Asking the Right Questions

Three years ago, I noticed my first grade class having real difficulty putting away the materials for one of our workstations. Although these students usually followed the cleanup routines we’d developed and practiced for other stations, they would often leave words strewn about the poetry workstation.

To set up this workstation, I’d printed and laminated a “poem of the week,” cut apart the words, and attached a small square of hook-and-loop fastener to each. Using a printed copy of the poem as a guide, the children put the poem back in order, pressing each word onto a carpet square or piece of felt. Each poem’s words were stored in a re-sealable zipper bag.

For some reason, the children were having a very hard time putting the words back in the bags when they finished. Words would get lost, or they’d spill out onto the floor, and I’d have to clean them up.

So I posed the problem to the children: “I’ve noticed that the poetry workstation doesn’t get put away as well as our other stations. Sometimes the words get left on the floor. Sometimes words get lost or mixed up with the words from other poems.”

The children offered some thoughts: “We should put things away carefully,” “We need to be better at cleaning up . . .”

I remember having a little mental debate with myself then about whether to accept their suggestions or try to push further. I decided to keep going because I knew they didn’t need to “clean up better.” They really were doing a good job of cleaning up elsewhere in our classroom.

So I said: “I hear what you’re saying, but let me tell you what I notice: You are being careful and safe when you put things away. The Big Books are organized and ready to be used. Our classroom library almost always has the books put away in the right baskets. The magnetic letters are put away in the right letter spaces and the top is closed. You take a lot of responsibility with our learning tools,” I continued, “so I wonder if there’s something about the poetry workstation that makes it hard for you to put the tools away.” There was a long pause while they thought about it.

Then Lisa raised her hand. “Ms. H? Could you maybe get those bags that have the zipper on the top that you do with your fingers?”

I didn’t know where she was going, but I knew which bags she meant. “Sure . . . but can you tell me why?”

“The bags we have are just so hard to close!” she said.

The classroom exploded with murmurs of agreement and children gesturing “me, too.” Then Lavender said, “I know! I have to put the bag down on the table and use my whole hand to close it! And sometimes it doesn’t even work!”

I was dumbfounded. I remember thinking: “Seriously? That’s the problem . . . the wrong bags?”

“Okay,” I told them. “We can absolutely do that. I’ll try to get the bags that have the zipper on top over the weekend.” You should have seen the relief on their faces.

Sure enough, the zipper-on-top bags were exactly what they needed. We had very little trouble with that station for the rest of the year. Since then I’ve learned to always use those bags—in that station and others.

I’ve also learned to trust my instincts: I knew that something was making that station hard. I almost ended the conversation when the children suggested answers that didn’t quite fit. I’m so glad I tried to push a little further.

But my biggest learning? Children can be great problem-solvers when adults ask them the right questions. Ever since that class helped me understand their problem—that I’d given them, quite literally, the wrong material—I’ve tried harder to formulate thoughtful, focused questions to enable students to find solutions for the day-to-day problems that crop up in our classroom. I’ve also continued paying attention to what’s going smoothly, as well as to what’s not. These observations have definitely helped me formulate more useful questions. Overall, asking better questions helps the children grow in their sense of themselves as competent people. And it deepens my respect for what young learners can do when given the right supports.
Kirsten Lee Howard is a Responsive Classroom consultant and a first grade teacher at Garfield Elementary School in Springfield, Virginia. This article is adapted from a post at her teaching blog at

Tags: Classroom Organization, Transitions