It doesn’t take much to get my students talking to each other, whether it be in their first language or English, and of course there are the inappropriate “off-task” conversations. But they are talkers, and this is a great asset I am learning to unleash for the good of learning.
To do this, right now, I’m focusing on training them to pose questions to each other, without looking to me for answers, and to listen and respond to each other with ideas or more questions. Having them feel a sense of agency with their own learning, especially grasping what kinds of questions they can ask to deepen their understanding of a topic, is quite challenging. I’m excited to be doing it.
Our school is working on raising the level of questions teachers ask during lessons, among other things, and I feel this is very important. But if the goal is for my students to take more ownership over their learning and do higher-order thinking themselves, then my job isn’t just to get better at asking such questions, but to get them to ask them.
Part of the hurdle is in modeling the importance of open ended questions, or simply questioning without wanting an answer; just the simple practice of reveling in their own sense of wonder and hypothesizing. As much as I love when my students ask engaging questions like, “why don’t we fall off Earth?” or, “what was here before the dinosaurs?”‘ I much rather they ask each other; let them engage, explore and learn that there is much to be enjoyed in discussion.
I started by showing them a video of a group of students discussing an article about jellyfish. I model all the time, but i felt it was important fir them to see peers model. Together, we noticed how they each listened while looking at the student talking, how they took turns, and used the article to generate ideas. After the video, I sat my class in three small circles of 7-8 kids, with one student per group responsible for making sure each person had a chance to talk. I chose groups of this size because each group has 2-3 students who are not yet verbal in English; if the groups were smaller, it’d put undue pressure on them when they can’t yet participate in a discussion like this.
We have been reading an article about salamanders, and I got the ball rolling by saying, I find it interesting that they are born being able to breathe underwater and then air, and they basically live on land. I wonder what would be different for them if they never were able to breathe air.
I purposely chose a question where students did not have the answer in the text, so that they would have to discuss it. I walked around, listening in, and would interject “and what do you think about that?”, or “what other questions does that make you wonder about?” In future lessons, I will focus on students asking responding questions (as an avid boxing fan, it reminds me of the transition of learning to throw punches and then learning the ever more valuable skill of counter punching; while related, they are actually uniquely different skills).
It was far more successful than I had anticipated, though when we opened our circles into our bigger share circle, it was not an easy transition**. Students didn’t want to share what was discussed, they acted more reserved and embarrassed, and spoke quietly. They were more concerned about the reactions or corrections they’d get. We are on our way though!
I wish I could find ways to involve my beginners, but that may be expecting too much. So, I have to decide if I want to give them a separate activity, to translate the question for discussion, or just let them sit and listen and watch, which can be valuable if they see it as a real responsibility. That is the challenge of the multilevel ESL class: finding authentic, worthwhile activities that meet the needs of students with whom you have no common language.
***More recently, we tried the big circle, and I had them pose questions to each other after looking at a picture of an elephant in a wetland, and discussing how some wetlands dry up. I asked them to think of questions that could help us understand these animals’ experiences. While they didn’t respond to each other, they did ask questions politely, without raising their hands or looking at me!
Soon, I plan on re-watching the video with them to have them make connections about how they are doing, in reference to these other students.