Making Space for Tough Questions
Training, planning and curriculum can only do so much for a teacher. No amount of reading the insights of educational theorists, carefully detailing lesson plans or thoughtfully setting up a classroom prepares a teacher to answer, “Isn’t menstruation when a woman sheds her skin like a snake?” Children are amazing at asking questions that stop adults in their tracks. While these moments can feel silly or uncomfortable to answer, they are critical moments for developing a class community. As they near upper elementary, students are starting to look beyond themselves, are observing the bigger world and are needing to make meaning through questioning. Since joining The Little School, I’ve noticed a reverence for student questions in our work culture. Questions are the first step in learning, so I feel the need to make sure I'm not letting my nervousness stop me from answering thoughtfully. In fact, if a question is making me uncomfortable, that question is likely one of the most important ones I'll answer that day. Modeling how to invite and honor potentially awkward, embarrassing, complicated or misinformed questions signals to students that they are in a safe place, they are respected as learners and that adults are allies. There are several questions I ask myself and strategies I use to help make space for tough questions.
Take a moment. Am I present and ready to authentically take on this question?
A student has just asked if a woman sheds her skin like a snake. I take a breath. I give myself a beat. Was it a hilarious question? Yes. Will I repeat it to every adult friend I see this week? Of course. Is the student telling it as a joke? Probably not. Maybe they aren’t expecting laughter. Dismissing this question might scare them from asking hard questions in the future. This is the first step in setting up a safe place for hard questions. It took this student courage to offer this to the class. Accepting this question continues to affirm a culture where student questions belong.
What has prompted the question?
If I brush past this moment because it seems silly or I'm feeling uncomfortable, I’m missing a chance to unpack the student’s current understanding. Menstruation involves shedding the uterine lining, so there is some connection to the student’s question. This might be a time to ask some probing questions back to the student. “Can you say more?” “Can you say that in another way?” “Where did you learn about this topic?” This student is coming with funds of knowledge that could be obscured if I’m only focusing on how the question was stated. By probing, I can find out some of the details that might help me direct a student’s thinking.
Can the class help?
There are also a lot of perspectives and backgrounds in the room besides the question asker’s and my own. “This is a great start. I think I understand what you’re saying, but it doesn’t quite square with my understanding. Does anyone else have information to add to this question?” There is a whole community of learners in the room. Pitching the question back to the class allows me to see what the rest of the class knows and potentially opens the door for a student to get answers from their peers. Encouraging a culture where the teacher isn’t the sole holder of knowledge models to the student that they can seek out their own learning from the communities around them.
Answer the question asked.
Besides the silliness factor, I might feel uncomfortable answering certain questions. Whether sexual, political or controversial, I feel the need to balance my own comfort with student needs, as well as figuring out what my role is in answering certain questions. I’m not sure who said this, but it has stuck with me: Answer the question you were asked, not your answer to the question. Now, this isn’t a rule. There might be times where I need to uphold my school’s values and that value statement might go beyond answering the question they asked. At other times, maybe when a student asks a political question that is up to opinion, I might need to separate myself. If it’s a more open-ended question that invites opinion, this “rule” lets me keep to the facts. In a closed-ended question, I can remain “clinical” and simply answer the question: “Menstruation is …”
We can learn together. I don’t have to be the expert.
There are also times when I just don’t know the answer to the question. The old teacher joke is to respond with, “I don’t know. What do you think?” This isn’t helpful when a person is asking a very closed-ended question: “What is menstruation?” If this is truly a situation where I don’t feel educated on the answer, I give myself a break to go and find the answer. It’s taken me a long time to be able to say, “I don’t know.” This is a chance to learn along with the student and model that we are all life-long learners. “This is a really important question, but I can’t answer it right now. Let’s look up the answer and revisit this later.” By responding in this way, the student’s question isn’t being left behind, but rather it is such an important question that it requires more time and care to answer.
If anyone has a definitive guide to answering these types of questions, please let me know. I spend less time with my team exploring how a lesson plan went and more time replaying how I could have responded to certain questions. Here are a few I’ve received in the last year:
“If the terrorist attack on 9/11 was so bad, why did we go kill more people?”
“What is the KKK?”
“What does [racial slur] mean?”
“Why are they being mean just because she’s in a wheelchair?”
“What is rape?”
“Why does someone commit suicide?”
These questions don’t all have the fun and imaginative qualities of a woman shedding her skin like a snake, but they are still tough questions to answer on the spot. I’m assuming that students have been either mulling on these big questions for a while, building up the courage to ask or are asking with no idea how significant the question is. Regardless of the background, this is my chance to show them that I am here to answer any question that respects them as a learner.