Category Archives: English Language Arts

Clarifying Questions in the Common Core Classroom

If you think about your educational experience growing up, it may have looked something like this. The teacher asked the questions, students gave the responses, and the answer was either right or wrong. A correct answer was rewarded with “good job” and a smile. An incorrect answer was met with a shake of the head or a frown, and the student felt bad for getting the wrong answer, and didn’t always know why the answer is wrong.

With the Common Core State Standards, students are asked to validate their answers with evidence. Instead of accepting an answer as merely right or wrong, push students to support their answer with evidence by asking clarifying questions. Here are some clarifying questions that you could ask your students:

Why do you think that?
Can you explain that?
What is the support for your thinking?
What evidence do you have to support your answer?

I recently taught a lesson in a classroom, where the students talked about a photograph of a Native American woman peeling acorns in the forest. I asked the students, “Where do you think the woman is?” Sam responded, “She is in the forest.” His answer was correct, but I asked him to explain why he thought it was the forest, and he looked confused. He knew his answer was correct, but he wasn’t expecting me to question his response. After some think time, Sam was able to respond with evidence to support his thinking. Another student, Sara, said that she thought the woman was sitting in front of a sand castle. Instead of telling her, “That’s not right,” or “Try again,” I responded with, “Do you have evidence to support your thinking?” She took a moment to look at the picture, studied the woman’s surroundings, shook her head no, and revised her answer. She was able to conclude that the woman in the photograph was outside in the woods or the forest, and not at the beach. She told me why she changed her mind.

Think about the power of students having the ability to revise their own thoughts and finding evidence to support or refute their answers. Learning becomes more meaningful to students when you stop accepting a right or wrong answer, and ask students, “Why?”

What are your tips for asking questions?

Moving Beyond the Personal Narrative

Narrative writing.  What is it?  From the perspective of an elementary school teacher, it’s the first genre of writing you teach of the school year.  And it’s always the personal narrative.  Students brainstorm and write about their trips to Disneyland, the beach, or playing video games for hours on end.  While students should write about what the know and experience, a narrative is an account of events, either real or fictitious.  The Anchor Standard for Writing expects students to “write narratives to convey real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.”  The word “imagined” does not appear in a grade level specific standard until third grade, but that does not mean that you ignore children’s imaginations in grades K-2.

I would push you to teach children the art of storytelling beyond the personal narrative.  Why?  Let’s think about advertising.  The most memorable commercials are the ones that tell a story, whether it that makes you laugh, cry, or cringe.  But it’s the advertisers job to sell a product, right?  Some commercials use gimmicks, but storytelling is an effective communication tool.

Here are some tips for thinking beyond the personal narrative:

1.  Start with a concrete object.  In her book Making Comprehension Connections: Bridges to Strategic Reading, Tanny McGregor has a lesson on inferencing in which students look at a shoe and answer the question, “Who wears this shoe?”  Based on physical evidence, the students can infer who wears it (e.g., a gardener wears the scuffed, faded brown boot).   I would take the lesson a step further and tell a story from the perspective of the person wearing the shoe.  Perhaps the gardener found a secret portal in the garden that took him to another world.  Let the students’ imaginations drive the storytelling.  As the teacher, you still teach the techniques of effective storytelling such as adding sequencing events, descriptive details, using quotations, etc.

2.  Use a painting or an illustration in a picture book, with the words covered up.  Have a discussion about the painting.  For example:  

This is the painting “The Circus” by Georges Seurat.  Ask the students, “What is going in the painting?  How do you know?”  Chart the “characters” that they see in the picture.  Once the class has had a discussion on what is going on at this current moment, students can then select a character and talk about what happened before and after.  Students can create a Flow Map to show the sequence of events, and let the writing begin.

3.  Primary sources are a great tool for storytelling.  A primary source can be an object, photograph, diary entry, newspaper article, or anything from the time period that you are studying.  Archaeologists analyze artifacts they find and try to piece together a story with the remains.  Students can think like archaeologists and create a story about the primary source  For example, something as simple as the remains of a plate from the colonial era.  Ask students questions such as, “Who would eat from this plate?  Why was it broken or abandoned?  What could have happened to the owner of this plate?  What was going on at that time?”

Students can write a story from the perspective of the owner of the plate.  A plate is just a plate until students begin to ask questions, then it becomes a key to the unlocking the past, and the pen for their story.

What have you done to move your students beyond the personal narrative?  Please post your ideas below.

Mathew Needleman’s note:  This post was written by Susan Obuchi.  She is a Elementary Common Core Facilitator in English Language Arts and a National Board Certified Teacher.  I hesitate to call her a guest blogger.  If this goes well you may see some additional posts related to English Language Arts posted here.