How do I know I have something worthwhile to say? Writing a blog can feel like declaring yourself the authority on something, having the audacity to believe yourself in possession of vital insights. How can I sit here and write for CORElaborate, thinking people need to hear what I have to say? Maybe one key is acknowledging that I don’t have, and don’t need to have all the answers. As a matter of fact, I think that answers stop the conversation – if you have found the answer, what’s left to talk about? I try to be a question asker.
In my music classroom, the kids think I have all of the answers. I had a complaining student ask me, “but why do I have to play the recorder? When am I ever going to use this in my life?” I didn’t have the answer, but I did have questions. When I asked him why he didn’t want to play it, he said because it was too hard. After I gently pushed him to keep trying until he succeeded and then asked him how he felt, his smile was the clear answer. We discovered together that why he needed to play the recorder was to practice persistence and grit. In my opinion, these skills are the main things he needs to achieve his high school diploma, pursue his college degree and excel in his career… possibly as a professional recorder player.
As the music teacher in my school, I represent the specialist teachers on our Instructional Leadership Team. Generally, the team discusses math and reading scores, standardized testing and the Common Core; I’m not always sure what wisdom I have to offer. Instead, I ask questions. Through engaging in the conversation as an active participant, I help focus the discussion, or even shift that focus. As a lifelong passionate learner and perennial good student, I offer reflections on what made a difference for me and what difference I think we can make for our kids. As a thoughtful professional, I confirm with my administration that my intended helpfulness is indeed helpful.
As a person in my 50s, I look around my school, district and state and see many younger people with the fire in their belly to make a difference, concerned about their financial situation, frustrated with behavior in their classrooms, and rebelling against perceived district heavy-handedness: things that would have bothered me much more when I was their age. That I have decades more life experience than some of my colleagues does not give me the answers, but it might inform the questions I would encourage them to ask. What do you need to learn to lead a worthwhile life? What kind of example are you setting and is it the example you want to set? I want to see progress in my classroom – why can’t my district expect to see progress out of me as well?
In fact, our Washington State Arts Learning Standards support my thesis. Being a question asker is not only a winning strategy that I employ in my career, it is a strategy for success that we are to teach our students as they prepare for theirs. A quick glance at the music standards for Grade 3 points up the training in question-asking the students receive. In Anchor Standard 7.1, the students “demonstrate and describe how selected music connects to and is influenced by specific interests, experiences, or purposes.” How else can they fulfill this goal but by asking themselves and their peers awesome, thought-provoking questions? In Anchor Standard 8, they are to “interpret intent and meaning in artistic work.” This involves being open to the work, “asking it” what it has to say to you and listening for the answer. Finally, in Anchor Standard 11, the students “demonstrate understanding of relationships between music and…other disciplines.” What a trove of questions!
- Why all this talk of math and fractions in music class?
- How are those dancers interpreting this piece of music?
- The words “color” and “rhythm” are used both in music and visual art: how are their uses similar or different in the two contexts?
I am constantly challenging myself to examine how I do things and see if there’s a better way. I think that staying curious and living in the inquiry is the best way to avoid stagnation. So, I’m curious: what questions do you ask? What are the most important things you think we need to teach our students? Or, if you are parents, what questions are you hoping your kid’s teachers are asking? How do we best prepare our students for college, career and a lifetime of exploration? Now that’s a great question!