Using Students’ Curiosity to Calm the Chaos

It’s that time of year again. The back-to-school nightmares have begun. If you’ve taught for any length of time, you know the ones to which I’m referring – the ones where you walk into your room and realize you have a class full of eager students and NOTHING prepared. Or the ones where you have everything prepared but your students question your every move, and you can’t seem to get anything accomplished. Oh, the horror!

These nightmares have sparked many an early morning for me as I wake up at 4 a.m. in a cold sweat, furiously scrambling for a pen and paper to scribble down plans and ideas for beginning the year. And this year, the thought that keeps cropping up is the notion of questions. My fifth graders are questioners, sometimes more so than my four-year-old nieces. My students seem to question everything I say. Why do we have to walk single file down the hallway? Why do we have to sit by homerooms at lunch? Why can’t I go to the restroom ten minutes after returning from lunch when everyone already has had the chance to go? But I desperately want them to transfer that curiosity to what we’re learning in our classroom. So how can we as teachers encourage students to delve more deeply into text and question what they read?

Elementary school students with their hand raised to ask a question.

Active learning means readers are thinking for themselves about what they’re encountering on the printed or digital page. This involves “wondering” and wanting to know more.  As teachers, this frees each of us to be the “guide on the side” instead of the “sage on the stage.” To make my classroom a place of curiosity and questions this year, here are three instructional strategies I’m going to use:

1) Close Reading

Teaching students to observe and analyze text is the foundation for writing good text-dependent questions. Check out this ASCD article for more information.

2) Question Formulation Technique (QFT)

This strategy from rightquestion.org fosters high-level engagement as students begin to value questions and refine weaker questions into more meaningful ones to guide further inquiry and research.

3) Socratic Seminar

What is the next step after having students develop their own questions? Discussing answers to those questions, of course. That’s where Paideia seminars come into play.  Teachers prepare students to dialogue about text and negotiate meaning together in a respectful manner. Socratic Seminar is explained in detail at paideia.org.

My goal is that in June my students will walk away asking more questions than when they arrived at my door. My plan is to engage my constant questioners with complex text and have them dig deeper by developing their own questions and discussing them with others.  Here’s hoping this year will be more like a pleasant dream than a nightmare!

In what ways do you encourage curiosity and inquiry in your classroom?

Amber Harper is a fifth-grade English language arts and social studies teacher at Long Mill Elementary School in Youngsville, NC. This is her third year teaching in Franklin County Schools, and she is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in New Literacies and Global Learning at North Carolina State University.

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