Last week I began to teach my 5th grade math students how to ask on the surface questions. I anticipated that this would be a daunting task because creating questions literally means that you have to think about the information and create a question that makes sense using Who?, What?, When? and Where?. As a math teacher I tend to ask all the questions which automatically makes the students take on the role of the person that answers questions.

The first time I tried to introduce on the surface questions to my students it was a train wreck taking place in slow motion. So, I scrapped the idea for a week and decided to revisit the idea later. A week later I began teaching order of operations using G.E.M.S. This was a great tool for the students to use but I was using it as way to compute multiple operations which is rote ,not to mention, at the lowest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy. So, I found an activity that would increase the rigor for the next lesson but the activity required the students to be able to reflect on their understanding of the order of operations and why it is necessary to use G.EM.S.

When I asked the students why do we need G.E.M.S. they really could not tell me why G.E.M.S. was necessary. It made realize that I had failed to communicate the value of using G.E.M.S. when they encountered more than one operation because I was so focused on making sure they understood how to compute the operations in the correct order. One of my students reminded me the next day of the value of order of operations through his homework. This revelation helped me to understand what was needed to implement on the surface questions.

In order for students to understand the purpose of asking questions, they have to first understand that reading is thinking. When we don’t understand a concept or a word during reading, a question or questions (should) pop up in our heads. Also, the students must see the value in the skill that is being acquired. The student who immediately applied G.E.M.S. realized its value when solving multi-step problems.

When I asked my 5th grade students what do they do when they don’t understand something my class got really silent. This basically told me that they don’t ask questions, which is quite evident in my classroom. This response made me reflect on my reading training that says that struggling readers and ELL students do not ask questions when they don’t understand a word or concept. They typically skip over words that they do not know and apply ineffective strategies to concepts that they do not understand. So, after thinking through the potential pitfalls for the activity Who is Correct? and asking on the surface questions I decided to model how to ask on the surface questions using a class Consensus Map so that we could decide what was the most important question that needed to answered. There were 4 groups and each group created an on the surface question that they could ask before we analyzed the students’ work and determined who was correct.

Through this activity the students realized that even though who made the mistake? was the most important question that had to be answered they also realized that the other questions that were created would be answered while they analyzed the students’ work. Teaching the students how to create on the surface questions took a lot of instructional time but the pay off was absolutely amazing!

- The students were able to work independently in cooperative groups with minimal support.
- They also could write about how to explain the order of operations to a new 5th grade student.
- The awareness of their thinking cemented their understanding of G.E.M.S. and its value.

The teacher specialist at my school asked me why I don’t do rotation stations in my classroom and my response was that I do a lot of group work and when students are completing station work there is not any “new learning taking place because they are working at their independent levels.” In my opinion I think the authors of Smarter Together got it right when they said that, ” Learning is a social process” when teaching complex concepts.