Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Learning to Teach Again: Questions

I often tell the students in my Education courses, "Questions are good! We love questions!" This usually comes up in conversations about pedagogy (the how of teaching and learning) and especially related to the content knowledge (the what of teaching and learning) we need to have to be effective teachers. I try to emphasize to my teachers-in-training that questions are evidence of thinking, wondering, planning, wrestling, and--often--growth and development.

But I think the idea of students asking them questions scares them a little too. "Will I have enough knowledge to answer all of their questions?" is a common concern.

I always try to reassure them that as the teacher, you don't have to have all the answers. While you can't say, "I don't know..." every day and maintain credibility as a teacher...you can say, "Let's find out!" at any time, and invite the students in to the learning as they answer their own questions.

But all of this talk in theory came together for me in practice a few weeks ago in class. In my World Regional Geography class, we spent a few class meetings investigating Latin America (Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and South America) and the often-complicated relationship between the United States and these regions. As an introduction to one lesson, I pulled out an old technique I used often in my middle school teaching practice.

The strategy is called "In a Nutshell." The basic idea: I give students a prompt, and ask them to respond with a quickwrite off the top of their head in response. This gives me an idea of the collective thinking of the group, which I can use for formative assessment, and make decisions about where to go next. Back in the day, I even made cute little 1/4 page sheets labeled "In a Nutshell..." with a picture of a peanut on them. I actually made some copies of these and gave them to my geography students.

Kind of silly, isn't it? (And peanuts aren't even nuts...)

The prompt I asked them to write about was this: "My current thoughts on immigration to the United States..." I gave them three or four minutes to think and write. (While I put a space for students' names on the In a Nutshell... sheets, I encouraged them to keep this one anonymous, so they might feel more free to speak their mind.) They had a wide variety of insights:
  • I think that immigrants are helping by doing the jobs that we do not want to do.
  • Before we have a strong opinion and judge immigrants, let's educate ourselves and find out the reasons they want to come here.
  • I see a problem of immigrants taking jobs, and bringing different aspects of life to the US that puts a strain on our economy.
  • I think we need to limit immigration into the United States. We need stability, and with all the evil, it's hard. Illegals should be sent back; they made the choice to break the law and should be held accountable. We can love them as brothers and sisters by showing them that breaking the law isn't the right way to do it. As Americans, we need one language (English) to communicate clearly with one another.
  • I don't think turning people away and building up our borders is a good answer. I believe that immigrants are a blessing, not a curse, and the majority of Americans immigrated to the US at some point in their family tree. But, I also think that not everyone should be allowed in, because some people want to hurt the US.
  • I think we should make getting American citizenship easier and quicker for illegal immigrants who are here. But I also think they are breaking the law...so I don't know what to do about keeping new ones out, or should we just let anyone in??
  • I have absolutely no problem with immigrants coming to the US if they go through proper channels to do so.
  • The only thing I think is wrong with immigration is when they come into the U.S. illegally. Overpopulation is also a factor.
  • I understand that my ancestors were immigrants too, so that makes me more welcoming to other immigrants. However, I do not approve of illegal immigration.
  • I think it's great that people want to immigrate into the U.S. Keep them coming! Just do it LEGALLY! Illegal immigration frustrates me. I understand it is expensive, but I have friends whose families have been waiting years to legally come to the U.S. I just wish it was easier to migrate.
  • Immigration to the U.S. is a complicated and hard subject for me. I have mixed feelings about it. I will love those who are here illegally and I would never turn anyone in. However, I also believe that people should be here legally! I think it is in the best interest of the United States, and the immigrants too! And while I believe that we are called to love, I do not think that Christ would want us to open our borders. There is a reason for the government keeping order. Some say that these people are doing the work that we don't want to do, but I think that is a selfish and unloving way to look at this issue!
I found the diversity of opinions here interesting, if not entirely surprising. I have students from a variety of backgrounds, and while all of them are Christians, it's a good reminder for me that Christendom is a wide umbrella. It was interesting for me to hear them in their own words thinking about what they believe on a complicated, potentially controversial issue. It's also interesting that in this sample above, there are quite a few who specifically describe their own conflict about the situation.

With this strategy, sometimes, that's it--just have them scribble out their response, I collect the sheets, and read through them to get a sense of their thinking. This time though, I asked them to hang on to their Nutshells, because I wanted them to do one more thing at the end of the lesson.

The lesson on Central America went pretty well. As we often do in this course, I let students' questions about the reading for the day guide my in-class instruction.  Then I showed part of a documentary about Central America that introduced them to the complicated relationship between Nicaragua and the United States from the 1950s-1990s. (The film is a documentary called Harvest of Empire. I found the film interesting, and reminded me of several things I had learned previously but had forgotten. The Nicaragua segment we viewed begins at 54:37, if you are interested.) I was watching my students' body language as they were watching the film, and it was clear that--for many of them--this was a part of U.S. history that these American students knew little about.

And it looked like they had questions.

So, at the end of viewing, I again gave them a few more minutes to think and write. This time, on the back of their In a Nutshell, the prompt: "What questions do you now have about immigration to the U.S.?"

Again, an interesting diversity of responses:
  • Maybe we should limit immigration. But how?
  • If a person came to the U.S. illegally, how do they find jobs, housing, etc. without having important papers?
  • How can we help those seeking refuge from being attacked by corrupt leaders find shelter?
  • Are all the countries who have immigrants coming to the US ones with this kind of history of the US "helping" them?
  • How can we allow people who are suffering to enter easily without also risking the security of our country?
  • Why is it so damn hard to become a US citizen?
  • Why do people think that the immigrants are going to steal all of the jobs?
  • How do immigrants feel towards Americans? I mean, so many Americans are negative toward them. Are they negative toward us too?
  • Would making immigration more accessible prevent illegal immigration?
  • How did immigration even start? Why can't people just live where they choose?
  • Do people desire to immigrate to other countries like they do to the U.S.A.?
  • I know there are several reasons that people/government in the U.S. give for why immigration to the U.S. is bad, but which ones are actually valid, and which ones are just myths or not actually negatives?
  • Why so much prejudice against immigrants?
  • Why is immigration such a big problem all of a sudden? After watching this video, I have empathy for these immigrants, and this is challenging my thinking a little.
  • Why is it so easy to get people to fear others who are different? This is very dangerous!
  • I just thought this was so interesting, and I just don't know how to feel about illegal immigration. I feel it is both right and wrong, but I'm just so confused about it!
  • Why is immigration the large topic in America today, rather than all the other issues going on?
This is a sample of their responses--most of the others echo these same ideas just phrased in slightly different ways. It gets me excited to see my students thinking things through for themselves, and challenging what they have perhaps thought in the past.

But...here's where I dropped the ball. After this class meeting, I had to be away from campus for other commitments, and I had previously arranged some online class materials for the times I was going to be away. All this great thought material and wondering in hand...and I didn't do anything with it! Ugh. A missed opportunity, for sure. And, with the steady grind of the semester, we've left Latin America behind us for the Middle East and Northern Africa, and now we are shifting to Sub-Saharan Africa. I try to live a life with few regrets, but this is a small one: I feel like I let my students down by not capitalizing on their curiosity and engagement with this topic. Could we go back and revisit it? Sure--and they might get back into that wondering state of mind.

But I feel like I wasted an opportunity for them to really wrestle deeply with challenging ideas, and either come to own their previous perspective more securely, or perhaps deconstruct their old ideas and begin to replace them with new ones. I am hoping that this still happened for them, even relatively informally. But I'm regretting this a bit.

And so, here I am, reminding myself this time that "Questions are good! We love questions!" And not that this has a hollow ring to it at all. The richness of my students questions--even the ones I'm not sure how to answer here!--demonstrate to me that they are thinking, wondering, planning, wrestling, and--hopefully--continuing to grow and develop.

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