Pocketful of Questions

Way back when I was in college, I attended a “mingling” workshop held by the university’s Panehellenic Association. The workshop was designed to prepare college students better interact when placed in social settings with new people. I know this may sound really weird, but the workshop taught really basic things like how to shake hands and how to remember people’s names. The presenters would introduce a strategy and then have each of us practice that strategy with other people in the room. I remember awkwardly walking around, shaking other college students’ hands, and working to learn their names. Even after nearly thirty years, I still think that “mingling” workshop was seminal in helping me successfully navigate the numerous social settings where I need to meet new people.

One of the strategies introduced in the workshop was questioning. The person facilitating the workshop explained that most people like to talk about themselves and when we meet a new person, we should try to get them talking about that topic. She offered some “back pocket questions” to guide us. She explained that “back pocket questions” were ones that we could pull out at a moment’s notice and spark a conversation. She suggested that we avoid using questions like “Where are you from?” or “What do you do for a living?” when we met someone new. Since these questions are asked so frequently, they don’t often lead to in-depth conversations with strangers. Instead, she prompted us to ask questions like “Where did you go to school?” or “What’s your story?” to spark greater dialogue and offer the opportunity for follow-up questions. In the workshop, the facilitator stressed the importance of asking follow-up questions to keep the conversation going. In-depth conversations, she explained, are the way you meet new people.

I’ve been thinking about those “back pocket questions” lately. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been observing some teacher candidates who are leading their first lessons in classrooms. In most of the situations, the teacher candidate will ask a question to the class, call on the first student who raises their hand, and then offer praise or a correction depending on the student’s response. It’s a typical discourse pattern that I wrote about last year called initiate/response/evaluation (IRE). When I wrote that post last year, I discussed how I was struggling with falling back into IRE discussions after being thrown into Zoom classrooms with unwilling participants. The challenge with IRE discussions is that they don’t often lead to in-depth, meaning making discussions. It’s just simple call and response. And since my own struggles last year, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we as teachers use questioning in our classrooms to promote sustained dialogue.

And that’s how I came to my memories of the workshop and the back pocket questions. In one of my post-observation meetings with a teacher candidate, I suggested that she ask more open-ended questions and then identify some back pocket questions that she could ask in response. Rather than say something like “Good job” when a student responded to a question, she should try to ask a follow-up question that extends the dialogue. I offered a few suggestions. Instead of simply evaluating the response, a teacher could ask “What do you mean by that?” or “Tell me more about that.” to get students to expand on their answer. A teacher could even bring another student into the discussion by asking them “What do you think about what their response?” Just like the “mingling” workshop, I offered that her follow-up questions should work to extend the conversation but should also dig further into students’ understanding of the topics being discussed.

Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that teachers navigating a classroom environment is similar to strangers mingling at a cocktail party or anything. Instead, I’m offering that questioning can be a powerful strategy that can be used in lots of social environments to get to know people. Or to support their learning.

A Mindful Moment

When the pandemic hit last year, I decided to dedicate a little bit of class time each day to mindfulness practices. I don’t really meditate or anything, but I’m aware of the benefits that mindfulness practices can support. For me, I was mostly interested in helping my students navigate a really challenging academic year. While I’d typically be able to support them in our face-to-face class, when the classes were moved online, I adopted a series of strategies to make our Zoom classes a little warmer and more social. I wrote about some of these strategies in a post last October.

I’m excited to say that I’m back in my face-to-face classroom this fall. Sure, we’re all wearing masks and trying to social distance as best we can, but I’m excited to interact with my students outside of Zoom again. As I started preparing for my first classes a few weeks ago, I couldn’t bring myself to take the mindfulness strategies out of our classroom discussions. Initially, I thought that maybe the students wouldn’t need them anymore. We were back on campus. We were back in a face-to-face classroom. Things were (kind of) returning to normal.

But then I thought about it a little more. Maybe the students still needed a few minutes of mindfulness at the start of class? Maybe they could use five minutes of class time being present and tending to their thoughts, feelings, and experiences? So, I kept them in. Before anyone worries that I’m burning incense in my classroom or having my students contort into some downward-facing dog pose, it’s nothing like that. Most days, I simply start the class by asking my students to identify a rose, a thorn, and a bud from their life. For their rose, students need to think about the best part of their week and what they’d like to celebrate. For their thorn, students need to consider the most challenging part of their week. For their bud, students have to identify something on the horizon about which they’re excited. That’s it. A rose. A thorn. And a bud. Nothing too complicated. Nothing too groundbreaking. But it’s clear that the students find the questions beneficial. In a mid-semester reflection, one of my students wrote, “I love the rose and thorn. Reflecting really helps me be a better student.”

And that’s the point. I know this whole “rose and thorn” business may sound hokey to some of my colleagues, but my goal is to support student learning. And I’m keenly aware of the affective dimensions of learning and the power of reflection. Taking a “mindful moment” helps my students be present and reflect on their lives. It also helps me communicate to my students that I’m not there to just teach content. I’m there to teach them as people, too.

I’m sure many people hope that things return to their pre-pandemic ways soon. For me, I’ve realized that the pandemic has taught me a few things about connecting with my students that I hope I’ll remember years from now. That’s certainly one of my roses from this thorny COVID time.

Remembering the Yoin of Our Work

If you’re like me, you’re in the thick of it right now. I thought revisiting this post was timely. And then I realized that I’ve revisited this post three or four times over the last decade. Consider that decision to be a metaphor for the post itself… It continues to reverberate.

As educators, we often hit a busy part of the semester where the individual tasks and responsibilities converge and create a confluence of work. We have midterm exams to grade, students’ papers to read, assignments to create and discussion board posts to read. We have classes to teach, students to advise, lessons to prepare, phone messages to return, emails to answer and meetings to plan. We have proposals to write, presentations to create, manuscripts to write.. . and… and the work just continues to grow.

For those of you who have stuck around through that mini-rant, let me explain. I really love what I do. I enjoy working with students and love all of the activities and responsibilities that come with this job. I even enjoy serving on committees. The real challenge is that we can get caught up in the machinations of our institutions and lose sight of the tremendous jobs we have and the powerful work we can do. When I think about teaching, I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes. In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury writes:

“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there. 

It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.”

Teaching can be like gardening. Our work can last a lifetime. We can create powerful change in the students with whom we work and that change can last forever. Recently, a colleague shared the concept of yoin with me and I think it echoes the sentiment that Bradbury describes. Yoin is a Japanese term so I had to do a little hunting to get an accurate description of the word. I found a great definition in Howard Rheingold’s book They Have a Word for It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words. The literal definition, Rheingold writes, “refers to the reverberations that continue for a long time after a well-cast bell is struck.” I think yoin can be a powerful metaphor for our work as educators and can also help to motivate us through the busiest times of our semesters. When we’re staring at the stack of papers and the ever-growing To-Do list, we need to remember the potential reverberations of our “well-cast bells.” We may not always hear the resonance but our jobs can make a difference that reverberates beyond the busiest todays and into the distant tomorrows.

Remembering the yoin of our work can also help us live positively in the moment. As we get busier and the stress builds, what emotions and memories do want to resonate with the students who show up at our door needing help? Or the colleagues who just stopped by with a few questions? Or the advisees who are checking in about an email they sent that morning? Each of our interactions, positive and negative, has the power to reverberate long into the future. How do you want your bell to ring?

Revising Guiding Principles

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll recognize that I’ve adopted some guiding principles over the last few years. Most of these principles have come from my interactions with colleagues and students and from reading and listening to people who are way smarter than I am. While scholars like Brené Brown, Parker Palmer, and Stephen Brookfield have informed these principles, I also credit some really thoughtful colleagues who have led me through courageous conversations about what it means to be a supportive teacher to struggling students. I’ve distilled some of these into blog posts stretching back before the pandemic, but I leaned really heavily into these principles during the pandemic. Emotions like empathy, grace, and hospitality pepper these posts and were distilled into practices like “assume positive intent” and “lead with empathy” and “offer grace.” But I’ve cycled back to these recently and I’m starting to wonder whether they may need a little revising. I’ll get to that, but first… a story.

During the Spring 2020 semester, I was working with a graduate student named Rebecca (not her real name). At the time, Rebecca was a teacher in a neighboring school, but she was also enrolled in the capstone course of her graduate program. Since the program offers advanced credentials for practicing teachers, the capstone course involves a pretty intensive action research project that graduate students must incorporate into their classrooms. The beginning part of the semester involves a lot of planning and literature reviewing which eventually culminates in a research-based examination into their own teaching.

You can probably see where this is going. Just as the action research portion of the semester was about to begin, the pandemic hit, and schools shut down. At the time, we didn’t have a clear idea of how things were going to play out, so I reorganized the project to allow for alternate means of examination and reflection. The graduate students in the class were still able to complete an action research project of sorts and were able to graduate on time. Well, almost all of them.

When the pandemic hit, Rebecca disappeared. Despite multiple attempts, she didn’t respond to my emails or return my calls. It didn’t feel right failing a student in the middle of a pandemic, so I gave Rebecca an incomplete. From my perspective, I was leading with empathy, assuming positive intent, and trying to offer grace to someone who may need it.

Weeks after the semester ended, Rebecca resurfaced by sending me a long, emotional email. In the email, she detailed some mental health issues she had been experiencing. She thanked me for the incomplete. She also promised that she just needed a few weeks to get things back together. She’d be ready to jump back into her course work once she got into a better place emotionally.

I bumped into Rebecca later that summer on a walking trail near my neighborhood. She said she was doing better and ready to reengage with the project. She asked that I send her an email detailing what she would need to do to complete the project and ultimately graduate. Later that afternoon, I sent Rebecca that email.

I just checked my inbox to verify the date. It was July 2020. And I still haven’t heard from Rebecca.
If you’ve gotten to this point of the post, you may be expecting me to toss out this grace and empathy business. After all, I’m revising my guiding principles. Looking back at the email I sent Rebecca in July 2020, it still feels like I did the right thing. I led with empathy. I offered grace. I communicated my support when she was in a troubled place. And all of that still feels right.

If there’s a revision that needs to occur, however, it’s that I need to adopt an additional guiding principle: set clear boundaries and expectations. As I reread that email, I realize I didn’t set any clear deadlines. While I communicated my expectations for the work that needed to be done, I didn’t include any time frame for its completion. I didn’t even require that she responded. Sure, I asked that she “stay in touch and reach out if she needed assistance,” but I wasn’t clear with any other details. So, while I’m sitting here, upset that Rebecca still hasn’t engaged, there wasn’t any clear deadline for Rebecca to engage. And that’s on me.

While I’m not quite ready to drop the grace, empathy and positive intent stuff, it’s probably time that I start communicating more clearly in terms of my boundaries and expectations.

The Four Energies

Last week, a colleague sent me a link to a post from Austin Kleon’s blog. If you’re not familiar with Kleon, he describes himself as a “writer who draws.” He’s also the bestselling author of Steal Like An Artist and other books. While I’m relatively new to Kleon’s awesomeness, I totally understand why my colleague sent me the link. He’s an awesome writer. And artist.

The post that my colleague sent referred to “The Four Energies” that authors tap into when they write. Kleon’s post actually references a Jane Friedman newsletter who pulled the concept from a book by Bill O’Hanlon. In his post, Kleon shares this quote from O’Hanlon:

“In my view, there are four main energies you can tap into when you write your book. The main writing energy you discover may be just one or you may find that you have a combination of more than one of these energies that fuels your writing endeavors. The four energies are Blissed, Blessed, Pissed, and Dissed. The first two represent the positive energies; the last two, the negative.”

According to O’Hanlon, we’re motivated to write by what we love and by what upsets us. Our inspiration is derived from some combination of Blissed, Blessed, Pissed and Dissed energies. On his post, Kleon describes each of these energies:

  • “Blissed” energy comes from what you’re on fire for and can’t stop doing.
  • “Blessed” means you’ve been gifted something that you feel compelled to share.
  • “Pissed” means you’re pissed off or angry about something.
  • “Dissed” means you feel “dissatisfied or disrespected.”

My colleague sent me the post with the simple message, “When I read your blog, I usually know which energies are motivating you.”

But I wonder whether everyone can. So, let me unpack the energies from last week’s post. Reading that post, one could probably divine that I was angry over something that was happening (I was!). While I wouldn’t go as far to say that I also felt dissatisfied or disrespected, there was a slight undercurrent of being “dissed.” The personal reflection of my earliest political demonstration probably emanated from a mixture of feeling blissed and feeling blessed, but I can’t say for sure. Sometimes, I’m in the moment and things connect in my head and I just go with it. It’s hard to conjure up those same energies a week or two out.

I also wonder whether these same energies apply to other forms of writing. I spent a good portion of this morning sending emails, and I can say with confidence that a handful were definitely derived from the “pissed” and “dissed” energies. Recognizing that, I should probably put some more positive energy into the world today. For what it’s worth, this post definitely originated from a “blessed” energy. It’s always cool to learn something new and to feel seen by those around you.