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Essential Questions

In September and October I'll be writing posts about planning lessons.  A well-planned lesson is a joy for both teacher and student.  Refining planning is part of every teacher's practice and one of the things I love most about the beginning of each new year.

Let's begin with the concept of essential questions.  Each link in this post will be to a different site that will help you wrap your head around the subject of essential questions.  When I worked in The Cambridge Public Schools, we rewrote the curriculum to include these essential questions.  This work was exhausting because the questions were so difficult to write.

What is an essential question? 

Essential questions are unanswerable in one lifetime, much less in one class period.  They are the eternal questions that keep us learning for a lifetime.  The questions don't have one answer, but have answers by the million that may change over time.

As you write your essential questions for the year, look at some questions that are not essential and how they are morphed into an unanswerable question.

Non-essential question                                                  Essential Question
How do I sing in my head voice?
What is good singing?
Can you sing a question and answer pattern?
How can I manipulate sound, vibration, and silence?
How do I dance well?
How does my body respond to music, sound, and silence?
How can I improve in class?
How do we make music together?
To what extent to students meet instrumental expectations?
   How can I focus my attention on the right thing at the right time?
How do I read music?

How do I use essential questions?

Classroom organization
Choose 3-4 essential questions that apply to all the grade levels you teach and touch on all the areas of your curriculum.  Print these out using a computer or by hand and laminate them into posters and post them conspicuously in your teaching space.  If you are on a cart, have them on laminated pieces of construction paper so you can stick them on the board in whichever room you are in.  

Lesson Flow
At the end of each lesson ask the students "Which questions did we try to answer today?" or "Which question was the most important one when we worked on "Scarborough Fair?"   Students use the agenda you had on the board at the beginning of class to recall the activities of the lesson and pull the essential questions from that work.  

Grading
If you post "How do I read music?" on the board above the agenda.  Ask the students, "What do you think I'll write in my grade book after today's lesson?"  They should answer "A reading grade" or something similar.  If you get used to concentrating on one question per curriculum area and concentrate on one curriculum area in each lesson, the students can focus their attention on that.  You will still have movement, singing, and even instruments in a literacy lesson, but students need to be constantly reminded that today's focus is on literacy.  In this way you can dance as part of a singing assessment, play instruments in literacy, and literacy in singing!  

Student participation
Ultimately, students are responsible for their own minds.  They have to become lifelong learners by themselves.  We are merely coaches.    A good essential question usually applies to multiple curriculum areas.  You can ask students, "I'm looking for creative movement today, which questions should I focus on?"  Start a class discussion on this, then give the lesson you were going to do.  Did you focus on the same questions in your lesson that the students anticipated?  How were you different or similar to their expectations?  How would they plan a lesson using their essential question?  (very advanced thinking, be careful with that last one)

Practical Advice
If you are new to the practice of essential questions, go easy!  The most important person to convert is YOU.  Begin by putting your essential questions at the head of your lesson plan.  Circle a different one each week to begin to see how that question is influencing your practice.  After a year of this, you will have a clearer understanding of the place of essential questions in your teaching.  Only with a clear understanding of their use should you share them with students, post them, and make them public.  Otherwise, they become lip service to others and never seem natural to you.  You know that activities are only fun when you enjoy them.  Students pick up on your enthusiasm.  When you really own your essential questions and get excited about them, they will inspire your kids. 

The header of my lesson plan is below.  I need to thin out my questions.  I have too many.

Lesson for Grade______     Lesson #____
Essential Questions:
How do we make music together?   What is the history of music?  What is good singing? 
How does my body respond to music, sound, and silence?  How can I manipulate sound, vibration, and silence?    How do you read music?  How can I focus my attention on the right thing at the right time?

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