This is part 2 in the 2-part post called Making Asking Easier. In part 1, I wrote about the internal work teachers can do to make asking easier for themselves.
This post is based on “Soft Hands,” chapter 5 of Embarrassment: The Emotional Underlife of Learning. I cannot praise this chapter enough. Newkirk’s deep understanding of the teaching profession and his uncontaminated connection to the learner in himself and others shine through every sentence. Each time he describes the extraordinary moves he makes in his teaching, he writes “when I am on my game” in parenthesis. Such profound empathy for the reader ensures that the chapter accomplishes exactly what it propounds. As his reader and student, the chapter taught me; understood and affirmed what I am already able to do; and at the same time, gently pushed me to be better. The section ‘In Praise of Praise’ is an exceptional mentor text for teacher-writers. I am in awe of how it challenges research with the personal and anecdotal with respect and nuance, something I have always struggled to do.
<slight detour:> Someone recently asked me if my posts on Moving Writers this year are sponsored by Newkirk’s publishers. No, they are not, although I highly encourage you to read the book. You could surely consider my writing as a tribute to a guru from afar, someone who has taught me through his writing for years. </end of detour>
Picking up from where I left in my last post, here are 16 ways to make asking easier for students, in no particular order. Some of these ideas can be implemented right away, while some may require time.
- Explicitly and regularly tell all your students they can ask you anything, especially if they think the question is basic, silly, or stupid. Assure them that you value every question and will do your best to answer them.
- Mind your response to the students’ questions. When the students take up on your offer and ask a “basic” question, don’t allow your face to give away any negative opinion you may have about the question or the context in which it is asked. It is useful to remember John Dewey’s principle of the experiential continuum: “. . every experience affects for better or worse the attitudes which help decide the quality of further experiences, by setting up certain preference and aversion and making it easier or harder to act for this or that end.” Making asking easier requires that our responses to student questions don’t deter more questions in the future. In this regard, it is important to observe our language (verbal and otherwise) in response to “basic” questions. If you notice that students hesitate to ask even though you are neutral or positive about their questions, it is worth investigating other students’ reactions when such “basic” questions are asked.
- Build a culture of error. I cannot say it better than Doug Lemov. In each of Lemov’s examples, it’s clear that the teacher expects mistakes to happen, in fact, is happy they happened. More importantly, the teacher doesn’t conflate student misunderstandings as evidence of their ineffective teaching. They understand that bringing errors to light is what makes their teaching more effective.
- Allow for anonymity. In classrooms where the culture of error is not yet built, encourage students to ask questions or share understandings about what was taught on chits of paper instead of doing it orally. Ask everyone in the class to submit a chit, even if it’s blank. This way, you can offset whatever the students fear, whether it is asking a question or staying silent.
- Highlight, appreciate, or celebrate instances when a student makes progress by asking for help. Acknowledge how difficult it could have been. In case none of your students are able to ask for help yet, highlight when characters in books do the same and overcome a problem. I have always told my students stories of kindness in which many people in my life have gone out of their way to help me through difficult situations. These days, I have begun to also add that I was brave enough to ask and receive help.
- On page 70, Newkirk writes about how some students “know the convention of asking for help. Others may need coaching.” Teaching the language of asking a question or explaining a confusion in the subject is often tremendously useful to students. However, it is also possible for students to misunderstand this as “I cannot ask unless I am able to ask well.” This same impediment keeps me from calling my therapist each time threads in my mind are so tangled that I begin to suffocate. My sister always reminds me that I need not always know exactly what to ask before I make the call. Part of what makes my therapist excellent is her ability to identify, name, and untangle what I am unable to. I have begun to tell students that there will be times when they cannot articulate what they want despite the coaching. They might just know that they need help. I tell them that they must approach me anyway; that I will untangle the threads for them. Allow your students to say, “I didn’t understand anything.”
- Scaffold, scaffold, scaffold. The easiest way to prevent embarrassment in your classroom is to know where your students are, start right there without any additional commentary about where they should have been. Avoid what Newkirk calls “assumptive teaching” at all costs. I have written about this earlier here.
- When you are unable to answer a question immediately, either because of time constraints or because you don’t know at the moment, ensure that you follow up and follow through. This shows students how important their learning is to you, irrespective of the importance of the question in the syllabus, the flow of the lesson, how busy you are, or whether it’s necessary for the exam. When we know our questions matter, it’s easier to ask.
- Create 1-1 and/or small group opportunities in class and make yourself available to individual students and small groups. When the eyes of the whole class are not on the asker, it’s easier to ask.
- Schedule 1-1 time with students during office hours. On page 56, Newkirk lists multiple possible reasons for students’ failure to take advantage of office hours. Proactively set up a time with all students over weeks and months.
- Do not rush, no matter how rushed you actually are. Newkirk says “Good teachers never appear rushed, or make students feel rushed.” For the longest time, I was under the assumption that teachers who are patient actually have a lot of time unlike me. It took me a while to realize that all teachers in almost all contexts don’t have time. They make the effort to slow down during their conversations with students. Patience is one of the least talked cornerstones of teaching, whether it’s patience to wait till the student learns or to wait till s/he articulates a question.
- Most writing workshops have regular reflection opportunities for student self assessment. In such a reflection, include a question on how well they’re doing on asking for help. (See point 5)
- Find ways to remember the names of students, what happened with a student in the previous writing conference, what the student is good at, and what matters to them. I have, in the past, conducted many surveys I couldn’t read. Even if I read student responses, I couldn’t remember them. Lately, I have learned to only collect as much information as I can remember and use. It has also taken me years to find a note-taking/data collection system that actually works. Choose and refine a system that’s most practical and that helps you remember the most.
In the words of Newkirk, “In a conversation, few things are as disheartening as this momentariness, the sense that whatever we say gets lost, that it doesn’t register with others, is forgotten.” This sentence put into words the unnamed sadness I feel when my mother-in-law asks me about the same bangle I’m wearing for the nth time.
“Is this the one I gave you?”
“No, this is my mother’s”
It’s hard to expect students to be enthusiastic about asking me for help when I don’t remember much about them.
- Be curious about students’ process irrespective of whether the process led to the wrong or the right answer. It makes it clear to the student that you are interested in how they think, not just in whether or not they get it right. Read chapter 4 from Peter Johnston’s Choice Words for actual questions you can ask.
- Find ways to like something about the student. Then extend this idea to find ways to like something about the student’s work. This is not just to find something positive for your feedback sandwich, or to keep student morale high. Liking what’s in front of you changes your stance towards it. It makes you welcoming and patient and curious and interested. It makes you smile. I have no research to prove how these intangibles help, but I have witnessed that they do. Even though this may be very hard to do with particularly difficult students, it is possible. I had once chosen a student’s ears as something I like about him. It helped me go from finding him incorrigible to opening my mind to the positive sides of him.
- Build students’ self-efficacy. Newkirk puts it beautifully: “If students can consciously engage in a process, and build a history of working through difficulty and complexity, that history becomes capital that they can draw on.” Students who believe that they can learn find it easier to ask questions.
What have I missed? What else can we do to make asking easier for students?
You can connect with me on Twitter @teachingtenets or on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters.
- Embarrassment, The Emotional Underlife of Learning by Thomas Newkirk
- Experience and Education by John Dewey
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