Essential Questions

This past weekend on the forum Megan asked about essential questions that she had to provide her administrators with. I made these suggestions:

1. Can I understand (name of language you teach) by listening to it?
2. Do I need to read something to learn (the language you teach)? – on this one it would be when you are doing R & D.
3. Does it help to see something, like a picture, when I am learning (name of language) – on this one it would be when you are doing L & D.
4. In what ways can I show my teacher that I understand (name of language)?
5. What is the importance of working with my teacher to understand (name of language)?
6. What do I have to do to let my teacher know that I am understanding?
7. What do I have to do to let my teacher know that I am not understanding?
8. How will how I pay attention in this class affect my grade?
9. How important is it for me to not speak in English in this class?
10. What does it mean to “negotiate meaning” with my teacher in this class?
11. How can I help the story move along better?
12. How does the way we speak (name of language) in this class reflect what the national standards say about how I can learn the language?
13. What is the most important skill in learning a language? (here is where a child should be able to use the word interpersonal if they are above, say, 8th grade, because you taught them how that is the most important skill. They don’t have to be able to write a book about it, they should just know that how they interact with you interpersonally is the most important skill in learning a language.
14. Can I have fun and still learn a language?
15. How long can I listen to a foreign language, trying to understand it, before I go splat?
16. What are the rules in this class?
17. Is there a difference between learning a language and acquiring one?
18. In order for me to acquire this expression, how many times will I need to hear it in class, once I understand it? [credit: Nathaniel Hardt]
19. “Do you understand the message and can you show me?” [credit: Alisa Shapiro]

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22 thoughts on “Essential Questions”

  1. What a timely post. As chair of my (2.5-person) foreign language department, I tried to officially argue against meaningless (to me as well as students) EQs with my administrators, but it’s a battle I lost! These questions are helpful.

    Also, for anyone else looking for even more questions, I found about 8 different schools that make their foreign language EQs public by searching Señor Google for “foreign language essential questions”. Many schools have developed broad-based questions that are suitable for longer units of study rather than individual lessons – another focus of my administrators. I still struggle to describe my CI classroom instruction in terms of “units” but it’s something I have to figure out to keep those lovely administrators happy, and having EQs that are broad help me feel one step closer to being able to do so.

  2. These questions are helpful.
    Re: questions 5-7. This year, I have really used the concept from The First 20 hours, and also from Mindset to ease people’s minds about making mistakes or failing to understand. If you don’t give up, your effort pays off. I’m also trying to remember to use something I learned from Where are your Keys/Language Hunting: When you make a mistake, say “How fascinating” and throw your hands out in front of you and up. And the whole group does it with you. The idea is that mistakes are normal (after all, it’s a FOREIGN language), and you get the whole class to do “How fascinating” to blow off the tension when a student makes a mistake. Mistakes are a celebration that you are still trying, you are learning what doesn’t work. There’s no shame in that. Also, you do the same move to celebrate when the light bulb goes on for someone. Here’s a link with the “How fascinating” somewhere buried in the middle… poptech.org/popcasts/benjamin_zander__poptech_2008. I think all this talk about the failure inherent in the learning process really has helped kids to keep on trying and not give up, and not feel so bad about letting me know when they don’t understand, or about trying and making mistakes.

  3. Here’s another:

    Can I do . . . . in the target language? Fill in with life functions interesting to teenagers–

    can I order a pizza, can I send a text, can I ask a girl out for a date, can I apologize for something, can I read the lyrics of a song, can I meet someone new, can I read road signs, can I explain why I am late/missed something important/forgot something, can I find something to eat–in a grocery store, a restaurant, a fast-food place, etc.

    1. I think this applies to people who are teaching to a unit. I’m glad it doesn’t apply to me. I can’t target stuff like that. Trying to do that makes my socks roll up and down. We are all different in what we target and that’s just fine.

      1. You are so right, Ben, we each have to organize and categorize in ways that work for us. That’s the beauty of teaching with CI. If it’s Comprehensible and Compelling and kids are getting it, no one should judge about what we decide to teach.

        This is my way organizing the end of the year–what can the kid DO with the language, rather than how to organize throughout the year. I liked to show that a kid could communicate in the TL about the same topics they communicate in English. And it makes it possible to navigate the demands of various state standards and evaluation tools without selling our souls. It works for those who don’t “get” what we do, they can recognize when kids can DO in the TL.

  4. In Massachusetts we are being asked to include Essential questions with each Unit. I sent the following to FL in my district:

    “In order for my students to acquire this expression, how many times will I need to use it in class, once they understand it? (teacher point of view)

    In order for me to acquire this expression, how many times will I need to hear it in class, once I understand it? (student point of view)

    By “acquire,” I mean that they own it, that they understand it immediately, that they respond to it automatically, that they use without hesitation, they do not talk about it–they just say it, they do not think about it (although they can)–they just think it, that they have absorbed it.

    I like this question because it reminds me of what I need to do and what my students need me to do. They need me to say an expression more often than I feel like saying it. They need to understand it in order for them to absorb it. It also reminds me and my students what the goal is for taking a FL (to communicate with a native speaker, Massachusetts FL Curriculum Framework, p 8).”

    I know this stuff is a pain, but (this time at least), it helped me clarify an essential aspect of CI and gave me the opportunity to share it with my colleagues.

    1. I added this one to the list Nathaniel. I like how concrete it is:

      …in order for me to acquire this expression, how many times will I need to hear it in class, once I understand it?….

      And they really do that in class. They count expressions. (And thank you Carla for sharing the Tally App idea.)

  5. This year I too have to write essential questions (EQs). Based on what I read above, let me take a stab at it:

    As a level 1 Spanish student, how do I communicate with my teacher in order to show that I do or do not understand the teacher’s input?

    But, in addition to Ben’s EQs, I like what Nathaniel wrote:

    In order for me to acquire this expression, how many times will I need to hear it in class, once I understand it?

    It makes me think about how with some expressions students don’t need them repeated as often based on how compelling the context was, or based on how attentive they were that day. So, Nathaniel’s EQ here challenges the student to be metacognitive about how well they are surrendering with full attentiveness to the comprehensible.

    However, how do we want students to answer this EQ? Do we want them to reflect at the end of the class period on how many more reps they need for that expression? We certainly don’t want to disrupt the CI flow to ask them to reflect on how many more reps they may need.

    I’m left thinking here that a good essential question can be answered through students’ self-assessment on the jGR or Interpersonal Communication Skills Rubric.

  6. I see an essential problem with designing essential questions and enduring understandings for a FL classroom: they’re all metacognitive.

    They’re not about the language or language skills, but about what a student thinks about the language or thinks about their language skills. It makes sense to use essential questions for learning about culture. But language acquisition is unconscious, while an essential question is asking a student to consider something consciously.

  7. The purpose of some of the essential questions is to get buy in on what we are doing. And while there may be an assumption that essential questions are for the students, it may be that they are mostly for administrators, evaluators, colleagues, and maybe, just maybe, parents.

    Using something like “How many reps?” will be slipped into the minds of the students with the structure counter kids.

  8. Yes, I understand that these essential questions are something that I need to write and submit to my admin with the hopes that I need to refer to them as little as possible to my students.

    With that in mind, Nathaniel says we need to use them as a means for admin to buy-into our CI teaching practice. I’m exploring how I can do that right now.

    The “How many reps?” question is a good one because there is that concreteness, as Ben pointed out, yet it charges a student to think about how those reps where delivered so far, what was happening in the interpersonal relationship during that delivery of those reps, and what could be done in the future with that interpersonal communication as more reps can be delivered.

    I mean, we don’t want our students to be thinking about this during instruction, but they could be thinking about this during some down time, during conferences with students and parents, or during any kind of intervention that needs to happen for a student to get on-track with the classroom rules.

    So, Eric says, “ But language acquisition is unconscious, while an essential question is asking a student to consider something consciously.” Well, how about flipping that and offering a EQ that asks:

    How can I unclutter my conscious mind so that my unconsciousness may act like a spider’s web and trap all the comprehensible input being delivered in class?

    … I do kinda like the idea of using some of these metaphors we bounce around here, like the net, as we write our EQs.

    (Side Note: I hope many of you don’t even need to bother with this thread because you don’t need to fuss about EQs.)

  9. Yeah, the whole thing seems crafted for someone else. I wouldn’t do this for me.
    I definitely wouldn’t fill out a UbD template for every lesson or unit. Actually, I couldn’t drag myself to fill out even one of those things! haha.
    As my mom, 4th grade teacher for decades, said to me: “I don’t need to do any of that UbD stuff. It takes way too much time. I know what I’m doing.”

  10. “How can I unclutter my conscious mind so that my unconsciousness may act like a spider’s web and trap all the comprehensible input being delivered in class?”

    Yeah! This is maybe the one EQ for the whole process. Thanks Sean 🙂

    I too am confounded about the whole UBD “thing” as it applies (not!) to our process. It just seems like it “may” apply only in upper levels that have enough language so they can do the metacognitive thing in TL…but that just seems like a very small number of students. If I tried to do this, it would devolve into a cumbersome translation exercise.

    1. Thanks jen. I kinda like the imagery on this EQ. I’m going to plug it into my unit plan that’s due tomorrow. Hopefully my admin doesn’t think I’m making a mock of the EQ UBD stuff with this imagery of the spider’s web.

      How can each student unclutter their conscious minds so that their unconsciousness may act like a spider’s web and trap all the comprehensible input delivered in class?”

      I have to share the following example EQ that is offered for foreign language classes by Understanding by Design, by Jay McTighe & Grant Wiggins, © 2004, 2005. The EQ below comes from a presentation of McTighe & Wiggins work from my administrators at my current school as they prep us for writing our unit plans.

      Is the subjunctive necessary?

      (Boo! My costume for Halloween is gonna be the subjunctive.)

      And here is McTighe & Wiggins’s definition of an essential question; “,One that lies at the heart of a subject or a curriculum and promotes inquiry and uncoverage of a subject.” With this definition, I can see how the study of the subjunctive promotes study of the subject of grammar. But certainly it does not promote inquiry. 96% of our students are not going to inquire about the use of the subjunctive unless we fool them into thinking that they should; an endeavor that would take away from language acquisition in the classroom.

      Also, when the authors say to “uncover” the subject of L2, I read that as to “understand” the L2. How else would one “uncover” the L2? I understand how students may uncover concepts like civil rights in history class in ways that go well beyond understanding and into the realm of evaluating case studies, for example, but to “uncover” the subject of the L2 has to be interpreted as understanding the L2 and maybe responding at greater lengths in the L2.

      So, we find ourselves in a struggle where powerful people in the world of education like McTighe and Wiggins are throwing out example essential questions for foreign languages when they clearly do not understand how SLA works.

      Anyways, I realize many of you here already know this struggle but I’m in the midst of putting unit plans together and I need to keep working on getting my admin to further buy into my CI practice, like Nathaniel said above. I’m sure many of us here are in the same boat.

      1. Man… “Is the subjunctive necessary?” Obviously, they’re planning for some grammar analysis in English about that. Ick! I hope your EQ gets accepted, Sean. It’s way more meaningful.

        (Plus the answer to the subjunctive question is “no.” Lots of languages don’t have it or any other tense. Aspect, maybe, but not tense. So I think it’s showing a certain belief about what languages are as well as a grammar analysis approach to teaching them.)

        1. But Diane and Sean, don’t you know you’re supposed to spend all of high school year 3 teaching the subjunctive? . . . You can comprehend and communicate at an advanced proficiency without it.

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