As I entered the bright, beautiful classroom my first year of teaching, the first thing that caught my eye was a set of questions. They were posted above the whiteboard in a huge font, visible from anywhere in the room. “Who am I?” and “Who are we?”. My initial response was skepticism. How could a third-grader answer such a nuanced question? What was the correct response? How could they get it right?
My hesitancy came from my own experience as a learner, all to familiar with teachers asking me for the single, correct answer. I’d had teachers who’d hinted at the correct response with the very tone of their voice: Do you really think it’s A? Or could the answer be B? Or others who merely shook their heads and called on someone else if my reply didn’t match what they were looking for. Like many of my classmates, I learned to read teachers as well as assignments – aiming to please them with correct answers, feeding back what they hoped to receive. Thus, I felt out of my depths when posed with what I would learn to call an essential question. But not for long.
That first year of teaching, I was fortunate enough to teach alongside a veteran teacher who brought the Understanding by Design (UbD) framework into her teaching from the first-day students entered her classroom. Since our essential questions focused primarily on self and communal identity, they were perfect introductions for getting to know one another and forming a classroom culture. Educators introducing UbD into their curriculums might worry that essential questions feel lofty or above an elementary understanding. As I learned, this misconception could not be further from the truth. Essential questions, lifelong and deeply explorative by nature, allow students both a floor-level entry point and a limitless ceiling. Students were able to grapple with the question “Who are we?” from the get-go. They raised their hands immediately to provide answers: “We’re third graders!” “We’re athletes!” “We’re kind!” “We’re kids!” And the joyful part? They were right! They were kind, athletic, third-grade kids. But this was not a test question to check off and move on from – it was one we’d revisit for weeks to come.
From here, we pushed students deeper. In order to meet your goals of becoming a kind, joyful learning environment, we needed to discuss what this looked like. Without kind actions or respectful learning practices, we couldn’t actualize the identity we’d heartily agreed upon. Thus, we formed our “rights and responsibilities” around the question of who we were and who we wanted to be as a class. For example, since students had posed that they wanted to be respectful of each other, a responsibility included waiting to raise their hands until their classmate had finished speaking. These responsibilities felt natural coming from the students – easy responses to how we would develop “who are we” as a class.
The essential question of individual identity was an incredibly exciting one. Creating an exploration into the self through an essential question provides students with the space for change and growth. “Well, I used to be a piano player,” one student remarked thoughtfully as we discussed identifiers, “but then I quit. So I don’t identify as that anymore.” In the first month of school, we began a project titled “Identity Flowers.” Students were given an empty flower with multiple petals to brainstorm elements of their identity through pictures, words, and symbols. As a class, we compiled identity categories into a non-conclusive list. Again, this self-driven project allowed students to find a comfortable entry point. They could share their language, culture, race, gender, community, or any of the other categories we, as adults, tend to jump to when we picture identity. But they could also identify as a cat-lover, a story writer, a musician, or a dumpling enthusiast. When the students finished their flowers, we invited them to share petals they felt comfortable presenting – answering a little piece of the question: “Who am I?”. As students shared, we observed a noticeable growth in their responses. They were now able to access nuanced questions of the self beyond likes and dislikes or surface-level identifiers to more in-depth awareness. We encouraged students to hold onto their flowers as they grew up, recognizing that some parts of their identity were likely to change while others were not. Their flowers would gain more petals and lose some in the lifelong exploration of the self.
Essential questions should not only be thought-provoking and nuanced for students but also for educators. As with every good essential question, “Who am I?” is still a question that leads me to a deeper understanding of myself. Who am I? I am an educator who believes deeply in providing spaces for students to explore and develop their identities. And “Who are we?” Well, we at Authentic Education are an organization committed to supporting educators with the shared goal of student growth and understanding, not just right answers. But that’s only one part of our identity. We believe there’s always more to explore.
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Looking for more on Essential Questions? Check out these resources:
- Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe
- Designing and Using Essential Questions: Reference Guide by Jay McTighe
- Toddle’s article Essential Questions for the Curious Classroom by Shambhavee Sharma
- AE Blog post: What is an Essential Question? by Grant Wiggins