The One Question All Teachers Should Ask Their Students

The One Question All Teachers Should Ask Their Students


In fifth grade, my final project for the book, Bridge to Terabithia, was to build a bridge. Not to write a paper responding to a question that a teacher had written, but to get into groups of three and build a bridge sturdy enough to support three pounds without breaking.

Why was this our final project? Not because I was in a STEM-based classroom but because my conventional, test-focused public school had hired a woman--her name was Ms. Browne--who knew that our schools raise our children.

There’s a reason parents freak out on the first day of kindergarten: From now on, their kids will be taught by other people for 6 to 10 hours a day. What the kids do in those hours--what they’re told, who they talk to, what they create--will help determine who they become. Ms. Browne wanted us to become bridge-builders, in more ways than one. So every day after recess, we splayed out on the floor and played with straws, popsicle sticks, cardboard, and graph paper. And Ms. Browne crouched with us on the tiles, trying to protect us from the hot glue gun.

That year, the popular games to play at recess were all run by one classmate of mine, who was elementary school royalty. Soon after we started the project, this girl--let’s call her Kylie--began recruiting other kids from our grade to pretend that I did not exist. During the day, they would look vaguely over my left shoulder when I spoke; at recess, they gathered in clumps and whispered about the “empty” playground, even though I was standing only a few feet away.

It still amazes me when people say that they would choose to be invisible if they could have any superpower. I can’t imagine wishing to be looked through ever again. (Except right now. A little bit.)

Soon after this began, I started to doubt very much whether I had anything worthwhile to say. I started to disappear.

One day after lunch, Ms. Browne was helping our group solve a fiasco: One side of our bridge had collapsed and we had to figure out what was wrong with it. Kylie, of course, was the group leader, so I played with a discarded straw while she and our teacher talked.

I remember noticing Ms. Browne’s glasses, which were black-rimmed and came together in little pinches at the corners, the same way her eyes did when she smiled. I loved those glasses. And suddenly they were pointing at me, and her eyes were on my face, kind and inquiring.

“Tess,” she said, “What do you think?”

What a powerful question.

I had no idea what was wrong with our bridge, of course. I’d been thinking about her glasses. But still, I was suddenly visible. She saw me. And she was listening.

So I studied the bridge at our feet more carefully. The cardboard on the right side kept crumpling under the weight, no matter how many reinforcements we added. Maybe cardboard was just too weak. Maybe we needed a new building material altogether.

“I think we should try making the base out of popsicle sticks instead,” I said. My voice cracked mid-sentence.

Ms. Browne grinned, and her eyes crinkled. “Try it,” she suggested, and winked.

So we tried, and it worked. When exam day arrived, our bridge was one of the few that passed the three-pound test. But honestly, what I learned from that project wasn’t that I wanted to be an engineer. I learned instead that I had the right to be seen.

Just like me, all kids need to be empowered, to be the engineer of their own worlds. Whatever the future of education is--whether adding reinforcements will be enough or whether we have to rebuild our base out of popsicle sticks--I hope we won’t forget that far more than test scores and college acceptances, the purpose of our schools is this: To help all of our students find a voice in the face of the forces that are trying to tell them that they don’t matter. To give them the courage and the opportunity to use that voice. And to listen to it, even if it says something we aren’t expecting.

Let’s ask them, “What do you think?” and watch their faces--and futures--change when they realize that they are being seen.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Tess Ross-Callahan is a first-year student at Tufts University. She gave this talk at the LearnLaunch conference (#LearnLaunch15) in Boston on a snowy Saturday in January. Get more information on the LearnLaunch conference from EdSurge CEO Betsy Corcoran's coverage here.

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