Category Archives: Teaching & Kids

Why what we teach and who we teach matters.

Asking Good Questions


It’s hard to beat an afternoon at home, on the couch watching the Superbowl. I guess I should clarify “watching” football for me is synonymous with multi-tasking. I really do really like football, but I what I like even more is that I can simultaneously “watch” a game while also painting my nails, grading papers, updating quicken, folding laundry and shoveling steamed edamame into my mouth! I know it’s a skill- don’t be jealous. I think I’ve learned this fine art of football-watching-multi-tasking from my mother, who is the queen of getting things done during football games. She has given me both an appreciation and understanding of the game of football, as well as a high aptitude for being productive while watching the game. Thank you, mom.

Mondays

For as much as I enjoy a relaxing and productive Sunday at home (and no, those two words are not mutually exclusive in my book) I actually look forward to Monday.

One of the reasons I love my job is that I honestly look forward to going to work on most days (not just Mondays). Each morning I am greeted (and when I say greeted I mean just stared at blankly) by twenty, sleepy-eyed teenagers. And these groggy, sometimes socially awkward, inquisitive students are the reason I love my job.

The Reciprocal Relationship

This is my fourth year of teaching and every year my students impart some new knowledge on me. I think one of the keys to being a good teacher is admitting that you always have something to learn from your students. Sometimes teachers get mixed-up and assume that the teaching-learning relationship flows in some linear fashion; going from teacher to student and then just stops. But I am a firm believer that the teaching-learning relationship is much more reciprocal.

Some of my students teach me about being resilient— many of them have encountered deep pain, loss and neglect in ways I can’t even imagine. Others teach me about creativity— their unfiltered, creative words* send me scurrying back to urbandictionary.com to make sure what they’re saying is still relatively appropriate for the classroom. And this semester my students have been teaching me about curiosity— their hands raised with genuine and thoughtful questions shaped by their own sense of wonder.

Asking Good Questions

I start off each new semester with a lesson about the importance of asking good questions. I tell my seniors that for the past 12 years of their lives they have learned how to give the right answers, but I want them to know how to ask good questions.

To discuss different types of questions I use the metaphor of a tree. When you look at a tree “on the surface” you see the obvious…the trunk, branches, leaves, etc. These represent the simplistic, one word, literal questions. The “When did the war start?” and “Who is the author of the book?” kinda questions. Important questions, but simple nonetheless. The answer is often obvious, right there in front of you.

Then there are the “under the surface” questions. Back to the tree metaphor– I ask, what can’t you see under the surface of the tree, but you know is there? The roots, dirt, soil, etc. These are the things that are harder to see and understand, but there is a richness and necessity to their presence. These are the more complex questions, the “why?” and “how come” and “do you think” questions of the world.

For one of their homework assignments I gave my students a rather simple task of asking 15 questions.

Here are some of questions they asked:
“Would the world be more peaceful if all of us had the same religion?”
“Why do people take advantage of other people?
“Why does the government spend more money on prisons than schools?
“How long can the average person hold their breath?”
“Why do teens these days not seem to care about their education and future?
“Why is school so hard for some people?”
“How come we can’t stop wars and all get along?

I have given this assignment before, but usually, I get the same, pretty standard questions. Questions such as “Why do teachers give homework?” or “How many days ’till school gets out?” or “Do you like teaching?” But this group of students is different. They asked complex, curious, and creative questions; questions that I don’t always feel prepared to answer or even discuss.

It’s Not About the Answer

I am learning that inviting someone to ask a question is like asking them to share a small piece of who they are. We are a culture that likes to spout off facts and megabytes of information in easily digestible chunks, but we don’t often pause to ask questions. Asking questions implies that you must be humble and vulnerable enough to admit that you don’t know the answer. And sometimes I think I shy away from asking questions out of fear that the answers won’t make sense. If someone gave me the assignment to write down 15 questions, I am honestly not sure what I would ask. What would you ask?

I believe questions are like a mirror that reflect the scattered doubts and musing of our hearts. They don’t realize it, but when I invite my students to ask questions, I am actually getting a glimpse into the kind of things that swirl around inside. And hopefully this inside glimpse allows me to be a better teacher and a better learner.

(*note: thanks to the help of my students I’ve added a wealth of words to my vocabulary. Words like kick back, chillin, lets book it, nah, not eeeven, aww, that’s a mission, don’t tripppp and..oh, I could go on. Sometimes these words even slip into my every day speech…which lends itself nicely to the occasional raised eyebrow from my peers, as if to say “Do you realize what you just said?”)

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Take a Long View


I spent a view days this past week up at a summer camp with 21 kids from our Westside Kids Club. For many of them it was their FIRST camp experience of any kind and it was such a joy to watch them soak up each and every part of camp. I wish you could have seen their faces as they hauled their duffel bags down the dirt road and literally ran to their cabins where they found six individual bunk beds. One little boy was astonished—“You mean no one is going to sleep next to me? (Most of these kids share beds with their siblings in their apartments so this was a luxury.) And it’s funny, most kids complain about the dull, kinda blah camp food that often gets a bad wrap, but not these kids. They ate with enthusiasm at every meal and piled their plates with 8 pieces of garlic bread because they’re used to meals that are limited by whatever the cafeteria size tray can old.

For those of you have been to some kind of summer camp you know that there is just something unique that happens when kids (and adults) enter the world of camp. Our sense of time literally changes. Daily routines are organized around shared meals and games and free time. There is open space and few distractions and endless opportunities to soak up nature. Camp takes kids out of their ordinary lives and hopefully gives them a chance to experience something extraordinary.

I have known many of these kids for the past two years. I have spent time learning about their lives and meeting their families. It doesn’t seem fair that many of these kids have known more pain and abuse and brokenness than most adults will experience in their lifetime. They carry their pasts with them—all of their hurts, fears and memories are stored somewhere deep within. And sometimes its both heartbreaking and frustrating because it’s hard to see change and growth when these kids’ lives have been shaped and influenced by circumstances out of their control.

I am learning that when you chose to care and love and build relationships with people (especially kids) its no about seeing immediate change. I long and pray for transformation. I want to see these kids grow up to be compassionate, caring and competent adults who know deep down that they are valued and cherished. I want them to come to know a Heavenly Father who loves them so much, even when many live with no earthly fathers. I love these kids and pray for them and learn from them, but sometimes I also feel stuck because I am short-sighted. I don’t see the big picture.

A few years ago a friend of mine gave me this prayer by Archbishop Oscar Romero and I just found it buried under a pile of papers. Archbishop was an incredibly wise and courageous man who served the people of El Salvador. He was assassinated in 1980 while he was saying mass in San Salvador. He offers these words to us:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view…

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation
in realizing that. This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well. It may be incomplete,
but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders.

Amen.

I realize that if I take a long view it means that I may never see the end result, and maybe that’s the point. We are sometimes called to love people and be present with them in this moment. And perhaps admitting that it’s only by some element of grace and humility that the master builder uses people like me and you.

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