As teachers, the thing we do most often is talk with our students. We talk with them in class, one-on-one, after class, at Conference Period, in the hallways, around campus — we talk with them everywhere. Perhaps the most significant teaching tool we have is the conversations that we have with our students. How do we frame questions? How do we respond to their questions? How do we create inclusivity? How do we build emotionally secure but intellectually challenging spaces? How can we best shape the language of the classroom to facilitate and deepen the learning of our students?
Our work as teachers begins the minute a student enters the room. We greet each student by name, check in with them, find out about their day, see what’s exciting them, what are they looking forward to? When we welcome students in this way, we are saying to them “I see you, you are important, what you have to contribute matters to this class, I’m glad you’re here.” Learning is an inherently social experience, and a key move for all teachers is to be sure that students feel included, safe, and comfortable.
Once class is underway, we work to frame questions in ways that encourage engagement and deepen understanding. For example, when beginning an investigation of any topic, we use language that invites the student into an exploration of ideas. “What are some of the ways we might begin to understand why American colonists were frustrated with British tax policy?” By asking a question that calls for multiple responses, we ask students to open up their thinking, and we tell them that we are not looking for only one right answer. This leads students to experiment with their thinking — to try out a variety of ideas. The phrase “some of the ways” tells students that they don’t need to show that they know everything right away. Using the word “we” lets students know that we’re all in this together, working collectively and collaboratively towards understanding. When we say we “might begin” to understand, we are letting students know that we are just starting out on our inquiry, indicating that we’re going to take our time to develop and build our ideas.
Before we even pose a question like this, we think about how we’d like students to respond. We might ask them to journal for a few minutes. Perhaps we’ll ask them to think for a minute, then pair with a partner or two to share their ideas. We might plan to collect input through an iPad app such as Padlet. In all cases, we’re creating time and space for thinking to happen. The journaling allows students to express their ideas without the pressure of an audience. A “pair/share” allows students to rehearse their ideas with one or two peers, rather than the whole class. The Padlet app allows for the whole class to contribute over the course of a few minutes (or overnight, if it is used for a homework assignment), allowing all students to take an extra moment or two to process their ideas. In every case, we are sure to allow for sufficient “wait time.”
We use the phrase “wait time” to describe the amount of time we will wait before asking for student input. Simply extending “wait time” is a transformative move. As teachers, we are constantly assessing and reassessing how we use time. Taking a few extra moments to allow room for student thinking produces better learning. After posing a question, waiting 30 or 60 seconds before collecting input leads to deeper engagement, better thinking, and more fully developed ideas. Moreover, if we announce the length of wait time when we pose the question, we tell students that thinking time is protected; they are not waiting or wondering “when is the teacher going to call on us?” but rather are tangling with the complexities of the question.
When we create a safe and inclusive space, students feel valued. By carefully crafting the language we use to ask questions, we invite students to dive into ideas. Providing a variety of ways for students to respond honors the thinking that students do. Allowing the space and time for thinking to happen enriches that thinking. Carefully considering the ways in which we interact with our students — how we talk with them, what kinds of questions we ask them, how we shape the learning environment — is the foundation for creating classroom cultures that value deep engagement with rich and complex ideas.