A Community of Questioners

This post is part of a series written by Kyaiera and Christina during their experience at High Tech High’s Summer Institute

On Monday, following a little breakfast time strategic planning with Christina and an inspiring keynote speech by Larry Rosenstock it was time attend the first round of workshops. I headed off to “Creating a Culture of Thinking” where Tara Della Rocca, a fifth grade teacher at High Tech Elementary in Chula Vista, began her presentation with five points:

  1.       Kids don’t know how to think.
  2.       Successful people need to think.
  3.       Skillful thinking is not innate.
  4.       Thinking is invisible.
  5.       We need the skill and the will to think.

A list that seems straight forward but, in all honest irony, not composed of points I frequently think about.

She then led us through the process that she uses with her fifth graders. (Now, stick with me high school teachers, this applies to us too.) She had us spend 10 minutes free writing on the very broad topic of sunscreen. We then labeled our writing: C for connection, O for opinion, D for description, F for fact, Q for question and FA for free association. What we learned is that, much like her 5th graders, we had more opinions and descriptions than anything else. This was fine but to move beyond a seemingly aimless free-write on an unimportant topic, we had to pose more questions.

Here is where we were introduced to some of her research on the topic of questioning and classroom culture. Tara expressed her amazement that even at innovative places like High Tech Elementary and HTH, her research showed that students believe teachers want answers from them and do not value questions. She found that students needed to learn and, more importantly, believe that teachers do not just want answers in order to pose questions.

It was at this point that four soon to be sixth graders stole the show. I heard them working away behind me crafting a list of questions like: What does SPF stand for? Why does it smell like coconut? Is 100 really better than 5? These little ringers had just graduated from Tara’s fifth grade class. They are pros at questioning, but they didn’t start off this way. Tara shared with us the steps she used to create a culture of thinking and questioning: Instruction, modeling, setting expectations, practice and reflection. Many of us use these steps with skills like writing, but not so often with the invisible task of thinking. I know that I often forget Number One on Tara’s list: Kids don’t know how to think. It is something they need to learn, something that needs to be made visible to them.

Through extensive practice and modeling Tara took her students from description and connection to seemingly endless lists of questions recorded in “Thinking Notebooks.” Oh and by the way, in Tara’s classroom there is no leveling or ordering of questions- all questions are valid and each reveals something about the student doing the asking. All these student generated questions became the foundation of their learning. They took questions and used them to craft projects. One four-foot tall student said it best, “We were all working on different questions [that were] part of one big huge project.”

The remainder of our time was spent listening to the proud students walk us through their questions and projects on the topic of “Food.” For one group of students their questions yielded work on the use of preservatives, for another a study of organic v. commercial farming. Pretty sophisticated for 5th grade if you ask me.

In the end, the students reflected on how their questioning evolved and then spread beyond the classroom. These kids told us how confident they felt about asking their questions no matter if the audience is a parent, a teacher, a coach or the postman. Through a great deal of meta-cognition and active acceptance Tara was able to create a culture of thinking that is worthy of admiration. You can learn more about Tara’s research and work here.

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