Some questions are frustrating. I’m recalling a very specific moment this last school year where I was working one-on-one with one of my 6th graders, we’ll call her Josie, trying with all my might to help her understand how to solve for a variable in an algebraic equation. I did everything right; or so I thought. I showed her the steps slowly and methodically. I did my best to verbalize what I was doing as I began to balance a sample equation. I used vocabulary that we hit (and hit hard) in class as I worked through the problem. I worked and worked and worked on this equation, and finally when all was said and done, the equation was perfectly balanced with an x on one side and a number on the other. I wrote out a problem for her and asked her to go ahead and balance the equation. My sweet Josie looked up at me and asked, “How?”
My jaw dropped. “What do you mean how?” How could she ask that after I just sat there with her for 10 minutes explaining everything? I explained the steps, she saw me model them, she has the tools, so just do it! How could she have any questions at this point? As I looked at her, not quite knowing where to go next, I realized she asked me that question because of one simple fact….she wanted to know the answer.
You know that saying, “There are no stupid questions?” With kids especially, I see it as truth. My students ask me questions because they want to know the answer. It’s our perception of the topic at hand that causes us to label a question as unimportant, or stupid (gasp). I perceived my mini-lesson to be succinct and helpful, so I was shocked that Josie didn’t understand. And yes, I was frustrated. So was she. Josie needed information, and she asked a question to let me know that she needed this information from me. Somewhere in my delivery of the skill instruction, there was a breakdown that required re-teaching. However, with something as broad as, “how?” I let myself become overwhelmed and unable to pinpoint where to start. Did she not understand any of the steps? Was there just a certain part in the process that was unclear? Maybe she just didn’t know how to start? There has to be a better, more efficient way, to ask questions.
We had been experimenting with specific sentence stems designed by the great Sarah Collinge (if you haven’t heard of her or her Read Side-by-Side program, do look her up!). My students were experiencing success with academic talk during our literacy time with help from stems like, “When the book said _______, I was thinking ____________. This helps me to understand ______________.” My kiddos had the right thoughts, they just had trouble expressing them. Enter the sentence stems to guide their thinking and in turn the way they express their thoughts verbally, and boom my kids have accountable academic talk. That’s when I wondered….could sentence stems help my students express their questions in a way that would make it easier for me to help them?
I did a little research. Actually, I wrapped this research in with my own action research from my Master’s program on differentiated partnerships during math. The resounding answer was yes, sentence stems do have a valuable place during math instruction, particularly when students are struggling. Back to Josie. The stem I began using with her (and the class) was this: “I understood up to when you did _____. I am still confused about _______,” or something along those lines. In Josie’s case it was, “I understood that I needed to get the variable on one side and a number on the other because then I will have solved for the unknown, but I am still confused about using inverse operations.” Perfect! Josie knew what we were trying to accomplish with our algebra problems, she just didn’t quite grasp how inverse operation help us get there. I knew exactly where to start my re-teach. It was a much more efficient way of asking, “how?”
A student asks a question because he or she wants to know the answer. It’s as simple as that. We’ve always taught kids how to solve math problems, write essays, and remember historical events. In more recent years we’ve realized that we also need to teach children how to think critically, problem solve, and talk academically. I think we need to also teach kids how to ask questions in such a way that gets them the answers they need, and using sentence stems is a great way to start.