The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

A series of events, good and bad, prompted me to think about the questions I use, good or bad. Not educational questions - behavioural ones. The ones that really make a difference to an interaction.

Ranking as the day's most dreadful question must surely be the overused and indefensible "is there anyone here who didn't understand that?" (kid-speak: put your hand up if you think you might be stupid). I wish wish wish I didn't ever use this, but it must occur in my classroom at least on a weekly basis.
When I can remember, I try to translate it to "did I explain that properly, or does anyone think I need to try again?" or "do you guys need me to write out an example to show you?"
Left unamended, it becomes rhetorical. Subtitled: shut up and don't bother me. Way to go, Miss.

When Toye wouldn't do any work, I asked him if he "needed to visit the library to buy himself a pen to write with." The sarcasm didn't miss, and created the same response sarcasm typically provokes: protectiveness, rudeness, part of the kid armoury. "I don't really care."
Taking Toye outside, I asked another bad question: "You used to always gain praise in my class. What's changed?" It works in the sense of reflecting and shaming, but it doesn't get an answer.
Seriously, how could it? How could you say to someone in authority that dad's come home from prison, or mum threw you out, or your last foster home didn't work out to an enquiry like that?
Sensing I'd lost the sympathy vote forever, I changed tack to brusque question/ brusque answer. "There's a problem here. Something needs to change. So which is the problem, you, me, or the work? Let me know, and it will change." I like this question - it focuses on results, and allows a fair right of reply if you have been over zealous meting out the scorn of late. Unfortunately, there'd been so many hopelessly confrontational questions preceding it that both I and Toye knew not one more word would pass his lips. I sent him back in the room, with an impotent "be good, this time".

Better was the question to fifteen year olds: "what movie would you like to study for your second media unit?" It took a lot longer than my simply deciding for them, but they weighed the pros and cons, argued with each other about whether Scary Movie really allowed them to analyse layers of meaning in the way that Chicago would. (I bit back another question, here. It's their choice. Makes a mockery of it if I then take the choice away from them.)

Godwin was leaping all lesson like an electrified eel. We went through the whole gamut of questions, commands, responses, wheedling, tears and declamations, ending in a state of blind fury on both sides where I needed him out of the room for 30 seconds simply to be able to formulate a reasoned response to him.
He responds randomly to my requests. "What should you have done when I asked you to close the door? Should you have barged back in shouting every ten seconds?" Godwin shakes his head.
I'm too slow to respond, so - eager as a puppy to please me and get back inside the circus ring - he decisively nods yes, then smiles, expecting praise for the right answer.
Sigh. "You're not even listening to the question, are you, Godwin?" Nod. Shake. Nod.

Eventually, my questions reached rock bottom: "Do you want me to skin you alive, Godwin, then spatter your blood across the windows? Because I have a sharp knife in my drawer that has your name on it."
Yes, I really say those things.
At least the humour defused the situation, but it comes to something when my questioning technique is so awful that only by threatening to tell his fourteen year old sister can I get him to remove the contraband clothing and stop cussing the others.

Walking out of school, three and a half hours after the final bell had rung, I see Godwin slumped upon a wall. Question: "Are you waiting to be picked up?" Nods head.
I take in his hunched shoulders, the failing warmth of the day dissolving into the spring chill of grey dusk. Wrong question.
This is late, and there's no-one else waiting. Godwin isn't buzzing any more, and I know from experience it takes more than a few hours to let his internal jumpy bean fizz itself out.

"Have you been waiting for a long time, Godwin?"

Right question.
Nods head, as mouth turns down at the corners. Poor kid. Should have eaten his tea by now.
I send him inside to use the telephone.