Posted in classroom management, dual language teaching, middle school science, student engagement, Teaching

The Question Focus Technique

Last summer I decided to prepare for teaching my students how to ask questions themselves instead of asking all of the questions myself. I got this idea back in January at the Organization for Educational Technology and Curriculum , or, OETC’s IntegrateEd 2016 Conference, when I attended a presentation by Jennie Magiera called, Curiosity Based Learning: Reigniting Students Wonder. In this presentation, Magiera introduced us to the Question Focus Technique taught in a book from The Right Question Instiute.

The book is called, Make Just One Change. I devoured the book once I purchased it and formulated a plan to adapt the presentations that are provided on the website of the institute by translating them to Spanish and creating Google slides presentations: one to introduce the lesson to the students and one to use at the beginning of each unit as a template that I can adapt for the content coming up. Below, you can read about how a lesson goes.


Students work in small groups of 4-6 for this activity. In the introductory lesson for the technique at the beginning of the year, students are taught the rules for how to make their questions. The rules include making as many questions as possible, no discussion, judgement, or answering of the questions is allowed, the scribe of the group is to write all the questions just as they are stated and if anyone makes a statement of observation, it needs to be changed to a question. (I give the example of  someone saying, “the sky is blue” and that this can be changed to “why is the sky blue?” or ‘how can the sky have other colors?”).

I have these rules on laminated sheets on each table so they are present to the students through the whole lesson. I also have question starters on a laminated sheet to help them get the questions going (How, why, where, who, when, etc…).

Students are presented with a whole class presentation of a short, looping video clip with or without sound (depending on whether there is an explanation –do not allow sound if something is explained in the video), a teacher demonstration, a statement, an intriguing picture or a quote. They are given a large piece of flip-chart paper, one marker and the mission to formulate as many questions as possible about what they are seeing.

The teacher circulates and encourages as many questions as are possible, without judging or answering any of their questions, just as is stated in the rules. The teacher also makes sure to draw them back to the rules when they forget, with a gentle reminder.

Once all of the questions are made, students are then asked to mark all of the open questions with an O and the closed questions with a C (they are taught what this means in the initial lesson in the technique at the beginning of the year). They then are asked to choose the three most pressing questions they have about what they have seen. I have found that this takes about a 50 minute class period to do once they have gotten used to how it goes. The introductory lesson usually goes about two 50 minute periods.

The teacher then collects the small piece of paper they have written their three top questions on and later takes the time to read through them and compile them into 8 -10 main questions that are then posted on a poster in the classroom that will guide the whole unit.

When the question focus is chosen well, the students get very curious and interested, making many questions that will be relevant to the work that will be done to meet the standards. I especially like that they are the ones from whom I am guided, not from some curriculum that was made in an office somewhere far from our classroom and neighborhood.

Below are a couple of the question focuses that I have used this year:

Gauss gun loop – play with no sound This one I had them actually take some magnets, rulers and ball bearings and do themselves with no instructions from me except to try to make one of the balls shoot off the end of the table without flicking it themselves. Once the groups accomplished this I had them do the question formulation technique with this loop in there on the question focus slide.

For my 7th graders as an intro to molecular movement in response to changes in temperature I took a flask with some water in it, stretched a balloon over the opening and set in on a hot plate to boil. As they watched, I asked them to think of what they saw and made a list of the observations that they had made on the question focus slide.

For 8th grade evolution intro I used this question focus:

Screenshot 2017-07-15 at 11.20.58 AM

(Descent with modification)

And for the 7th grade intro to cells this was what they saw:

Screenshot 2017-07-15 at 11.20.12 AM

(All living things are made of cells.)

Posted in classroom management, dual language teaching, middle school science, Teaching

Am I really doing this?

So I’m 3/4 of the way through my first year teaching 7th graders at a middle school in suburban Oregon. It’s been difficult at times and at others quite delightful. Some students have come to say that they like me and others dread being in my classroom (sometimes it is mutual). Teaching is a struggle and a joy.

I never imagined myself as a teacher. I grew up the oldest of four children, always was the smarty pants in class, and was the biggest teacher pleaser of them all. But, when it came to doing things like babysitting or teaching a Sunday school class, well, who had the patience to deal with all the frustrations of interacting with immature students? In fact, I was getting paid to give flute lessons to a young lady when I was in college and I finally told her mom that she was wasting her money on the lessons because her daughter wasn’t practicing and didn’t seem interested in pursuing playing. I never saw progress from one week to the next, so essentially I quit.

Well, along came my life, 6 kids and a mortgage. I was able to stay home to be with the kids through their formative years (I even home schooled the eldest up until 6th grade. I must touch on that later), but as the youngest approached kindergarten age, my husband and I decided I needed to return to school and get some more skills to bring in a second salary.

I’m not sure how I got pulled into getting an MAT now, but, since I had had children of my own and matured a little, I came to realize how much I enjoyed making learning accessible to them. Watching the wonder on their little faces as they encountered a new thing in this amazing world was priceless. I believe that I hoped I could do the same for other’s children.

Now, elementary just wasn’t my game so I focused on secondary: middle and high school. My background from my bachelor’s was in Biology so I figured I would earn my certificate to teach science and basic math. Going back to school was awesome. I have always loved learning so this was my thing. At Pacific University the class sizes were small and the cohort worked together very well. Reading research papers, listening to lectures, writing lessons and collaborating with my fellow future teachers was a blast.

Then came the actual work in the actual classrooms. I wrote pie in the sky lessons with all of these cool activities. When it came to implementing them the response from students was mostly disappointing. My enthusiasm wasn’t enough to draw them in. Behavior problems abounded. Achievement was not what I had expected. That was the beginning of my inner reflection on whether I should have stuck with my younger self’s aversion to teaching.

I am an introvert. Time spent by myself is essential to my being able to function fully when I am with others. I think that introvert teachers have a much harder time with students who aren’t the best fit for our classrooms.

This year has been hard. I think there are several reasons for this. One, it is the first year at this school teaching science to 7th graders. Two, I have to teach two classes in Spanish, and three, I still haven’t figured out how to manage the classroom smoothly and efficiently.

Hopefully as I blog out my thoughts and musings here I can reflect more on my practice and find positive ways to improve myself and be the best teacher I am capable to being for my students.