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The Conversations Inspired by the Questions We Ask

Karen Szymusiak

The most effective way to develop a common understanding of classroom practice may be the questions we choose to ask. As literacy leaders it is often difficult to express clear expectations for classroom practice because behind every effective instructional decision we make is a depth of understanding that comes from years of practice and reflection.

At our school, we are re-examining the reading workshop. We are learning to balance the predictable structure of the workshop with the instructional decisions we make in response to what we know about the children in our classrooms. As the principal, I am required to complete evaluations of teacher practice through classroom observations. Over the years, I have discovered that it isn't the actual observation that tells me so much about the teacher but the conversations we have after the observation. That's when I can listen to what the teacher has to say and ask questions that help me understand the decisions the teacher has made.

First Questions

This year prior to the observation process, I gave teachers a list of questions and told them that we would use these questions to guide our conversations after the classroom observation. What I hope to do is ask the questions that will help teachers develop a personal understanding of reading workshop and a repertoire of authentic classroom practices. I hope to encourage more than a single conversation with me. I want to initiate a network of conversations throughout our school -- teachers talking to teachers and teachers talking to children about the practices that matter most. It's these conversations that can lead us to lasting change and professional growth.

There are so many questions we can ask. They can initiate conversations among teachers about the most basic elements of the reading workshop. We can encourage teachers to think about the important components of the reading workshop and the way they can manage the reading workshop. But until we ask the questions that encourage teachers to question their current practice and lead them to rethink the authenticity of what they are asking children to do, implementing a reading workshop can be mechanical and can lack the inspiration children need. It's tempting to rely upon routines and structures that keep students busy during reading workshop. If we can take a hard look at what we are asking children to do, we just might discover that it does little to promote authentic reading behaviors.

I want these questions to shake us from our comfort zones. I want to think hard about why we do what we do in the reading workshop. If the answers don't represent the most authentic experiences for our students, then we need to find new answers -- to imagine new possibilities for our reading workshop. If the atmosphere of reading workshop is not student-centered, then we need to rethink how we can engage our students in real reading opportunities. If our students don't feel a sense of empowerment in the reading workshop, then we need to find ways that encourage them to take ownership of their learning.

Thoughtful conversations seem to ripple through our learning community when the questions we ask challenge us to think in new ways or to re-examine our current practices. There are no magical questions that lead us to thinking and reflecting. For each of us the questions should reflect the nature of our own learning community. But we should never stop asking the questions that lead us to reflective, thoughtful practice.

I am looking forward to the conversations we will have this year. They will enrich our professional practice and ensure that children are having the most authentic reading experiences in our classrooms.

Questions about Reading Workshop

What is the structure/schedule of your reading workshop?

What is your routine for independent reading?

How do you promote student ownership and choice in the reading workshop?

What have you planned for whole-group, small-group and individual instruction?

How do you decide what to do each day in the reading workshop?

What do you know about your students that informs your instructional decisions in reading workshop?

What opportunities do your students have to talk with others about their reading?

What routines do you have in place that encourages children to respond to what they read?

How are you helping your students learn about themselves as readers?

How do you plan to assess? How are you documenting student progress?

What is your biggest challenge in the reading workshop and how can I help you?

If you would prefer to download these questions as a one-page handout, click here.


Karen Szymusiak

Karen Szymusiak has walked in the shoes of almost every school community member - over the years she has met with colleagues as a teacher, parent, curriculum coordinator, staff developer and literacy specialist. Karen is the co-author (with Franki Sibberson) of many books and videos on teaching reading and assessment in the intermediate grades. She is also featured on the Choice Literacy DVD, The Literacy Principal in Action.