Author Archives: Lauren Kathleen Kooistra

Getting to Know

While preparing Community in the Classroom this past week, Andrew Porter and I discussed the question:

How do we keep our students from feeling isolated in class?

Our first answer, in simple terms, was: Get-To-Know-Each-Other.

A classroom where students feel like they are known enables them to feel like they belong.  Belonging breeds motivation, risk-taking.  Motivation and risk-taking generate learning, and learning is our goal.  But…

….getting to know each other involves getting closer to personal than can feel comfortable.

In order to help our students down this road, answering low-risk and entertaining questions at some point during class can help to break the proverbial ice over the semester.  No matter the size of your class, these questions can get conversation going between pairs, rows, sections, everybody.  10 minutes of getting to know each other may seem like a lot, but can lead to much richer learning over the long-term.

Below I’ve included 35 get-to-know-you-with-minimal-risk questions compiled and contributed to us by Heather Holleman, lecturer in English. Enjoy!

1.  What is the most interesting course you have ever taken in school?

2.  What is your favorite quotation?

3.  What is one item you might keep forever?

4.  What were you known for in high school?  Did you have any nicknames?

5.  If you could have witnessed any event in sports history, what would it be?

6.  What is something you consider beautiful?

7.  What was your first CD or song you played over and over again?

8.  What accomplishment are you most proud of?

9.  If you could be an apprentice to any person, living or deceased, from whom would you want to learn?

10.  What are three things that make you happy?

11.  What’s one movie you think everyone should see?  What’s a movie you think nobody should see?

12.  Who inspires you?

13.  What’s one thing you want to do before you die?

14.  Get in groups of three people.  What’s the most bizarre thing you have in common?

15.  Whenever you are having a bad day, what is the best thing you can do to help cheer yourself up?

16.  Have you ever experienced something unexplainable or supernatural?

17.  What was your best Halloween costume?

18.  You can choose the question you want to ask the class.

19.  What was the last thing you Googled?

20.  What YouTube video do you watch over and over?

21.  What’s the kindest act you’ve ever witnessed?

22.  Tell us one thing you know you do well (a talent?) and one thing you know you don’t.

23.  What is your favorite way to procrastinate?

24.  What is your favorite home-cooked meal?

25.  What was your favorite childhood toy?

26.  What do you do other than study?  What clubs are you involved in?

27.  What was your first job?

28.  Any brushes with fame?

29.  What’s the story behind your name?

30.  Do you believe in anything that most people might not believe in?

31.  I wish everyone would___________________

32.  What’s the best sound effect you can make?

33.  What’s the funniest thing you did as a kid that people still talk about today?

34.  What was the last thing you bought on eBay?

35.  Tell us something quirky about you. 


Classroom Behavior: Is it good, or is it LEARNING?

This week I ran across a blog that introduced me to a new phrase, which I now love:  behavior for learning.  The writer differentiates between ‘good behavior’ and the types of behavior necessary for learning to occur.  His point:  when a child sits quietly and follows the teacher’s instructions, she is being ‘good’….but is she really learning?

I read the blog with a smile on my face, envisioning the four-year-olds I work with at the piano.  Their behavior is inquisitive, energetic, often loud, mostly messy.  Our piano lessons are the opposite of what I’ve been told to call ‘good’ behavior.  And yet, if the attending parent expresses concern that the child is ‘not paying attention’ or is ‘acting out’, my response is: Great! 

My overall philosophy of teaching and learning: Let’s get our hands dirty, let’s make a mess, please–anybody?–let us have an experience.  There is, after all, a difference between ‘out-of-control’ behavior and ‘engaged’ behavior, and engaged behavior is what I want.  Always.  It’s behavior for learning, and learning is my goal.

Messy energetic learning might be easy enough to envision when considering four-year-olds, but what about our college classrooms?  Is it possible to create a classroom where college student behavior expresses learning, for learning, is learning?  And if so, is it valuable to do so?

 If we answer YES, then the remaining question is: How? 

In other words: 

What is required from you, the instructor,

in order to see behavior for learning in your classroom?

[We love to think about this stuff, so let us know how we can think about it with you!  And, look for upcoming workshops regarding active learning strategies and community building…]

Ask the Useful Questions

This week The Chronicle of Higher Education draws me to itself with an article regarding the famine in East Africa.  Millions of people are suffering, it says–suffering in a variety of extreme ways.  When suffering is so wide-spread, efforts for relief become all the more daunting.  ‘What is the solution?’ we clamor to each other, ‘What can be done?’

Often, getting to the solution involves asking more questions–questions like “Who is at fault?” or “What are the consequences?”  The trouble with these types of questions, the authors suggest however, is that they are only ‘a part of the story’.  They say that–instead–we need to ‘identify the conditions that underpin poverty’ so that we might understand why these populations are so vulnerable, and why they are so affected when famine strikes.

As I read, it strikes me that the trouble with questions such as “Who is at fault” or “What are the consequences” is that–though they are important–they are not the most useful questions.  Remaining on the surface of the issue, they do not go deep enough. As the authors suggest, we need questions that will get to the root of the problem instead of looking at what is merely right in front of us.         

Asking the more useful questions helps us to re-structure the system at its roots, so that tragedy on such a grand scale cannot occur again.

Right now, I imagine that you are saying “Excuse me, isn’t this blog supposed to be about teaching?”, and my response to you is:

It is.

Today, in your classroom, you will face situations that ask you to ask questions.  What route of questioning will you choose to take?

Will you remain on the surface, asking questions that deal with what is right in front of you?

Or, will you go deeper, looking for the most useful question to get at the root?

Surface questions deal with today, maybe the semester; useful questions deal in long-term change.

The essence of a useful question is encouragement toward and guidance into the places that really matter.  Useful questions move your students further than where they can see on their own to go.  Useful questions drive them deeper, make them think, make them consider implications and consequences. Useful questions provide them opportunity to live in freedom, beyond the surface. 

The more I think about the role of useful questions in my own life and the lives around me, the more I think that they are rooted in the phenomenology of caring.  In Philosophy of Education, Nel Noddings (2007) writes that the end goal of caring is to ‘relieve a burden, activate a dream, share a joy, or clear up a confusion’ (p. 72).  A useful question is made of the same goal.

If we position ourselves to ask useful questions of our students, we will position them to think deeper, see farther, and reach further as they move out beyond our classrooms. 

We will position them to get to the roots of famine, we will position them to care.

Look for the Instruments, Listen to the Symphony

It’s the first day of class. You stand in front of the classroom, staring out at the wall of faces staring out at you.  This is your learning community for the semester–the students entrusted to you for growth, meaning-making, change for betterment and life-long impact.

You have great responsibility here.

But today, that wall of faces is still just a wall.  You have no way of knowing the individual needs, individual lives, individual gifts of the individual faces that compose that wall.  All you see is their sameness:  Students.  In your class.

Now, you could choose to see the wall all semester long.  Or, you could look out at your symphony.

Please forgive me, I’m a musician.  But–I am also a teacher, and here is what I’ve been thinking about:

As a teacher, do I stand in front of my classroom and envision each student holding their individual instrument?  Do I see the bassoon, the flute, the violin, the timpani?  Do I listen for the unique contribution of each instrument within the symphony before me, and do I strive to understand how the parts contribute to the whole? Do I embrace the reality that there would not be a symphony without those instruments?  And do I consider that perhaps I am just another instrument within their ranks?

I’ve been thinking about this due to an article that recently ran in The Chronicle, entitled Collaborative Learning for the Digital Age, by Cathy Davidson.  Although, to be more truthful it wasn’t the article that made me think about it.  It was one paragraph, defined by one phrase: “collaboration by difference”.

You can read the article for yourself if you want to know the context [and I suggest that you really do want to know the context, as it’s very cool, and very applicable to you as a forward thinking sort of educator], but -since it has absolutely nothing to do with symphonies–allow me to explain what it was that I took away and spun into my own context:

Davidson writes that “collaboration by difference respects and rewards different forms and levels of expertise, perspective, culture, age, ability, and insight, treating difference not as a deficit but as a point of distinction.”  This is where she got me: difference is not a deficit–it’s a point of distinction.  It’s what makes a potentially divergent contribution important, necessary even.  And collaboration by difference means that divergence can be brought together in a meaningful and purposeful way.

Collaboration–after all–is about bringing together.  Google the word ‘collaboration’ and you’ll find phrases like ‘working together’, ‘joint endeavor’ and ‘shared goals’.  There’s consensus implied in a collaboration–in the sense that these people have worked together and have come to a consensus–but more too:

A collaboration brings us beyond consensus into something new.  Using our differences to work together results in a co-construction of new territory.  It is–in its very essence–change.  And to change is to learn.

Since I desire learning to occur within my classroom, I need to allow for collaboration by difference in the underlying rules of my classroom community.  I need to see the distinctive and potentially divergent instruments sitting in front of me while I listen for the symphony.

I need to look beyond the wall.