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Motivate Students by Answering These Four Questions

Editorial Note: The response to this new blog has been tremendous. From inbox and direct messages, retweets and other positive feedback you have given has been very supportive—thank you. You can catch up on the four previous installments of this blog by clicking on the following links: A Start, Bars, Boxes and Bridges, The Great U Give, and The Power of a Mentor.

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"If you can show me how I can cling to that which is real to me, while teaching me a way into the larger society, then I will not only drop my defenses and my hostility, but I will sing your praises and help you to make the desert bear fruit." —Ralph Ellison

So, how are you doing? What black and brown children have you advocated for today? Last week? Last month? What have you done to collaborate with our potential-rich minority students and/or their parents to improve their trajectory? It is now 2018 and you have approximately 21 weeks, 100 days and 8,000 hours left in the traditional school year to make an impact. But first, I have a confession:

I ask too many questions.

(I have asked you five already!) 

Too often, I treat friends and strangers like interview subjects. I will ask questions about interests, passions, state of mind, and anything else I would like to know. Although I did go to college for broadcast communication, sometimes I can puncture the flow of a natural conversation with a parade of questions. I am getting better at it, just ask my wife (or maybe not ask—but listen). I also do this as a teacher. In order to grasp what students understand or misunderstand about a text or a piece of evidence, I will pepper students with questions, so that my class can look like a ping-pong match instead of the free-flowing basketball game between students that it could be. I have seen this all to often in classrooms as well. I once was in an observation where a teacher asked 34 questions in seven minutes. 34. And only five of them were answered. How often do we do this as teachers, professional development facilitators and administrators? We script questions verbally and ask them more in writing. We ask our students a lot of questions. Do we ask too many? (I realize the irony of that last sentence).  

Asking questions is not a character flaw and certainly any conversation or lesson must have questions in order to be effective; but in being focused on asking students questions, we might be missing the questions they have of us that go unanswered every class period:

Do you like me?

Are you happy that I am here?

Do you believe that I can complete advanced level work?

Are you serious enough to help me get better while I am here?

These are the foundational questions a lot of students contemplate daily as they sit through multiple classes. Surely they have other questions too: how long do I have to wait before going to the bathroom? How many points is this test worth? Why are we going over this material again? 

However, in my experience, the four questions above resonate especially with black and brown students. These powerful students are often at the mercy of teachers who have little experience, schools that are in constant budget crunches, harsh discipline responses and even harsh cold. Add to this mix of context the prevalence of negative stereotypes in media, music and film about these same students and the questions they bring into the classroom affect their very will. Their will to live and their will to do better than what society and even school systems tell them they are capable of. Their motivation is stopped or started by what they believe about the authority figure that holds their future in his/her hands. They have questions that must. Be. Answered.

Questions about worth. Questions about capacity. Questions about belief.

As the rapper Common said on his "Like Water for Chocolate" album—it's the questions. 

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What questions do you think your students have? Do you assume that students ever question the intent of the lesson? When your black and brown students stare down at an empty paper or up at you, do you imagine them having deep questions about the work or rationalize that they are simply being defiant. Or deficient.

Would you or do you assume the same thought process if your students were white or from the middle class? Questions are birthed from experiences, expectations, and fears. As teachers, do we think long enough about how that trio of factors impacts out students' willingness to work? Let us briefly explore these questions and the impact they could have on our perspectives as practitioners.

Do you like me?

Students (and adults) are not likely to work or perform for people they do not like or who they are convinced do not like them. While some of our students come into our classrooms with baggage and shirk their rightful responsibility to behave, we must take every opportunity to extend kindness to them. If you don't like the student as they are, like the potential of who they could be. 

Are you happy that I am here?

I have heard it said, I believe from Maya Angelou, that she could 'tell that she was loved from the way her mother looked at her when she entered the room.' On a bad day, I probably have sent the exact opposite vibe into students when I glared at them entering the class. But even more subtly, do you smile when you see students? Do you give them eye contact as they enter the room, laugh at their jokes or say good afternoon before they settle in for the warm up? The culture of a classroom rests on the affection and respect between teachers and students. 

Do you believe that I can complete advanced level work?

If you say you believe all students can learn, then your lesson plan should reflect it. What do you ask students to consistently do? What do you neglect to even ask them to do because you believe they can't or won't complete it? How much necessary support do you give to students—there is such a thing as too much scaffolding. This belief is borne out in what we ask our students to do and what we ask students to do repeatedly, they will eventually develop capacity to do automatically. I have seen some PhD-level text copiers in too many classrooms to count.

Are you serious enough to help me get better while I am here?

Kids like teachers who are kind, funny, relatable, and firm. They have no time for teachers who are neither serious nor capable. Building your own expertise is so critical to answering this unspoken question that so many of our students have. The more you display your expertise and use it to improve their own expertise, the more your students will trust you. And work for you.

Students who are traditionally underserved are typically overtested. They endure page after page of diagnostic, corrective, norm-referenced and college entrance level exams on a yearly basis. We are not weak at asking questions of our black and brown students; but we do need to be stronger at answering their questions before they do better on ours. 

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Have you ever been in a classrom, hallway or in public and wondered aloud (or in your stare) why minority students prefer not to talk at a lower volume? On more occasions that I can count, I have said 'stop talking!' just so that I could, you guessed it, ask more questions. It is amazing to me now, how quiet my class can be (at times). Because I believe that I have answered the questions that matter most to them, my students feel seen, heard and appreciated. Sometimes kids make noise because the adults who teach them have not heard or answered the most pressing questions that beat in their hearts:

Do you like me?

Are you happy that I am here?

Do you believe that I can complete advanced level work?

Are you serious enough to help me get better while I am here?

In all that we say, think, and do—we are answering questions that lie at the heart of motivation for students. If we first ask ourselves these questions and listen closely for answers, we can then begin to make strides in having integrity between what we say we want to do for black and brown kids and what we actually practice. It is not just a moral imperative, but an ethical one. Let's get to work. 

Classroom Instruction Principle

Student motivation is impacted by our ability to satisfy the social emotional needs of our students and by answering the deep questions that I may have with our actions and words (and by reducing irrelevant ones). 

Three Actions/Strategies to Implement Today

1. Use teacher report cards. Hand out progress reports and term report cards to your students and have them rate you on the areas touched on in the four questions in this blog. Have them give you comments and suggestions about how you can better perform in each area and then have a class-teacher conference where they deliver these comments to you. Putting students in a position to let you know what they need to be successful is a powerful way to get at the heart of what they need from you as a teacher and as a person. 

2. Open up the floor for questions as often as you can. After you give an assignment, ask and wait for questions. Instead of a traditional Do Now or Warm Up, have students come up with at least 10 questions they have about you as a person or about the work they have been completing in the past week. Give space to their questions as often as you can.   

3. Make every effort to answer each of the four questions of this blog for your students. As you think about the four questions of this blog, brainstorm with the students, their parents and other common teachers to come up with ways to communicate meaning, worth, acceptance and (your own) capability to each student you teach. Everyday.  

Two Resources for Further Study

You Don't Even Know Me: Poems and Stories About Boys (book) by Sharon Flake

SEL is Good Teaching by Dr. Lorea Martinez (article) - https://www.edutopia.org/blog/sel-is-good-teaching-lorea-martinez

Bonus Resource (Speech Transcript) - What These Children are Like by Ralph Ellison - http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/what-these-children-are-like/

One Inspirational Quote/Video

Dalton Sherman - Extra Yard for Teachers Summitt 2015 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o3b0QHIXUv0 

"For they are all our children; we will either profit by or pay for what they become." —James Baldwin

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