All learning begins with an itch that’s just has to be scratched, a curiosity that begs to be sated. Teacher questions assess learning; student questions spark it.
The students in these high-achieving, high-poverty classrooms I’m watching hear this anchor story. It reminds them to ask questions. (Anchor stories are stories that get retold to anchor ideas.)
Olaf is a first grader in Joan Lexau’s book Olaf Reads.
The Plot: One day Olaf receives a Champion Reader certificate. He always answers his teacher’s questions and can read words. The next day, however, he makes a series of mistakes. He «mails» his mother’s important letter in a litter basket because he reads litter as letter on the “Put Litter Here” sign. When the trash collector retrieves the letter and hands it to him, he says, “What’s the matter, Olaf, weren’t you thinking?”
Olaf replies, “No. I just read the words.”
Later, at school, Olaf pulls the fire alarm after boasting that he can read anything, even the word PULL! After the fire chief determines that it was Olaf who pulled the alarm, the chief asks, “What’s the matter, Olaf? Weren’t you thinking?”
Olaf again has to say, “No. I just read the words.”
When Olaf is too noisy in the library, the teacher points to one of the QUIET signs and asks him to read it. He guesses wildly. Queen? Quit? King?
When she says Think, Olaf. What word would make sense here in the library where we use our six-inch voices? he reads the word quiet and sighs with great weariness.
Olaf slogs home. He goes to the refrigerator, pulls the Champion Reader certificate off the door, and rips it to shreds. His Mama is horrified. I’m not a champion explains Olaf, as he recounts all his mistakes. What to do, what to do worries his Mama. Then Olaf pulls a small laminated square out of his backpack. My teacher gave me this. She said, «keep it with you, Olaf, and memorize what’s on it.»
His mother takes it and reads:
Olaf tells her, My teacher says pretty soon I’ll ask myself questions without any reminders.
Students hear this story more than once in their K-5 years. It’s fun to listen to a storyteller and watch the plot unfold with sketches of the various read-but-don’t-think errors. So, at the beginning of fifth grade the teacher tells the story and then distributes replicas of Olaf’s laminated square. She comes to Angus who shakes his head, No thank you. I don’t need one.
The teacher insists until Angus points to his head. I’ve got ’em here already.
And that’s the point.
Research says asking questions is vital, but to accelerate progress, to deepen the learning, to propel the reading, it’s the students not the teachers who need to ask them.