With it being the start of the new school year, I was a participant in a number of professional development sessions. One of our sessions was about going over the ever-present data accountability assessment teacher words jargon… stuff. Anyway, one of our presenters was going over vocabulary terms. We were presented with one and then asked, ‘Does anyone know what this means?’ There were many figurative crickets as everyone looked around awkwardly. Maybe someone tentatively ventured an answer in the back, but it was a weak answer at best – you know, the one that the one person might mutter under their breath as an attempt to participate but not wanting to be publicly wrong. And that is the response from a bunch of well-educated teachers. It’s not very different from the response from a bunch of still-learning teenagers.
So here’s how you can make your life easy in your classroom: know what kind of a question you are asking when you ask it. There are questions with expected correct or incorrect answers, and then there are questions with personal, individual answers. These two different kinds of questions have different purposes as well. The first type is a formative assessment to gauge if students understood the material or not, and the second is to check for background knowledge or add depth to a lesson.
It is okay to ask the second kind of question if you aren’t sure how students might answer. In a language classroom, these could easily be all sorts of questions – ‘Who has visited Nebraska?’ ‘Who wants a cookie?’ ‘Who has a dog? ‘Who prefers cats?’ In these cases, it doesn’t really matter what the students answer; there are no right or wrong statements and you can work with whatever the students give you.
When it comes to the first type, however, to gauge understanding of material, you have to make it easy on the students to be correct. You have to give them the answer, somehow, before asking them the question. In my example above, the presenter made a mistake in asking us to supply a definition of a term… while in the midst of a vocabulary lesson. Nobody answered because we had no idea; that’s why they had a vocabulary section in their lesson. What’s worse is that it’s easy to feel like students are being defiant by not participating, when they’re really just not participating because they don’t want to look stupid. Of couse, we can alleviate some of that fear by making our classrooms safe spaces where we discourage put-downs, but only the bravest of outgoing students will venture an answer if they have no clue. ‘Giving them the answer’ takes different forms in different disciplines – this could be having the notes in front of them, a list of vocabulary terms, different types of pictures to identify, whatever it is. As a side note, if you want students to be able to correctly recall information from a lengthy passage, it is far more helpful to supply some kind of comprehension questions/graphic organizer to highlight what information is most important and will be discussed. Again, I think in many cases it might look like students didn’t complete the work but in reality, they just didn’t know which information was going to be prioritized so everything got categorized as equally memorable (or forgettable) in their brains.
In the language classroom, remembering to give the answer first can sometimes be a problem in storytelling if you’re coming back from the summer and do a terrible job of informing your 1st period Spanish 1 that the sentence on the board has established the facts of the story (not that this happened to me today or anything, ahem…) and that they should answer accordingly when you start your circling questions. If you fix yourself for 4th period Spanish 1 and make it clear what the answer is supposed to be, then you will be more likely to get the participation level you were expecting and a lot less confusion on the parts of the students. Confused students are not students who are learning.
Like I said in my last post, if you make it easy for students to participate, you will make teaching easier on yourself. And who doesn’t want that?