Thursday, August 30, 2007

Ask The Right Questions

On the way back to our classrooms after dismissal yesterday, my colleague asked me, "Is it really quiet on your morning walks?"

At lunch, a whole table of us had been talking about how hard it is to preserve time for ourselves once school starts. There had been the usual surface level amazement that I continue to get up at 5:00 a.m. and walk for a half an hour at 5:30, even though there is no longer a dog to make such an activity mandatory.

My colleague's after school follow-up question was far from a surface level question. She came at my morning walk from an unexpected and thoughtful direction. And she got more of an answer than perhaps she expected, because when you walk in the dark, you pay closer attention to the sounds around you. My walks right now are loud with insect sounds -- crickets and tree crickets, buzzing, chirping and whirring. As winter comes, my walks will be more and more silent, until I have the chance to listen to the different sounds of snow underfoot. Late in February or early in March, I will hear the first robin singing in the dark, and my spring and summer walks will be loud with birds singing territory-marking songs.

Her question felt like the metaphorical unplugging of a dam of talk in me. I felt myself light up when I knew I had a great answer to her question. After I shared, her affirmation of my day-to-day scientific way of living in the world made me feel really really good.

And now I'm wondering, how can I do this for my students? How can I find the right questions to ask each one of them?
  • I know the lists of possible writing topics we are making and sharing in early writers' workshop will help me. I need to model listing in a way that gets beyond, "I love pizza. I play soccer."
  • I need to listen carefully. Then I will hear two boys singing songs from "baby TV shows" on the way to the buses, I can ask about this, and learn that when they go home, they have to watch Barney and Teletubbies with their young cousins.
  • I need to watch. I need to notice how my fourth grade siblings interact in such kind and thoughtful ways with their kindergarten brothers and sisters when they see them in the hallway.
  • And I need to learn to ask questions that go beyond the obvious or the surface, questions that dig into a topic, or approach it at a slant, or come in the back door so that my students can have the feeling I had of the dam breaking and the light coming on when they answer me.


  1. We must be on the same wavelength. I posted about questions-twice!-this week, too.

    I love that you're re-thinking the questions YOU ask, in order to elicit different answers. And I love your descriptions of the changing sounds of your morning walk.

    Have you ever tried asking your students to "collect" their favorite questions?

  2. Mary Lee-
    Your post hits home as I think about how I too am often concerned about asking the right questions. I began thinking that when I take the time to listen, observe and talk to my students that the questions come more naturally. I too am an early runner/walker but I put the i-pod on. I think I will listen to the quiet tomorrow.

  3. Anonymous11:25 AM

    What a treasure you must be to your students. To be this thoughtful. They are lucky lucky lucky...

  4. Since this summer is my first summer of blogging, I treasure your comments about having time for yourself as you go back to the classroom. I enjoyed what you said about taking the time to listen in the morning. I would like to make a goal this year to get myself out of bed and get on the treadmill, but part of that waking up to the day needs to be a spiritual concious awakening and not just physical. Thanks for sharing your routine.


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