During my first year of teaching high school, I had an after-lunch class that was almost comically chaotic and difficult. Every 50-minute period was like an episode in a bad teenage movie. The students had their own agendas and didn’t seem to like each other or me.
What, I wondered, would happen if I set up an anonymous system for students to share what was going on inside them? If they could just see how everyone was struggling with the same problems, maybe they would develop a bit of empathy for each other.
This seed idea grew into fourteen years of helping children voice the questions they rarely talk about. I’m not a philosophy teacher, but I wondered if I could incorporate questions inspired by it.
During my year of service as 2015 National Teacher, I road tested this idea. In a special partnership with the U.S. Department of State, I visited the Middle East as an ambassador of American teaching.
Even though I’d never met them, the senior class at the American Jerusalem High School in Jerusalem was willing to play along. We gathered in an auditorium, and as I looked at the 200 assembled students, I felt a wave of insecurity wash over me. But I opened the lesson the same way I did at my high school: by sharing a personally meaningful story with my own questions.
“Before I was a teacher, I was a reporter and I covered some really sad and scary things,” I told them. “And some of them, I don’t think I’ll ever forget—especially when they happened to children. I accept that bad things happen to good people. That’s just the way of the world.”
They stopped fidgeting.
“What I can’t seem to accept is when good things happen to bad people,” I continued. “Why do some people ‘get away with it’? Why are some people never made to answer for what they do to others? I don’t know that I’ll ever get a good answer, but it’s a question that haunts me.”
“What about you? What are the questions that stay with you? What haunts you? Or makes you sad? Or makes you angry? Or just confuses you no matter how much you try to think about it?”
By this point, they were silent. I could see that they were considering whether or not to trust this strange woman from the United States.
“I’ve asked your teachers to give everyone a piece of paper. I’d love to know what your questions are,” I said. “What are the things you’ve kept inside you that you’ve been afraid to ask? Would you mind sharing them with me? If you want to, please write them on the paper.”
An engaged quiet settled over the room as they began writing. I exhaled. They were repeating the behavior I’d seen in my own classes.
What I’m sharing here is an abridged version of this lesson. Part of the reason the room gets quiet, I think, is because of a willingness to be authentic and vulnerable with our own authentic questions. I share my own frustrations with the difficult nature of justice, which is also an engaging topic for teenagers.
When we worry that students want more technology or games or for our lessons to be more fun, maybe what they really need is just for us to listen to them and trust the intellectual power inside them.
Generating Students’ Authentic Questions Protocol
Time: 10 minutes
In school, we don’t often take the time to think about deep and serious questions, but what if we did? If you could ask the smartest person in the world questions, what would you ask?
Don’t write your name on the cards; these are anonymous, so you can write honestly. Write as many questions as you can as fast as you can. Don’t stop to talk about them, worry about them, or try to answer them.
- One minute—Read the introduction and directions.
- Five minutes—Students write. Encourage them to keep asking questions. Model the process by writing with students and/or providing them with one of your own deep questions.
- Three minutes —Debrief by sharing one of your own questions. Ask
students to answer questions about the process of writing questions:
What was hard? What was easy? What surprised you?
- One minute —Ask students to fold cards in half for privacy and then collect them. Tell students you will be working with these questions during another class.
You can find this protocol and more strategies like it in Think Like Socrates: Using Questions to Invite Wonder and Empathy Into the Classroom, Grades 4-12.