September 21, 2019
Question Mark

Week #3: Co-creating Essential Questions

Nathan Coates
Nathan Coates is an English/Language Arts Teacher at Wm. Mason High School. Twitter: @MHSCoates
This article is cross-posted with Mr. Coates’ personal reflection blog. You can view his blog here.

One thing I tried: To get unit 2 started, we spent the first day crafting some essential questions for the unit they chose, Friday Night Lights: the culture of high school sports. My Learning Experience Director (LED) (Joe Muhlberg) gave me a resource to help facilitate the process, and I modified it a little, then had to modify my plan after trying it twice with so-so results. After some re-works this is the process that yielded some good questions:

1. The students did some freewriting about the topic of FNL and HS sports, first giving some free associations and then describing their Friday night story, whether part of FNL on the inside or their perspective from the outside.

2. We did some quick training of identifying essential questions (using Grant Wiggins’ traits and quiz) and looked at some examples from a unit last year.

3. We used PEM (Philosophical, Ethical, Moral…probably from somewhere but I learned it from Shawna Parkinson) as a way to begin listing issues associated with FNL and high school sports. You can see how one group did this in the first example below.

4. Once they had topics listed, the task was to build some questions that demonstrated the traits from step 2. You can see what some of the teams came up with:

I collected over 100 questions and then began to group like questions into categories (academics, violence/injuries, coaches, mental health). I got rid of a few (like, “How do the lights affect the players?”) and added a few of mine, though not as many as I had planned. For example, I wanted them to address the question: “Do HS sports help or hinder mental health”, and the question they came up with on their own was: “How does the physical demand of sports affect one’s mental health?” In the end I added four of my own questions to their list.

What I liked/didn’t like: I liked the end products. Now we will use student-generated questions for writing prompts, seminar discussions, and as a way to furnish purpose for our reading assignments. I hope that in future units we generate questions with an end product or task in mind to add a little focus. Right now the list is a little unwieldy. But I’m hoping that so many directions will give everyone an angle into the unit and that it will keep our discussions lively. It’s still a struggle to yield control, because my tendency is to believe that I write the best questions and that the unit might suffer if the questions aren’t effectively rigorous and interesting. But as you can see, their questions are worthy.

What’s next: In one of the next units I hope to begin having them brainstorm or propose some tasks/products that would enable them to demonstrate mastery of the unit’s power standards. I think that doing this in conjunction with the question development will be a powerful way to advance the co-creation process.

Featured Photo Credit:
Emily Morter
https://unsplash.com/@emilymorter

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