Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Questioning?

I'm just starting my first online graduate course for a grade. I've participated in MOOCs but not for graduate credit. This class, a requirement by the state of Michigan to move from my Provisional License to a Professional Certificate, focuses on reading strategies. And our course reading has me reflecting on the role of questioning in class. But let me first describe where I am now.

I am 83 minutes into the first day of proctoring our state literature exams. I'm covertly jotting notes because for 90 minutes I am to stare intently at the nine students currently testing in this room. No grading, no reading a book, no writing, no. I am to walk around and monitor these nine...now eight students as one just finished her test. Closing her test book, she put her head down to sleep. While monitoring, I am not to look at what they are reading or writing. I am not to answer questions that will clarify anything in any way. The walls are to be free not just of content specific posters and artwork, but of all motivational posters. Rooms should be sterile. Proctors should stoic. What does having all these protocols in place ensure? How does this impact the test takers?

The questions these eight students are grappling with have a right answer that can be bubbled into a form. As fast as they can, these eight students are reading four excerpts from longer texts. Stripped of context and plot development, this excerpts are literally only part of the story. These students darken bubbles for seven or eight questions on each passage and then write a one-page response to each. All in the span of 90 minutes. What is this test purporting to measure? What is this test actually measuring?

What are we telling our students when we realign our curriculums to better prepare students for this type of testing, tests which feature only excerpts and ask students to scribble down responses as fast as they can?

My students will sit in a desk from 7:30 to 9:30 each morning for six days in order to bubble in responses on the Pennsylvania Keystone exams, and then they will have a short five minute break before they are asked to head to their first block class and go through a shortened schedule of their regular classes from 9:40 am - 2:22 pm. Their graduation is dependent upon their success on these tests. My teacher evaluation is dependent upon their success on these tests. It will be a long six days. And by the end of the six days of testing, everyone - teachers and students alike - just want to get back to learning. I question this type of questioning.

Reading through the opening scenarios of Peter Afflerbach’s text, Understanding and Using Reading Assessment K-12, I was struck by a sentence he used to describe the ideal reading instruction given in a fourth grade classroom: “Reading assessment that gives students useful feedback while shoring up their self-esteem is important to the students and the teacher” (2). That is certainly not happening in our classrooms this week. Afflerbach writes, “Teaching to the test is, in effect, teaching to an impoverished notion of what questions can tell us,” (55). I could not agree more! If you can Google the response to a question, then you likely shouldn’t be asking it. So, why are we putting so much emphasis on these tests? What is the purpose?

When they finish their state tests and head to our first block class, I will ask my tenth grade students to think about the role of questions. As we wait for some of our classmates to finish testing, we will critically questions the types of questions asked by our state assessment. What is the purpose? And I will give my students an opportunity to creatively respond. And then I will ask them to come up with better questions for the texts we are currently reading. I will share with them the Webb's Depth of Knowledge chart, asking them to reflect, much like I am for my graduate class, on what makes a good question. I'll ask them to anticipate the responses and consider their purpose in asking. And then I will give them the opportunity to post their questions to the class, selecting a couple of students each day to become our in-class discussion leaders and our online discussion leaders.

And in questioning questions, we'll together craft better questions and more critical responses.
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