Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about teacher questioning and class discussion. I’ve been mulling over what it takes to get students engaged in what my literacy textbook calls a “lively discussion” about a text (which, as it turns out, is apparently the best way to enhance students’ reading comprehension). Those thoughts led me down the primrose path to Deep Thoughts about learning, memory, and the conditions required for obtaining new knowledge and retaining it. (I know you can feel your eyes glazing over, but please bear with me! I’m going somewhere good, I promise!)
My thoughts wandered to my own experiences as a student. I tried to remember if I had ever had a teacher who asked the kinds of questions that aroused my and my classmates’ attention enough to have even a halfhearted discussion about a text, much less a lively one. Lo and behold, I did have a teacher like that–my 11th grade Honors English teacher.
What stands out in my mind today is a vivid memory of discussions about The Great Gatsby–the symbolic meaning of West Egg and East Egg, the literary devices Fitzgerald used to foreshadow the disastrous outcome of Gatsby and Daisy’s ill-fated love affair, and what the green light really represents. (In case anyone else is doing the math, I was a junior in high school 24 years ago, so my remembering anything from any class is pretty remarkable.) Other, seemingly unrelated details come to my mind, like where I sat, the color of the louver blinds covering the windows, and the expression on my teacher’s face as she facilitated the discussions.
As I reflected on how she taught, I wondered how she came up with those excellent questions. Back then I was a painfully naive 16-year-old, and I assumed she just dreamed up such wonderful questions on the fly, kind of like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Now I realize that she spent time and effort designing questions with the express purpose of eliciting the kinds of responses that would result in lively discussions.
The thing is–and this is where it gets good, so hold on just a bit longer–this teacher was more than just a teacher to me. She was the first person in my life who made me feel like a person and not just a dippy kid. She interacted with me in a way that affirmed my hope that I was becoming an individual who could and should make things happen for myself. She asked thought-provoking questions even outside of class and about the trivial details of my life, questions that forced me to begin thinking critically about what I believed in and what was important to me. What’s more, her interest in me seemed genuine, even though she taught 3 or 4 different English classes every day to at least 100 other students.
There’s this quote by Maya Angelou that I keep seeing everywhere, and she says it much better than I ever could: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I guess what I’m saying here is that all the research-proven teaching strategies in all the world don’t mean anything if there’s no heart behind them.
- Highly recommended, probably required, and perhaps mandatory reading for all who have not, yet: Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco. For the rest of us? The Secret Remedy Book by Karein Cates, delightfully illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin. I hear that with a small modification in paradigm, I can learn how to be that “teacher heart” I’ve mentioned.
- (Read them! If you’ve already read both, read them again! You can thank me later.)
Posted by Karen Rapier, a senior in Elementary Education at Utah Valley University, in Orem, UT