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Questioning, the Most Basic Teaching Tool

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

12/19/2019

“May I Ask You a Question?” by Anne Bruder in Phi Delta Kappan, December 2019/January 2020 (Vol. 101, #4, pp. 57-60), https://bit.ly/34kJM9W; Bruder is at brudera@berea.edu.
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In this article in Phi Delta Kappan, Anne Bruder (Berea College) remembers that her fifth-grade teacher in northern Michigan thought she was trouble. Young Anne asked way too many questions: Why was Lansing the state capital? How and why had the region’s Chippewa Indians vanished? Why did all fractions need to be reduced to their lowest terms? What really caused the Challenger explosion? And why were boys allowed to violently pelt girls during dodgeball?

“In my youthful taxonomy of questions,” says Bruder, “I’d hopscotch between the factual and the philosophical, from the instrumental to the open-ended; all felt urgent to me and, I suspect, disruptive to her… I suspect she saw me as taking up too much space in the room or as being, quite simply, annoying… She glared at me sideways through her thick acrylic glasses. Her nude nylons squeaked as she passed by my desk, ignoring, as always, my incessantly raised hand.”

The teacher tried moving Bruder to the back of the room, then to the front, and finally sent her to the school’s social worker, who got pelted with more of Anne’s questions: Where was she from? Did she have kids? How did she feel about Ronald Reagan? Did she listen to Madonna? Wasn’t the teacher being unreasonable? Bruder liked the social worker, and they ended up agreeing on a behavior modification contract: If Bruder managed to limit her questions to five a day and kept that up for a whole week, she could spend an hour helping out in a kindergarten class. If she went over the limit, she’d go to the principal’s office.

Bruder loved working with little kids, posing questions that aroused their curiosity and got their little hands waving in the air. Back in the fifth-grade classroom, she accepted the limits. “When my teacher begrudgingly gave me permission to ask one of my five measly questions,” she says, “I’d concentrate and condense the chain of 12 interconnected curiosities spinning through my mind down to one meaty layered query. My ‘may I ask you a question?’ soon became my shorthand for ‘may I have some space to wonder about these things that fascinate me?’” If the teacher was in a good mood, this sometimes opened up new learning for everyone in the room.

The contract worked, but it left Bruder with what she calls a “lingering verbal tic” – feeling she had to ask permission to ask a question. Finally, in college, a professor said to her, “Your questions are keen, important. Keep asking them. Ask even more. But stop asking for permission from me or anyone else.” This was terrifically liberating, says Bruder. Finally she was released from “the anxious tic of a 10-year-old with a tiny budget for her curiosity.” This class and others in college and graduate school came to resemble Socratic dialogues: “I began to see myself as someone with a keen voice in the classroom, someone with agency and ability to determine how I might use this question superpower to understand my world more fully.”

Bruder went on to become a college English professor, and she knows that the questions with straightforward answers that she used to spend hours researching in the library, her students can now Google in seconds. But the Internet doesn’t answer the kinds of questions she dreamed up as a 10-year-old, and those are the ones she wants her college students to grapple with: How did it feel to be a girl in America at various points over the last 200 years? What happens to a democracy when radical ideas take center stage? Why should we still care about a sermon Ralph Waldo Emerson gave in 1838? Students come to her office asking lower-level questions that can be answered by Google, but don’t ask enough of the kinds of questions that require engaging deeply with books, footnotes – and of course thoughtful classroom discussions.

“I’ve come to see that for my students, asking the more unwieldy questions takes confidence and humility,” says Bruder, “both of which my teaching must nurture. My students need to be bold enough to voice an inchoate or controversial speculation that might, in the end, fizzle out – or prove explosive. To do so, they must trust me enough to know that I’ll help them when their questions get tangled. They need to know that I won’t leave them hanging and that I’ll use my own questioning tone to reflect back to them what I think they’re trying to ask. And they need to believe, in some unshakable way, that my classroom is a hospitable place for their messiest queries.” Since many of her students are the first in their families to go to college, this sense of safety and belonging is especially important. She wants them to feel okay asking the kinds of questions she was discouraged from asking in fifth grade.

When Bruder says to one of her college students, “May I ask you a question?” it has an entirely new meaning than when she spoke those words as a 10-year-old and as a 20-year-old. “Now, directed to my student, it tells her: ‘I see you. I recognize you as a full participant in our work together. I acknowledge that you are capable of seeing and knowing something new and exciting. I want to hear what you think. Come and think alongside me, alongside all of us in the room.’ Each time I ask for my students’ permission, I’m reminded of the power and the magic of our most basic teaching tool to forge connections and help us all move into the unknown together.”




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