The Wonder Wall 2.0: Ask Better Questions

“I’ll ask the question, a few of you will answer and we’ll pretend this is the same thing as learning.”

– Fischer and Frey, 2007

I have long been a fan of inquiry in the classroom but getting students to ask questions is not easy. The best part of learning occurs when we identify the gap between what is known and what we want to know. This is not territory that should be owned by the teacher.

I used to start with: what do you wonder? Then I moved to using a provocation like a short video, a story, or an article and then asking: what do you already know and what do you want to know.

Then the child has to be able to, somehow or other, realize that language is a tool for shifting stuff from that person to them
– Paul Harris

This lead to “the wonder wall” where students started with headings: what I think I know, what I want to know, what I have learned or verified, where I found my information, and ideas that turned out to be wrong. I still struggled with getting students to ask good questions. Moving beyond questions that can be answered yes or no or can be settled with a quick google search like a late night bar bet is a challenge.

Recently, I started using this template shared by @frank_ferrante with my students:

I struggled a little with translating the format into French but we made it work (look ‘ma… we learned the grammar of forming a question at the same time as provoking good questions! This was a rich place to start conversations about what a verb is, why it changes spelling, what is a subject, and how a question is formed. This is how we use language for authentic purpose.)

We used see, think, wonder to guide our inquiry (observer, réfléchir, se poser des questions).
We started with a short provocation of looking for any information we could find about topics related to Tunisia (food, buildings, celebrations) and connected to what we knew about Calgary and the two countries we have already studied: Peru and India. Then we started asking questions. The book On the Way To School and the film by the same name provided powerful inspiration for asking questions.

The ground rules were:

1. Every question is a valid question

2. Listen to the question that comes before you speak and try to build it out so that it opens up

3. Aim for purple questions

The conversation was interesting to watch unfold as they pushed questions open by including more of what they already knew. An example of a question that grew(I have translated here but the conversation took place entirely in French):

“What do houses look like in Tunisia?”

“Why do houses in Tunisia look different than the houses in Calgary?”

“Why do they use the building materials they use?”

“How might the building materials they use depend on the environment in Tunisia?”

Of course the formula doesn’t work in every situation. Consider the question: What is truth? It falls into the yellow category, which might be considered a less interesting question but it is a deep question. The formula is just a starting place to get students moving beyond “googleable knowledge”.

Coming to deep questions is a long process but I really think the resulting learning is so much deeper and as students use questions to collaborate on a shared work product they will have the opportunity to learn from one another.

I’m currently working my way through this book and looking forward to asking better questions myself and to helping students ask better questions.

My take away so far: Warren Berger suggests designers use three questions that spark innovation: Why? What if…? How?


Drama as math provocation

This week my students are putting the finishing touches on scripts they’ll be using to create short films to present a math problem to visiting schools. The plan is for the viewer to watch the film, determine a problem, and solve it using math.

This, my friends, is no small undertaking. I’m nervous but that’s usually a sign that my students are on to something big!

Looking forward to sharing more soon!

Learning Commons as Classroom

“Chance favours the connected mind.”

-Steven Johnson

I have been obsessed lately with the deskless classroom and environment as the Third Teacher, so much so that I will be co-moderating a discussion on using design thinking to help students remake their learning space at EdCampYYC 2016.

In this TED talk, Steven Johnson talks about where do good ideas come from and asks: What is the architecture of the space? What are the environments that lead to creativity? Adults, when given the chance to choose a work environment, often gravitate towards the coffee shop or social media. Ideas are cobbled together from what we hear and and we stitch them together. (Johnson, 2010)

Spaces lead to new ideas

We need to build spaces that look more like learning commons as classroom. “Ideas don’t happen alone at the lab bench, they happen at the conference table. The liquid network where ideas jostle together.” A good idea comes from a complex network of interactions. (Johnson) If ideas have long incubation periods, how do teachers create an environment that allows for that long incubation time? Allow hunches to connect with other hunches? Allow students to turn ideas into something greater than the sum of their parts?

Schedule vs Playlist

Every morning, my routine is to enter my classroom, drop off my bags and review my expectations for the day. Before students come in, I post the daily schedule. Some things I look forward to more than others but I always know which parts of the day I’m most excited about. When students come into the classroom they are in the habit of looking at the board. Usually there is a “yes!” and a little happy dance when something good like Genius Hour is on the schedule. I have been thinking lately, though, about motivation and why as the classroom teacher I get to be “the decider”.

Before leaving home in the morning, I what parts of the day I am most excited about. Why should that be different for children? What if our classrooms looked more like a conference and less like a prescribed schedule? What if students had more choice in their day? Some things need to be fixed on the schedule – when there are 600 students and only 1 gym or 20 classrooms and only 50 laptops there has to be some scheduling, but how can we build a more personalized experience? What if a classroom worked more like an education conference? I have been playing lately with the idea of the learning commons as a classroom or classroom as learning commons and using a playlist instead of a schedule.

“Hey, students, at 10:30 am there will be a session on place value’s role in subtraction of numbers to 1000. Attend if you like! These students must attend: x, y, z”

“The bloggers café: always open”

“Pop in to the collaboration corner if you want to consolidate your understanding!”

It would require students having a handle on what they know and what they need to develop. Teachers, too. The very idea of letting students just “go” and fall through the cracks is scary. Students who don’t already know how to advocate for their needs would need to learn that skill and teachers need to use professional judgement. It’s not a free-for-all when it’s carefully planned.

Personalized learning takes student autonomy, careful documentation and reflection on learning, co-planning, and careful goal setting. In my opinion, personalized learning is not adaptive learning environments. While I see the good in including some adaptive technologies like Lexia or Mathletics, this drill-and-practice learning is not understanding. When a child needs to learn multiplication tables adaptive learning can be a huge help but real learning is messy and I worry when we teach students that learning is just progression up a ladder.

I recently saw a picture of a school where there was a cubicle for each of 300 students, touted as being “innovative” because every student was participating in adaptive learning at the same time. “Look ‘ma! No teachers…!” Yikes! Is the “cubicalization” of education what we really want for students? We can be alone anywhere… We cannot be together everywhere. I think more than learning to be apart, students need to learn to come together and technology is one of the many intermediaries for collaboration. I have seen even very young learners collaborating to produce one coherent product that demonstrates learning and providing one another with feedback on content and mechanics of learning both face-to-face and online.

Accountability remains a concern for me. When it is poorly managed, I think it’s easy for students to slip through the cracks in a personalized approach. Students need to be accountable to themselves, to teachers, to parents and need to really reflect on what they know, how they can show it, and what they need to know. I do think this is possible even for very young learners.

When we weigh risks in education, I’m not convinced that a traditional approach in which every student is doing the same thing at the same time is less of a risk than a personalized approach. Is it easier to manage as a teacher? Yes… Is it worth turning kids off learning by telling them what to learn and how to show it? Goal setting and demonstration of understanding is important. In my experience, when students are given the power to choose what and how the engagement goes way up.

Alfie Khon wrote here about the overselling of ed tech and said “show me something that helps kids create, design, produce, construct — and I’m on board. Show me something that helps them make things collaboratively (rather than just on their own), and I’m even more interested.” Collaboration is key!

Where do ideas for teacher and for students come from? They come from the lightning that is what’s in your head meeting what’s in my head and transforming the sand in both into the glass of something greater than what existed before. Ideas come more from collaboration than they do from working alone. I think we need to provide students with the opportunities and spaces to interact, to learn from one another, and to demonstrate that learning in a way that makes sense to them.


Mini Author Study: Jon Scieszka

Students are working on narrative writing this month, so it has been useful to take a look at examples of good writing.

Students got to fall in love with the work Jon Scieszka and have loved discovering his MANY other books. One of the things I love about Jon Scieszka is that his work is accessible on many levels. He has published easy readers, picture books, short novels and long novels. Kids who love his work can find something explore independently and find something that they can read on their own.

How does the author’s voice change the story?

What happens after a story “ends”?

How can perspective change the story?

Students worked on connecting these stories to stories they already knew. There can be many versions of stories we already know.

What strategies do you use when you don’t understand? How do writers use other languages in their writing?

Henry Baloney is full of words from other languages that readers have to sound out. This lead to an important conversation about context. We can not know what a word means and still make sense of what we read.

How do authors create a unique voice for each character?

Laugh-out-loud funny, Cowboy and Octopus helped students to see “voice” as both Cowboy and Octopus have a unique and consistent voice. In addition, students saw that grammar matters. There is lots of interesting punctuation for those that are ready for it: quotation marks, question marks, ellipses…

What is the difference between editing and revising?

As students are working on their own narrative fiction, this was an interesting read. Students got to see that a few small revisions can make a big difference in the stories we tell.


How can your knowledge about the real world be used in writing fiction?

We read Me Oh Maya as an audio book and as students listened they created a graphic novel version. We talked about the conventions of graphic novels and how stories are told visually. We drew up a short rubric for our work. This was a relaxed way to listen to the story and to create personalized representations. This year, my students are over the moon about Amulet by Kazu Kibuishi (if you are not already familiar with the series you seriously need to go check it out) and are practically climbing over one another to read the series. They are already familiar examples graphic novels and it was easy to draw out a list of guidelines that we use to build a rubric.

I’ll post some rubrics when I get a chance!

Wordless Books for Inferring

We used this book today in ELA to talk about making inferences. It’s a beautiful book packed with rich illustrations that often had students gasping. They inferred using, “I see __________, I know _________, I can infer __________.” It was an interesting exercise to have students slow down and think about why their brains had leaped ahead to making inferences.