Slice of Life: The Power of Questioning

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Today, after testing, we started the read aloud “What Do Fish Have to Do With Anything?” a short  story by Avi. In the story, the main character,Willie, is a sixth grader who asks a lot of questions. His recently single, overworked mother responds to one of his particularly difficult questions with, “Questions that have no answers shouldn’t be asked.”

With that thought in our minds, we move to the idea of questioning:  the who, what, why and how of questioning in school. Guided by Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana, we started a new line of thinking: How to ask questions.  As members of the Right Question Institute, the authors’ work is not just about teaching students how to question for academic gains,  but  for social justice and self advocacy purposes.


This is just a step toward teaching the Question Formulation Technique developed in the book. A step toward hearing more student voices, student thinking and creating student agency.

Before we started the work,  students had to be clear on the ground rules.

  1. Ask as many questions as you can.
  2. Do not stop to discuss, judge or answer the questions.
  3. Write down every question exactly as it is stated.
  4. Change any statement into a question.

Seems simple? Maybe. Would they just look at me when they saw the idea. Would they be able to make questions out of statements. Could they not argue and criticize ideas of their classmates, We talked a little about each rule and students had to be honest about what would be a challenge.

The talkers, the ones who love debate, admitted #2 would be their biggest challenge. Students who tend to be know-it-alls (other students gave them meaningful looks) decided to be the ones to write the questions they heard to keep themselves quiet.

Some didn’t understand the idea of asking questions.

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t get it.”

So I modeled a tiny bit.
“Let’s say the topic is shoes. So questions I could ask might be: Why are shoes important? or How are shoes made?” That quick general example gave those who found the idea of coming up with questions completely foreign, a tiny idea of what the heck I was talking about.

My only criteria for each group was that it  have a scribe and contain 3 to 4 students.

Then I gave them the statement to develop questions about:

Our differences separate us.

I hoped the statement showed no bias on my part, was something that could generate interest and open-ended questions. We have been reading books (Wonder, Out of My Mind, The One and Only Ivan, A Long Walk to Water) that highlight the struggles of those who are different, the outcasts. Those who either don’t fit in or aren’t wanted.  This theme runs through our lives and can cause some of our biggest life challenges. So I was hoping the background knowledge was strong enough to make some connections, although not necessarily from the reading.

They looked at the words on the board.


I worry.

S  asks,  “Do you mean in our books?”

I respond, “Your job is to generate as many questions as you can.”

Then talk. Finally.

They were bursting with questions.



How come….

Is it ok if..


I heard a little bit of, “That’s not a good one.” To which I added, “No judgement.”

And a little of, “That’s because…” To which I mentioned, “No discussion.”

I also heard, “How do you do that? You have so many questions!”

Mostly I heard questions that fit the idea.

In about five minutes most had a page of questions.

One group member came to me and admitted they had nothing because two group members “played around.” (classic) The group was dismantled, distributed among the groups with only three and informed of the questions they had come up with.

As we walked to lunch J said to me, “I’m so glad we are asking questions. I am always asking questions.” I wasn’t surprised to hear this from her. She is someone who asks all the time and it shows in her reading and writing.

Questions are the road to thought, to asserting your ideas, to wondering about why things are they way they are, to how they could be better, to change. All students need a healthy dose of why, when, where, how come in their daily school routine. Questions that come from them, not a teacher or a test. Questioning empowers us.

The scribes filed away their questions and saved them for tomorrow’s next steps: improving and and categorizing  them as open- or closed-ended. Just understanding the difference will be huge.

Excited for tomorrow.