BFTP: On Questions (2003)

BFTP Nov 26, 2014

I’m cleaning up my server and stumbled across this old piece from my third year of teaching. Taking a cue from Doug Johnson who regularly posts “Blasts From The Past”, I’m going to post a few of the old writings.

Two short thoughts on this post. First, I really miss teaching. I miss the simple joy of interacting with goofy middle school students and the ability to always, always, come home with 1/2 a dozen stories. Second, I really was a newbie teacher – unpolished, a bit unfocused, but doing a pretty good job at the relational part of teaching. 


 

On Questions (From 2003)

I adore questions. When students ask me questions I know that I finally reached them, I broke through the budding boundaries of apathy. I started the domino effect of learning! Questions quickly fill the void of despair I feel when a class stares at me with sullen, blank faces. Questions hue towards a natural curiosity that, when watered and fed, blossom into intrinsic seeking and, instead of deadening their minds with passive crap (be it from their peers, TV, whatever), produce fruit. God bless the student who seeks answers.

That’s not to say that all manners of questioning in the classroom are profound and awe inspiring. Indeed, in my 3 years of teaching I’ve heard everything from the mundane to down right bizarre.

I used to teach this student named Reggie. Reggie had an afro the size of a large globe, a face that always bunched up in consternation, and eyes that frequently drifted. Not that Reggie’s mind spoke of an emptiness, but rather, he frequently retreated into its recesses in order to contemplate whatever vagary. Reggie was a goofy genius – a student who frequently made the most astonishing connections.

I once gave a lesson on longitude and latitude. Reggie stared at my crude drawing of the earth and saw a physics problem.

“Hey Mr. V” he shouted (urgent questions rarely come with raised hands). “What would happen if you dug a hole through the earth and then jumped in it?”

Now this question had nothing to do with longitude or latitude, but in Reggie’s mind (and by asking the question out loud, every student in the class) it was a completely valid and important question. A response was required.

As a teacher, I have four options when it comes to questions.

  • Option 1: Give the actual answer. That, of course, assumes I know the answer which, in many cases, I have no clue.
  • Option 2: Simply say that I don’t know. Students usually are frustrated with this response because I, as their teacher, am supposed to know everything.
  • Option 3: Come up with some fantastic, incredible, creative yet totally unbelievable reply that, while subtly relaying the fact that I really don’t have any clue about what I’m talking about, at least is funny. This option is the most preferable when I don’t know the answer (provided that I challenge the students to find a better hypothesis than the one I’ve come up with).
  • Option 4: Pretend that the question wasn’t asked. Option 4 should only be used in certain circumstances which I’ll describe later.

It so happened that I knew the answer to Reggie’s question.

“Assuming that you’d be jumping through a vacuum – or a hole that had no air resistance – and assuming that you wouldn’t burn up when traveling through the intense heat of the Earth’s core, you’d pick up speed until you hit the middle of the Earth and slow down once you passed it until, when you reached the other side, you wouldn’t be moving at all.” I said. “Kind of like a pendulum.”

A true art in teaching comes in the ability to bring whatever random subject the students talk about into the content I want to teach. Sometimes this is really easy, sometimes extremely difficult. In Reggie’s case, I quickly sketched a drawing of the Earth with longitude lines.

“So Reggie, if I jumped in at 48 degrees west longitude and traveled through the center of Earth, where would I end up?” Just like that, we’re back on task.

In a history class, the “I Don’t Know” answers pops up frequently (and not just on the part of students). Frequently this has to do with death. Because so much of history is entertainment, I often describe how historic villains and heroes meet their end. Alexander Hamilton died in a duel. Meriwether Lewis shot himself. Jefferson and Adams perished on the same day. Students remember the morbid and will ask me how other historical characters finished their narratives. To their questions I simply reply that I don’t know but, if they are truly interested, to look it up for themselves.

Still, and especially with some students, I feel moments of mischief creep up. Take William Clark for example. After learning the tragic ending to Lewis, one student wanted to know what happened to Clark.

“Clark came home from his 3 year trip and married his neighbor Eliza May” I told the student. “Together they raised a small nation, 24 boys and one girl, which,” I added to the loud giggling of the class, “is all the more remarkable considering that many childbirths ended in death.”

Now I couldn’t remember exactly how many kids William Clark had. So instead of trying to pass this off as historic truth, I used it as the platform to build an outrageous story, thereby encouraging student curiosity.

“Their 25th child, a boy named Robby, unfortunately was born with only a head.” I continued. Half of the class looked at me with incredulity while the other half pondered if someone could actually be born with only head.

“Being a head sucked for, while Robby got really good at thinking, all he really wanted to do was run around. Now the Clarks raised their children under religious precepts, so one day Robby prayed to God for a torso and arms. Sure enough, the next day he woke up to a torso and arms!”

“Having a torso and arms was great! His sister fashioned him a wheel chair and he was finally able to move about on his own. But then Robby got to thinking, it sure would be nice to have some legs. So he said a prayer, and the next day he had legs.”

“Robby was ecstatic. He ran around the house, climbed trees, and chased chickens. He chased dogs down the streets, his brothers through the farm, and squirrels through the underbrush. In fact, he chased a squirrel through the underbrush, up the side of an embank, onto some railroad tracks, and into the path of train. He ran into the path of a train, got hit, and died.”

At this point the class grew utterly silent. Did I have a point for this morbid story?

“Class, history teaches us lessons. Always. Can anyone tell me the lesson to Robby’s story?”

One bright young girl raised her hand. “Um, to quit while you’re ahead?”

“Exactly!”

Story telling, a wonderful tool used to take the class with you along the path of learning, doesn’t always work its magic in response to a question. There are those questions a teacher dreads. Questions that, while completely salient, strangle us and blank out our minds.

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