Most teachers have been in this situation: In the middle of some important lesson, a student asks a great, but completely unrelated question. Do you follow the tangent and try to pick up your lesson plan another day? Or do you leave the question unanswered and risk discouraging students from expressing their curiosity?
This seems to happen frequently in my classroom. To manage these questions without derailing lesson plans or discouraging dialogue, we use what we what we call “The Question Board.” Ours is a large dorm room whiteboard that a colleague was giving away. It sits on the floor where all of my elementary students can reach it easily. Students are welcome to add questions to the board as they think of them. Sometimes I’ll ask a student with a question to write it on the board, either because it would take more class time than we have available for questions (e.g. “What made Stravinsky, Hildegard [von Bingen], Rossini, and Chopin want to be a composer and songwriter?”), or because I don’t know the answer (e.g. “How many words are in the longest song?”). Sometimes I’ll address the questions in a future class, but I often simply write an answer for students to read on their own the next day.
I’ve been impressed by the how the question board has increased student learning and engagement in music class. Some of the benefits were intended, but many were pleasant surprises.
• Questions don’t take class time. If I don’t want to discuss the answer to a question in class, I can write an answer after school and the students can read it the next day. No time is taken away from the planned instruction.
• Students can ask questions anonymously. When I was a kid, I was very interested in learning about music, but I was so shy that I never raised my hand to ask questions. The question board is a way to reach some of my quieter students who I’ve noticed writing questions that they wouldn’t ask in front of the class.
• Students can ask any question. The question board allows students to ask questions that are unrelated to the current lesson or unit. Some questions aren’t related to anything we’ve done in class, but probably reflect a musical experience that the question writer had outside of school. Others show students processing content that was learned earlier in the school year.
• Questions reflect the connections that students are making between concepts taught at different points in the school year. My favorite questions are those that tie together topics that they’ve learned about separately. These questions are evidence of students’ deepening understanding of the interconnectedness of music. Or they can provide an opportunity to fill in context (e.g. “Did Stravinsky, Chopin, Rossini, and Hildegard write a song together?”)
• Questions can inspire new teaching ideas. Sometimes my students questions give me ideas for teaching. For example, one question on my board right now is, “Did Chopin like rock and roll?” Maybe I’ll make a lesson exploring hypothetical questions about how well-known composers might react to genres of music that they didn’t write. Would Chopin like rock and roll? If he wrote a rock song, how would it sound?
• Demonstrating how to find answers models research techniques. I believe that it’s important for my students to know that adults aren’t omniscient. It’s not as important to know everything as it is to know how to find the information that’s needed. When I find a relevant question on the board, I sometimes show my students how I find an answer. If they develop good research skills, they can continue learning by finding their own answers when they’re not in class.
• The teacher becomes the learner. My students’ questions ensure that I keep learning more and more about the topics that I teach. In the last month, I learned that the shortest recorded song is “You Suffer” by Napalm Death at 1.316 seconds, and the longest is Thom Yorke’s “Subterranea” at 432 hours. I found out that Chopin wrote his first piece, Polonaise in G minor, when he was only seven years old. I now know that it is estimated that the first known flute is about a hundred times older than the first recorder. And I continually learn about my students’ interests and the depth of their understanding through the questions they ask.
• Have two simultaneous conversations with students. The question board makes it possible to have a dialogue through written questions and answers while we are engaged in the usual oral and musical communication of class. Time is very limited in music class periods, so I seize any opportunity increase communication and connection with my students.
When I started using a question board, I was pleased that it fulfilled its intended purpose of recording questions that I couldn’t answer during class, but it has become much more. The question board is a way for students to connect, engage, and explore their curiosity. One of my second graders has become so interested in the question board that she told me that she wants to be a music researcher, and she has big plans to discover a new kind of note. Anything that inspires that kind of interest is worthwhile. I can’t wait to hear about her findings!