Questioning Makes a Difference for English Language Learners

There are days when you hope you do your best, but don’t necessarily walk away feeling like you’ve accomplished anything. And then there are days like yesterday, when you get an #eduwin! My role as Leader of Pedagogy is loosely defined as ‘change agent’ and ‘capacity builder’, and for a large part of my time I am lucky to be available to work with individual staff members on areas of need. What I love is when I can see how a tiny seed I’ve planted blossoms when a teacher takes something on board, runs with it and owns it.

Our ESL teacher had discussed her concerns about her Stage 6 ESL class with me on several occasions, but she was really tearing her hair out a few weeks ago. Her class is comprised of 9 boys, all who have been in Australia fewer than five years. One student is Sudanese, two Filipino, the rest Chinese or Korean. She was concerned that factions, built around language, had developed in the class and she was really struggling to get the boys engaged and speaking English. Two of the more confident speakers seemed to monopolise the conversations and the rest said, and did, very little.

Scratching my head, I suggested a few tactics.

  • Playing cards: giving the boys three cards each and require each student to play a card and contribute to the conversation before anyone was allowed to play a second card.
  • Putting desks in a circle, or “conference” table set-up, as per a Harkness Table, which I learnt about at the recent StudentMeet.
  • Using Dylan Williams’ “basketball questioning” instead of the standard “ping pong” or call and response methods we teachers usually use.

I’ve long been fascinated by questioning methods, and was exposed the notion of “wait time” (or “latency”) in the early days of my teaching in LA as part of the TESA program. But this year, through blog posts and Twitter bits and pieces, I’ve picked up some really good links and have been exploring how we can use more effective questioning to deepen student learning. (Apologies if you were someone who sent me a link, I can’t remember where I picked up what!)

Some of the links I passed along to Robyn (literally just sent via email) included the following:


But aside from that, she just went away and worked her own magic.


Robyn had been working with the boys on viewing, discussing and analysing “Rabbit Proof Fence”. Yesterday, she asked could I come to her class and observe as a “critical friend” to see how the boys were using questioning and conversation as a result of her recent efforts. What a privilege!


Students had previously been asked to choose an image from the film that they felt represented “belonging”. With their own image, they had to record why they chose it, how it related to belonging, what film technique was used and what effect that might have on the audience. Their work was uploaded to Edmodo and Robyn printed a selection of images and information for all the boys.


At the start of the lesson, Robyn reminded the boys that the focus was on “belonging” and the language related to “how”. The boys moved their tables quickly into a conference set up (4 x 2 desks, facing each other – Exeter on a budget!) And one by one, they talked about their chosen image, techniques, effects, etc.


Some of the dialogue?


S1: My chosen image is a long shot from a low angle. It shows Molly, but the angle is coming from the ground. It shows how, despite the hot weather, she shows responsibility to her sister. The low angle communicates her strength and her power.


S2: I think it also emphasises loneliness and separation because… no, not separation, isolation is a better word, because…


S1: Does anyone else have any other comments to add to my description?


S3: Yes, in my opinion, it is not a long shot. Your image shows the whole body, but it doesn’t show any of the rest of the environment. It emphasises her feelings but not her journey.


S4: No, I think it is a long shot because it emphasises how far they still have to walk.


When they had finished discussing a student’s image and information, one student would prompt the discussion to move to the next student. Robyn only stepped in to help the students stay on track, or in one case to remind a quiet student that he needed to use language to describe his image, not merely point to it.


And on they went. About 40 minutes of discussion, questioning, answering, justifying, challenging each other. This, from a group of boys who up until about 4 weeks ago wouldn’t speak in English, let alone speak to each other.


Robyn’s gentle manner, the change in classroom set-up, some instruction and practice in questioning – they were transformed. I congratulated the boys on their use of specific language, their willingness to challenge and clarify, their great questions, and most of all their manner. Robyn and the boys had created an environment which allowed all students to be heard and created a safe space for these English language learners to feel safe and take risks, not only in their use of language, but in using the academic language of English.


Next step? Moving from oral to written. But they’ve had a great start and a good grounding. And Robyn got a shout out at today’s staff meeting. #eduwin!!!




Instructional Rounds – of sorts!

Too much time has passed and too many thoughts tumble around in my head – as Tanja Galetti and Megan Graff commented on Edna Sackson‘s blog on reticent bloggers, “I blog in my head all the time.”

The past week has seen a few things I could write about – and hopefully will! The Student Meet at Shore School on the 19th (was a fantastic first of many to come, I’m sure), working my way through a PBL social justice unit (love the topic, struggling to find traction on behalf of other teachers…), and the first classroom observation/Instructional Rounds with a group who have been working towards this throughout the year.

Instructional Rounds is a means of opening classrooms up for observation – with an emphasis on objective description of what is being said and done. It is not an appraisal, or peer coaching as such. There is a great deal of theory, and some pretty important protocols to follow. As detailed in Elmore and City’s text, Instructional Rounds is designed for team members from participating schools to observe and feedback on what they see happening in each others’ schools, thereby supporting professional dialogue and system growth.

I first experienced Instructional Rounds, however, through the generosity of Cameron Paterson who kindly opened the doors of Shore School to allow visiting teachers to participate in the process. At Shore, it is not so much a system support as yet, but certainly a means to take ‘snapshots’ of classroom practice and use these as stimulus for lively dialogue about what we see and hear taking place, and from there to make predictions about what students would be learning as a result. The idea is that a “problem of practice”, something to focus on, is established, with the aim of working out how this is accomplished in the classroom, and then planning the “next work” to meet this aim so that the teacher grows as a professional, and the students benefit.

At my own school, we had been discussing the need to open our classrooms up and watch each other at work. Using a jigsaw reading, the middle leaders explored Instructional Rounds as a means to observe without judgement. The term “problem of practice” was a sticking point as it carried the connotation of working from a ‘deficit’ model. (The term doesn’t worry me, as I have seen Rounds in practice and it certainly is not about deficits, but I was happy to lose the battle to win the war…).We discussed the fluid nature of professional learning, trying, reflecting, evaluating, improving – and agreed to use a “focus area” for observations, but not call it a “problem of practice”.

So how did we get here and what made this week so special? I had used a modified version of IR with a Year 7 team earlier in the year – I was perplexed when it wasn’t as “successful” as those I’d observed at Shore. On reflection, having two experienced teachers observe two new teachers and vice versa meant that suggestions and analysis were hard to avoid – but the debrief was mainly about what we saw, and what the kids would be learning. The beauty was that even though it wasn’t a textbook experience, the teachers continued their dialogue and collegial support of each other.

The Mathematics Coordinator had expressed earlier in the year that one of her professional goals for 2012 was to grow the capacity of her staff to teach effectively at the junior level. The coordinator and one of our young but experienced teachers had attended a workshop in 2011 with Charles Lovitt, focussing on experiential learning and open-ended investigations in Maths. Because our current Year 7 cohort has 105 students, with about 33 having identified special needs, (including quite a few on the autism spectrum), the Year 7 team would need to be able to reach and teach students with a broad range of abilities in mixed ability classes. Whilst all Year 7 teachers have been teaching between 3 and 10 years, one had focussed primarily on seniors and advanced/extension subjects.

N and KG were given some release earlier in the year to plan some concrete learning activities and develop resources to include all students in a range of problem solving activities designed to both remediate and extend number skills, particularly around order of operations. KA and M then had the opportunity to observe the others teaching, but in an informal capacity. The feedback from the observation process was really positive.

We next organised for all four teachers to have a planning day together. The current unit on 2D and 3D shapes had presented stumbling blocks for some students in the past. The teachers worked together to develop a series of lessons that involved constructing, experiencing, observing, and playing with shapes both inside and outside the classroom. Each teacher took responsibility for designing and resourcing a set lesson, and the other three would then observe that lesson.

My role was to organise the time, and to liaise with people to make it happen. I typed up some brief notes on Instructional Rounds, especially regarding protocols and some tips for recording observations (descriptive and objective, not analytical or judgmental; look for “fine grained evidence” as opposed to making general statements). I then briefed the team, they chose roles for the observation, and away we went. KG would focus her observations on what N said and did, M would concentrate on what the students said and did. KA’s role was to wander around and ask the students about their learning.

There are things that look great in theory, but lose something in the execution. And then there are other things that you hope follow the theory, but take on a life of their own and exceed all expectations. And this was what happened here.

Fishbowl demonstration on 3D shapes

Teacher gathers boys around to demonstrate the first of several activities designed to provide the boys with hands on experience in working with 3D shapes.

N’s lesson was brilliant. Her manner with the kids was inviting, she was organised, clear with instructions. The lesson started with fishbowl “meetings” and the kids were told there would be three more during the lesson. When she spoke to the boys, she kneeled down, and made eye contact. The boys were invited to share and give suggestions. After each meeting, teams of four-five boys returned to table groups to manipulate blocks. They co-constructed “houses” made to specifications set by “council”. They later made isometric drawings, colour coded rooms and stories, used terminology such as vertices and faces quite comfortably. They then tabulated the ‘cost’ of their various buildings, and made a quick “brochure” with a cul-de sac, house sketches pasted on, annotated with description and cost. Their housing estates were “named” and brochures submitted (a lot for one lesson, but we have 80 minute lessons, so just squeaked in there…)

Small group interaction

Students collaborate to create and compare their 3D shapes, designed to “council” specifications, whilst in the background, a teacher observes the learning.

And the other teachers? We had a quick debrief whilst the kids were in their second round of activities. The kids were focussed and asked questions of each other. It was clear that the lesson was timed, well-planned, the parameters were communicated clearly to the boys and they were reminded throughout and knew what to expect. The teachers were great about recording “fine-grained” and objective evidence (p 93), and they were all actively engaged in carrying out their roles.

Said K of the experience (not of the lesson): “We can learn so much by observing each other. This was just so valuable. I’m a bit nervous about getting feedback when they come to observe me, but it is just so important to see how different people teach and how different people deal with difficult situations.”

At staff briefing, the whole team got a mention and N some well-deserved praise for her work. The rest of the staff have had a peek at IR (albeit in modified form), it got good press, positive word of mouth from all participants… and the coordinator is meeting her goal of growing capacity in her team. We have three more lots of observations to come – each of the four teachers modelling a lesson each week – and we have yet to do a proper debrief. But as far as opening up classrooms and learning from each other, and fostering professional dialogue? A great start and all credit to the four teachers who made it work. Yeah!