like we believe learning is fun.
I also make it clear that in my classroom, questions are as important as answers. Maybe more so. I’m not intimidated by them; even the ones I can’t answer. My students tend to have a lot of questions, especially during science and social studies. Especially when we study issues like slavery or Native American removal. I can’t answer a lot of those questions. I can only try.
But the most important way I work to create a safe learning environment is the use of open-ended questions. I use them regularly, especially when I write my learning targets. I don’t ask students to “tell me how many quarts are in a gallon;” I’ll ask them to “tell about gallons.” Instead of “Tell the three goals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition,” I have them “Tell why Lewis and Clark were sent across the continent.” It’s a subtle, but important, difference. Open ended questions invite everyone to answer to the extent of their knowledge. Those who know more will write more; those who know less will write what they know.
That’s what I do to create a curious classroom culture. What do you do?