Four children each holding one letter on a square piece of paper that spells Why?

Asking questions is not hard for six-year-old students. Neither is telling stories about themselves. The problem for them is to know which is which.

I can’t tell you how many times a child has wanted to “ask a question” but has told me about something that happened at home the night before instead.  (Primary teachers know way more than they should or even want to know about a student’s home life.)

Because we are doing inquiry or PBL (passion-based learning) this year, my students have asked more questions than ever before in my classroom. Both the students and I are still learning about this process, but I like this shift.  The person who asks the questions is in charge of the learning, and I want my grade one kids to be in charge of their own learning early in their school careers.

Getting Ready to Meet a Police Officer

Drawings and questions by students for police officer.

A few weeks ago, a police officer came to visit our classroom as a culmination of our “relationships, rules and responsibilities” unit. In the past, I have often asked the officers to talk to the students about a particular topic such as strangers or being safe on their bicycles. A constable would come into our classroom, talk for awhile, then answer a few questions from the kids, most of which were more likely to be story than inquiry.

This time, I told the officer I wanted the children to hear about ways to be safe, but I asked him to talk at the end about any safety topics were not covered by the students’ questions.

Because of the predisposition of a six-year-old to want to tell the constable every incident from their family’s history that might touch on law enforcement, we prepared the questions on cards ahead of time. We talked about what made a good question, the words that questions started with, and so forth. Then, as the students verbalized their wonderings, I gave them a card to write their question on. Those who are still having difficulty with letter/sound association drew a picture and I wrote their question out for them.

For some students, thinking of something they wanted to ask was difficult. Sometimes the questions were really stories and needed to be rethought. Sometimes I knew that the student already knew the answer to their question, so I helped them to reframe it to ask something else that they might be interested in knowing.

Asking the Questions

There were predictable questions such as “why do police officers have a gun?” and “why do the police have handcuffs?”.  There were some interesting queries like “why do buses have no seat belts?” and “how do police officers arrest another police officer?”. And there were also some thoughtful, deeper questions such as “why do we have laws?” and “what if there were no police officers?”

Policeman with a group of kids on the floor.

Constable Mohle answered every question patiently and with serious intent. It was a validation for all of the students that the things they wanted to know were important. For me, this was a far more satisfying way to have a guest in the classroom. First, the students were more involved and not just passive listeners. Second, they learned that what they wonder matters to those from outside our classroom as well as those within it.  And third, they practiced asking questions, an important skill.

If I ask the questions, I am in charge of the learning. If the police officer asks them, he is. If the students ask the questions they are in charge of their own learning. They did and they were.

As for my own question: I wonder what it is about the police officer’s uniform that instantly quiets my students and holds their undivided attention? And where can I legally get one?

An original version of this post appeared in this blog in April of 2012. It was written by Kathy Cassidy. Kathy is now giving away a free copy of her book “Connected from the Start” on her blog.

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