The Dreaded “What if…?” Question

I know that as teachers, we are supposed to believe that there is truly no such thing as a dumb question. But, I have learned the hard way that there can be such thing as a smart-ass question!

Every time I go through instructions with students, I get a number of kids who ask the “what if…?” question. The questions range from the plausible to the absurd to the downright annoying. Here is one I received recently about a narrative writing activity: “What if the character I want to explore does not have the ability to write, for instance they are an uneducated person or a slave?” This is a great question and I would have no problem helping a student develop a backstory to explain how this character could produce a letter. I might suggest that the character shared the story with a friend who did have the ability to write. Or, perhaps the person had limited writing skills, so the writing should contain the appropriate grammar/spelling mistakes to reflect this fact.

Other such questions are downright bizarre. “What if the character I choose is dead – like a person writing in their diary after they got killed in battle?” Um…..why would you choose a character who is dead? Indeed, just how is that person supposed to write a letter when they are dead?

One time, during a recent writing activity, a student asked me a particularly convoluted “what if..?” involving characters and their motivations. I got suspicious when I noticed the student smirked as she asked the question. I challenged her by asking “Are you actually thinking of doing that in your writing?” She responded with a no. So, I followed up with “Then why are you asking that question?” Clearly, something mischievous was at play here and action needed to be taken!

Be careful when opening the floor to questions. Keep your teacher radar on to ensure that the students are genuinely seeking clarification and not just a) looking for attention, or b) looking for weaknesses in your plans and trying to expose them to the class for the sake of embarrassing the teacher.

To solve these kinds of issues, I like to cut off questions the instant they start to slide into the ridiculous. I tell the students to raise their hands if they have questions and that I will speak to them one-on-one about their concerns. And, usually a large number of the questions disappear when students realize they have lost their audience. However, if the same legitimate question comes up again and again during these one-on-ones, you can and should address that particular issue with the entire class.

I enjoy student participation and believe students add much valuable insight to discussions. But, sometimes, the questions can derail discussions or take conversations/instructions away from reality and into the realm of silliness.

Keep your radar on and always be prepared to keep the focus on learning.

Hi 5!

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