Well, no, to give the short answer. Essential questions are terrific. That is, if you’re using them correctly.
Ten weeks into my third/fourth year of teaching 7th grade ELA, I’m finding the tiniest bit of breathing room to consider the instructional impact of seemingly trivial things like, say, what I write on my whiteboard. Enough to realize that I was so, so not using essential questions correctly.
Part of the reason for this is a push in my district to have clear classroom goals on the board at all times– goals which are often used interchangeably with the phrase “essential questions.” Luckily, the presence of goals on the whiteboard have not become for us a checklist compliance measure on surprise administrative walkthroughs, as they have elsewhere. Right now they’re just marketed by my people, rightfully, as “a good idea.”
Trouble is, classroom goals and essential questions are not the same thing.
You may have known this. I didn’t. In addition, I am the type of dreamy big thinker that underestimates stuff like the whiteboard, and relegates it to the bottom of my mental “to do” lists. So for a long time, the combination of these elements made it a Herculean accomplishment to just get something vaguely informational on the board before kids came streaming into class.
It took an actual solid read of Wiggins, the guru, on the topic (versus the viral warping of his concepts via word of mouth) for me to realize that what I was cramming into the “essential questions” box were not essential questions at all. Here, for an example, is a true essential question:
What purpose do conflicts serve within fiction?
It’s huge, it’s deep, it ropes in all the skills and concepts you teach in relation to it, it requires critical thinking with evidential support.
Ironically, in real life I am an essential questions geek– the kind of girl that can debate the purpose of conflicts in fiction for hours in a cafe while my tea goes cold. Making this overt alignment to essential questions has infused my classroom with a sense of purpose that goes missing sometimes. I wonder if we as teachers pay enough attention to that.
Instead, just like I found myself doing, perhaps we stick on the whiteboard– or in our lesson plans– things that are easily measurable or controlled within a class period:
How do you use key words on a dictionary page?
(This, by the way, is a skill. An important one? You bet. An essential question? Nope.)
So I started thinking about this. I started thinking about the number of times kids came in and asked in true blindness, “What are we doing today?” (answer: sometimes.) I started thinking about the amount of times kids indicated that they didn’t feel an overt connecting rhythm in my classes (answer: too often). And I started mucking around.
This is how I usually do things. These are from the first unit of the year, an overview of the elements of fiction.
It’s ok– your basic bare bones agenda– but it’s all about the “what”. I wondered if I could make the purpose of each activity clearer to the kids– the “why”.
Much better. The squiggle line and arrows live permanently on the board now. You can still see me struggling with a few things, however. Reading Workshop is not a goal, but an activity; similarly the “what” is still dominating the “why”
on the goal side of the pre-assessment. I surprised myself by how many times I was still writing activities as goals. It’s harder than it looks to keep this distinction clear in your head.
I’m also not clear in this draft on what pronouns I should be using. This may seem like a ELA nitpick, but it isn’t– it’s about accurately, and therefore respectfully, reflecting the dynamic in the classroom. If I write, “We will read in our independent novels for 20 minutes” and then I drink some coffee and start individual conferences, I’m not doing anything wrong– but I’m not doing what I said I would be doing, either. Kids pick up on these contradictions, and the danger of them taking them as hypocrisy is high.
Third draft, and generally how I set up the board now:
So now I’ve got my pronouns straight, and my goals are really goals. There’s a mix on the goal side of procedural and declarative stuff, and that’s ok. But you’ll note that my board is too small, sadly, to get the essential questions on there. Physical constraints strike again.
So you can’t see the questions in the photo, but they get posted above or next to the board on huge sticky notes (magic to those of us with limited wall space and a need to easily move things around– run, don’t walk, and get some).
It takes a grand thirty seconds at the end of class to throw the essential question(s) out orally to the students and make the infrastructure of the unit, the connection between this lesson and what they’re learning overall, transparent to them. You can also make this a more formal learning experience, via Doug Lemov’s “Cold Call” or Robert Marzano’s note revising.
Or– stay with me now– ask the kids, after a bit of soaking in the unit, to construct and answer their own essential questions.
Good place to end. I’ve been talking schematics here, but after all, the essential question of all essential questions is a philosophical one. Who owns the question?
Which opens up the title of this post all over again, come to think of it.