Class Participation: More Than a Buzzword


Posted: Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

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There are naive questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a cry to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question. 

—Carl Sagan

Me IRL

Rolling your eyes at Edith here might make you look cool to your peers, but after 2 years of teaching SAT I feel like one of my biggest imperatives is encouraging more kids to take a cue from her methodology

As one of the “new kids” in the Education.com office, I find myself asking a lot of questions—about processes, the back end of the site, policies for freelancers, and just about everything. Like many of people in the working world, I’m chary of creating the impression that answers to these questions don’t stick when I’m provided with them. The problem is that I always tell my students that “there’s no such thing as a dumb question”—that is, unless your question is disingenuous or deliberately disruptive. I’m pretty bad at taking my own advice.

Last summer, I taught an SAT boot camp where I worked 10-hour days by teaching 8 full classes of kids. Over the course of the two-month program, instructors get really close to the kids and become personally invested in their hopes and dreams. It’s pretty cool. One student in particular started the program with diagnostic scores in the mid-1700′s, which is fine—but he was dead-set on going to either Berkeley or Cornell, and wanted the kind of SAT score that would enable him to get there.

This student quickly earned a reputation for self-deprecating humor and became equally well known for his bizarre responses to SAT writing prompts. These responses weren’t an attempt to troll the essay graders, and to see them as evidence that he didn’t take the class seriously would have been naive. He was legitimately applying himself. In fact, he was applying himself so honestly and so deliberately that shame didn’t hold him back from trying anything, even if that meant responding to a broad-based essay prompt about the virtues of hard work with admittedly weak and (and goofy) examples (my favorite is a surreal personal anecdote about his consistently bad experiences with girls and dating). If that was the most relevant thing he’d manage to brainstorm during the notoriously stringent 25-minute time frame provided for essay completion, then so be it—that’s what he’d go with.

That same courage also enabled him to have no filter in class. The moment a question crossed his mind, he’d ask it: “I didn’t understand the word, so I eliminated it as a possibility. Is that bad?”

Yes, it’s a bad idea. Other students didn’t hesitate to let him know how (seemingly) ludicrous a question like that is. But here’s the thing: every time there was a gap in his understanding, no matter how trivial, he’d make sure to fill it immediately. He was participating—a skill that’s probably a whole lot more important than keeping your nose to the grindstone by quietly studying vocab for hours on end.

Why am I so convinced of this? Because the dividends of class participation are tremendous. After a summer of being one of the most engaged and vocal kids in the room, this student earned an official SAT score of 2290: a perfect 800 in reading, a perfect 800 in math, and a 690 in writing. He earned a perfect score in the grammar sub score for writing, but I suspect he got docked on the essay because he wrote about something really strange. And honestly, I’m fine with that.

Here’s the moral of the story: Encourage your kids to ask questions and take risks, even if they have to take a few small social risks in the classroom because their queries could be construed as “dumb questions.”

Odds are, they’ll learn a lot.

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