Asking “Wow, I can identify with that” questions in class

Some questions grab our attention automatically.

You know, the kind that have been asked for ages but have no clear answer.

The kind that everyone has an opinion about.

The kind that we can connect with regardless of our background.

Why do we hurt the ones we love? Why is Pepsi better than Coke (or vice versa)? How do you manage eye contact with a stranger as you walk down an empty hall with them?

What’s my purpose? Why am I here? Where am I headed?

As teachers, we’re very accustomed to asking questions. We know all about Bloom’s Taxonomy and how to work our way up to higher-order questioning. Our assignments, quizzes and tests have all kinds of them.

Multiple choice, matching, true-false, fill-in-the-blank, essay.

Often, those questions fall on deaf student ears and they don’t hit their intended mark. They end up being hurdles to clear to get to the finish line instead of being the heart and soul of education.

We often ask the right questions — the ones that allow us to hit our content standards, the ones that prepare our students for tests, the ones that help us unpack the content we want to teach.

Maybe we need to quit asking the right questions so much and start asking the relevant questions. The right questions, or the expected questions, are the teacherly questions that our students expect to hear. They know what it sounds like when we ask for demonstration of knowledge. They know what teachers say when they want higher-order thinking (even if they don’t know that term).

And often, they mute us and wander off in their minds to lunch, Twitter conversations or new shoes.

Let’s ask some more relevant questions. Sure, in teaching “Julius Caesar,” you probably need to ascertain who betrayed Caesar and killed him. But let’s connect the concept to our students’ lives. Why does a boy ask a girl to the prom and then discard her for another date a week before? When have you been betrayed in your own life? What are the alternatives to betrayal, and why or why wouldn’t someone take them?

We can connect with those questions regardless of their background. And you can imagine the kinds of responses you could get.

In basic algebra, students do operations to both sides of an equation to solve the problem. That’s balance. If the balance isn’t maintained correctly, you can’t solve the problem accurately. Where else in life is balance necessary? Has anyone paid so much attention to a boyfriend/girlfriend that their family or friend relationships suffered?

Will a conversation about balance in life help basic algebra students understand how to solve problems? Some will scoff and say this sounds like fluff. But you may be surprised at the connection some students will make between balance in life and solving math problems.

A quick five-minute side conversation about balance in life attacks the material from a different angle. Plus — more importantly — it helps students think about character. It incorporates more of the big-picture thinking that our students struggle with and probably need the most guidance on.

If we can ditch our textbooks, at least momentarily, and connect to our students’ lives through our content, it can help them answer to those big questions posed earlier: What is my purpose? Why am I here? Where am I headed?

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  • Matt tweeted this post out, and it inspired me to find a personal question and connection with my 6th grade social studies students. We’ve been studying landforms and doing a digital vocabulary notebook powerpoint project- not too exciting and hard to personalize. But then I had a brainstorm of inspiration. I made a soundtrack of music and songs that had landforms in it- “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, “The Climb”, “Proud Mary”, “Mountain Music”= and played it while students worked. Then at the end of class, we shut down technology 5 minutes early and talked about how most of the songs had a figurative use of landforms as a metaphor for life- a mountain as a struggle or obstacle or culture, a river as moving through life, etc. We talked about the human condition- how we are all going through “stuff” in our lives. Maybe it’s an angry person who acted like a volcano and erupted with anger than burned us like hot lava. Maybe it’s the ups and downs of life like hills. Maybe life is crazy but your bedroom is your happy spot- an oasis. Maybe you feel alone and deserted, or adrift and isolated like an island. Maybe life is smooth sailing, like a plain. Everyone got a yellow sticky note- no names for anonymity- and wrote a landform from their life on it. Then we stuck them to the whiteboard as a way of saying “we are all in this together” as a way of finding a life connection to landforms. Kids really got into it- even though I didn’t tell them to, some share what landform their life represented with each other, and I saw compassion and empathy and connections. It gave us a real life lesson from landforms vocabulary. I will definitely do it again!