What’s Possible? Students and Teachers Learning Together

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A group of teachers and students watch a video of a diver swimming in a sea of plastic and generate questions raised by the video: Where is the diver located? What is in the water? How did the plastic get there? Why can’t the pollution be taken out? Do people care that the water is dirty? Before pursuing answers to these questions, the group first works with the questions themselves by sorting them into categories. They discuss how answering the questions might lead to a better understanding of the video. At the end of the activity, teachers and students stand next to the category of questions they feel is most important to understanding what is happening in the video. The group disperses around the room and share their rationale for how they use questions to learn. 

This scenario is the opening activity of a professional learning program on student questioning. Unlike most professional learning, the students participated in the process alongside their teachers. While the heart of all professional learning is student learning, most target teachers’ actions and on the occasion that they focus on what students are doing, students are rarely invited into the conversation. So when student questioning became a goal of professional learning at MS 45 in the Bronx, a discussion with Principal Annamaria Giordano Perrotta led to a program in which students were not just invited to be part of the process, but were an essential part of the program’s success.

As an educational consultant for the last 25 years, I have facilitated professional learning in many schools and worked in MS 45 for several years on different initiatives, although never with students. When deciding how to best involve the students, the principal and I decided on a structure that we had used for teacher-only programs. Teachers and students would be released from their responsibilities and spend three days learning together. The plan was for the sessions to occur over three months so there would be time for the participants to apply their learning in between sessions. The purpose of this article is to share what I learned as a result of the experience so others can see the value of taking the simple step of involving students in teacher learning. 

1. When held to high expectations, students meet those expectations

The first decision I needed to make as facilitator was how to structure the session to accommodate students. The participating students represented three grade levels (6, 7, 8) and a wide range of background experiences (including English Language Learners, students with disabilities, and honor students). At first I thought it would be necessary to eliminate some of the resources or activities that I often used with adults such as text-based discussions, questioning frameworks, and written reflections. However, I quickly changed my mind after considering what I knew from research and my own experiences in schools; that if we begin with beliefs about what students can do, and design with these beliefs as true, students have the opportunity to meet high expectations.

What I really needed to do was to design with the program outcomes in mind and then make the content and processes accessible to students. For example, one program outcome was for participants to examine different types of questions. Students and teachers worked with Bloom’s taxonomy as one structure for learning about different types of questions. Instead of just reading the taxonomy, the group unpacked the taxonomy by watching a video explanation of the different levels and then classified pre-written questions before creating their own. While challenging, students were given multiple ways to access the meaning of the different dimensions of the taxonomy and had models of different types of questions available to them, so they were able to meet the expectation for the learning experience.

2. Students learn and apply their learning in the classroom

During the professional learning sessions, students worked with their teachers to design a classroom lesson that would engage all of their classmates in using questions to learn. I sat with Mr. Raphael Trevisan as he worked with his 8th grade students, Iris and Jemelly. They were creating different leveled questions for a social studies text on World War II that students would read and discuss in class. Iris and Jemelly had generated literal and inferential questions but were struggling with creating an essential question to use as the overarching discussion question. Mr. Trevisan and I prompted Iris to think differently about the text and as a result generated the question, is war worth it? Her pride in the question and her reasoning as to how she arrived at it demonstrated her understanding of how questions can be used to learn. She shared how the process had been difficult. She had to think about all the information in the text in order to come up with one question and because of that actually understood the text better.

At the end of the program, 6th grader Elizabeth wrote of what she learned, “I learned that questioning is really important…you get to expand the conversation as well as encourage other students to ask more questions. It helps us to discuss, plan, get information, observe, etc.” Her reflection was inclusive of other student responses. It revealed her understanding of the different ways to use questions. Each of her applications – clarify, discuss, plan, get information, observe – were related to something the group had experienced during the professional learning, and then brought back to the classroom with their teacher.

In both observing Iris and Jemelly working with Mr. Trevisan and reading Elizabeth’s and the other students’ reflection, it was evident that students has walked away with more than just an understanding of different types of questions. They understood questions could be used as a tool for learning.

3. Learning leads to self-confidence and leadership

Beyond what students learned about questioning, the professional learning experience impacted students in other ways as well. Student involvement in professional learning improved their social and emotional skills, built their confidence and engaged them in leadership roles within the schools’ community.

In working in a collaborative atmosphere, students developed both their self-management and relationship skills. One of the activities that the group engaged was a station rotation activity. At each station, students and teachers completed an activity focused on learning about how human decisions impact the ocean so they could return to their original set of questions, evaluate the questions and then answer them. These station activities, along with other activities throughout the professional learning experience, required students to be patient and take turns, negotiate roles, and reconcile their thoughts and ideas with those of their group. As the groups were made up of both teachers and students, the teachers were able to coach the students through the process. This type of social support is not always possible in a classroom to the same degree but in a small environment where teacher and students are learning together, the teacher is able to model self-regulation and encourage students as they work to do the same.

A very visible change that occurred during the time I worked with the group was the increase in the level of confidence the students had in themselves. Several of the students were initially very quiet and often hesitated to participate. However, as the students developed relationships with me, their teachers and each other, they were more willing to take risks and engage in the activities and discussions. One particular English Language Learner shared that speaking was difficult for her because she couldn’t always find the words in English. She did not always speak in the large group but she was always involved in the activities and small group discussions. Just her ability to articulate her concern was a huge step in building her self-confidence. Other students also shared their appreciation for the learning environment and its impact on them as learners. In an end-of-program reflection, one student wrote, “What I liked about being here is how much group effort there is in the activities and how we can express our opinions in every way.” Teachers also noted the growth in the students, as one wrote in her reflection, “I very much enjoyed having my student with me. The experience gave them confidence and ownership over their learning.”

Students also assumed leadership roles within the school community. At the end of the program, students were asked to share their learning with other teachers. Teachers in the school met weekly for professional learning and it was very common for teachers to share their learning from outside experiences at these meetings. As the goal of the questioning professional learning was to engage students in the process at the same level as teachers, the students were asked to share their learning with other teachers who did not attend. Students were able to share the questions they developed with their teachers and how they used these questions in classroom lessons. They were also able to share the different ways that questions are used to learn.

4. Learning is a mutual process between teachers and students

While the intention of this article is to show the impact of including students in professional learning on students, it is important not to lose sight of the initial goal, improve teachers practice in eliciting student questions. When asked about what they learned as a result of the program, teacher responses indicated that this goal had been met. One teacher shared what they learned about questioning in general, “I learned that not only are there different types of questions in terms of the information that they elicit, but that there are also different outcomes for questioning such as: learning, furthering discussion, developing a plan and observing. I learned that it is sometimes more valuable to ask questions than to answer them.” Another teachers shared, “I learned how to ask deeper questions and how to get my students to go further into their own questioning.”

In order for the professional learning to be beneficial to the teachers, the teachers had to be willing to learn alongside their students. Ms. Jennifer Previtera, Ms. Diandra Urena, Ms. Kelly Martin and Mr. Trevisan were all willing to be learners with their students. They readily engaged in activities that required generating questions for different purposes, evaluating questions, receiving feedback and revising their work. They demonstrated to their students what it means to be a learner, and that learning is a life-long process.

Round logo with water, recycle arrows and penguin as part of The Earth Squad Logo

5. New learning leads to more new learning

An unexpected outcome of this particular learning experience was that students became interested in ocean pollution. As students investigated questioning they did so in the context of learning about how human actions impact the health of the ocean and what can be done to prevent further damage. Their interest resulted in the formation of their club “The Earth Squad” and the creation of a podcast where students shared their findings of the economic, social and environmental costs of pollution and steps everyone can take to reduce their environmental footprint. The process of creating the podcast and the structure of the podcast itself was, of course, framed by questions. Once again giving students another opportunity to see how questions are used to learn.

The hope of this article is to encourage schools to consider the role of students in professional learning. The value of including them in the process extends much further than the content of the program itself and is beneficial to both teachers and their students. As one of the teachers at MS 45 wrote, “I loved being involved in this PD. It helped me examine and improve my own practices with questions, as well as being able to include my students in this learning. It has helped them take ownership, as well as having our learning be a shared experience in class.” The lessons learned from their experience are ones from which all schools can benefit.

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