‘To ask, or not to ask. THAT is the question.’ Sounds slightly familiar but rather dreadfully ‘off,’ doesn’t it? Of course Shakespeare’s Hamlet was asking something else entirely – existential significance and summoning up the wherewithal to withstand the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Can anyone top the agonized musings of the Prince of Denmark? No. My concern weighs heavily nonetheless. Good teaching likely finds its mark in the depth and breadth of questions pondered because teacher and students engaged text, conversed openly, and considered the great and mighty ‘so WHAT!?!?’ What am I trying to ask, you ask?
In the summer of 2010, chest-deep in pursuing my master’s degree, I signed up for the Hoosier Writing Project Summer Institute. Professional development beyond my wildest dreams, a network of influential writers and teachers, and inspiration that ignited my writing life: NOT what I signed up for, but most assuredly what I gained. In my usual ignorance, I signed up for the learning opportunity and the pragmatic acquisition of 6 credit hours. Isn’t it funny (ha-ha AND peculiar) how we often end up right where we ought to be, but not because we charted the course properly? Ah, irony. The SI learning objective to develop my very own ‘teacher research’ forced me to evaluate my own tendencies in the classroom. What am I doing that could be better? What do I want to know about ‘best practice’ and how can I implement same? Frankly, the task was daunting two summers ago, and hasn’t abated a single whit since.
Today, trepidation trickles through my veins. (I often hate alliteration, and you can clearly see why… egad.) I have willingly signed up for the Hoosier Writing Project ADVANCED Institute. Supposedly I now qualify for the ‘big time.’ And I am still helplessly pondering my research question of the SI: How can I become a more effective questioner myself; more importantly, how can I help my students ask their own meaningful questions? How do I prompt in young people a longing to know? A desire to discover? An endless supply of ‘why’ and ‘so what’ that will, Hamlet-like, stir them to examine life in its sometimes wretched and sometimes wondrous fullness? The simple answer: I have no blooming idea. I think, though, that “blooming” likely has something to do with it.
The blossoms of spring – dogwood, crabapples, redbuds, pears – never stay, but they renew our hope with the promise of fruit. The fragrant beauty of the blossom departs while the satisfying fruit comes in its stead. Beautiful as blooming things might be, it is by fruit that we are changed. The garden metaphor never seems trite to me. Here’s why: it works. (Probably because everything started in a garden, but that’s not my point).
In my real life (as opposed to my pretend one?) I was first a teacher, then a mom. Momming is probably never done, and I can’t seem to stop teaching either. Both roles have afforded countless opportunities to see kids – particularly little kids – aglow with eagerness to learn. Like the tender blossoms on fruit trees, those little ones promise good fruit if we will just tend to them and give them what they need – room to grow. I know the blossoms don’t ask questions (so the metaphor isn’t perfect!), but little ones do. They want to know everything – how does that work?, what does this mean?, when will we go here/there/everywhere?, and the king of all questions – why, why, why, why why?!?!!? Little kids want to understand. Little kids want to design and create. Little kids are curious, investigating with hands, ears, eyes, noses and taste buds. Little kids want to explain what they know to anyone who will listen, and they believe that what they have to say matters. Little kids are in training – to be grownups who design, create, investigate, discover and explain why things matter. Little kids are the tender promise of mature, satisfying fruit. How is it that these blossoms too often wither before any good fruit grows?
Ah, there is the question.
I love teaching, but, I rather hate education. We too often stifle kids’ desire to know by demanding of them only answers that we have already provided. Yes/No, True/False, fill-in-the-blank with a singular right/wrong answer – regurgitate, don’t explore. Who CARES which character wore glasses in Golding’s Lord of the Flies if we never explore those glasses’ metaphoric riches? What does it matter if kids can recite dates of important historical events but cannot explain their significance to the human story? What difference does it make if a child can underline nouns once and verbs twice (separating the simple subject and the simple predicate by a small vertical line, obviously) but has no interest in exploring his own ideas by writing them down? And therein lies my continuing struggle. I am still searching for ways to ask provocative questions that stimulate critical, creative thought. But today, fresh out of a morning of conversation with critical thinking life-long learners who keep asking their own questions, I realize this: Asking and Inviting the Question is a way of tending the blossoms before they wither from neglect or miserably stifling growing conditions.
At one time every student was simply a little kid, busy asking ‘why, why, why?,’ eager to learn – hungry to know. My job – every good teacher’s job – is to remind students in my classroom that such a question still yields up good fruit – something satisfying for them, and for us all, to chew on.