Make Curiosity Your Best Friend

A few years ago, my colleague Jennifer Serravallo, author of The Writing Strategies Book and several other wonderful resources for teachers, wrote a blog post entitled, “A Close Reading of Kids: Teaching Reading Like a Scientist.”  In that post, Serravallo shares a bit about her background growing up in a “science family.”  This experience, she explains, shaped her thinking as a teacher.  As teachers of reading, for example, Jen recommends we really study our kids.  “Approach them like scientists,” she writes.  She encourages us to bring a sense of “wonder and amazement” to our teaching. Be curious!  “A curious teacher,” Serravallo explains, “isn’t [some]one [that’s] just going through the moves of…workshop…[Rather] she’s trying to figure out what it’s going to take to really move each and every child.”

This post has continued to stay with me long after I read it, and I can honestly say this thinking has become part of my work with both teachers and students.  Also, I’ve realized that, as a young teacher, I sometimes made assumptions about my students that may not have been based in reality.  Of course, this is human to do so.  We all make assumptions at times. But when it comes to teaching writing, what if we replaced the act of making assumptions with curiosity?  What if we worked to make curiosity our best friend in our teaching?  A few places to look might be in writing behaviors, volume, and habits:

  • Writing Behaviors – Some kids puzzle us with their writing behaviors.  For example, there are sometimes those who don’t seem to be able to complete much writing in class during independent work time.  Curiosity says, ‘What’s in the way?’  Sometimes it can be the topic.  As Dr. Mary Ehrenworth from the Teachers College Reading & Writing Project once said, “Knowledge problems can quickly look like writing problems.”  As teachers, we can spend a little time being curious: how did this writer come to select this topic?  Is this topic one for which the writer already possesses adequate knowledge? In middle school, I have met many writers who, well, “like” their writing topic, but really do not know much about it.  Or sometimes writers choose a story to tell, but not one that holds much promise as far as story structure or payoff.  In cases where we perhaps notice avoidance or lack of productivity, conferring early and often about writing topic can pay huge dividends.  As Lucy Calkins once said to me, “We must get to the most desperate situations first.”  Bringing a spirit of curiosity to a conference might mean conversations that begin with, “I’m curious about why you chose this particular topic…?” and really working to get to the core of a writer’s interest.  Finding out and supporting a writer in figuring out what they really want to say can sometimes mean the difference between avoidance behaviors and truly invested writing.
  • Volume –  In my work with teachers and students around New England and other parts of the country, one wondering that springs up rather predictably is around writers who do not seem able (or willing) to produce much volume, even if they seem to have selected the “right” topic.  Again, curiosity says, ‘What’s in the way for this writer?’ My own fascination with these writers often leads me to invite them into a strategy that involves a bit of competition.  As one of my mentors Chris Lehman once taught me, we can ask writers, “How far down this page do you think you can write in, say, six minutes? Let’s place an X there. [Pause]. Okay, ready, set, go!”  More often than not, this simple strategy helps to unlock something for these writers, and they are able to produce beyond what they typically have in the past.  And once there is something on paper, we are able to take the next step as a curious teacher: “What can I teach this writer about structure? Elaboration? Craft?”
  • Writing Habits – What about writers who struggle with getting into the habit of writing regularly?  Being curious might prompt us to wonder about the best medium for a writer- would it go better with paper and pencil?  Is a digital platform getting in the way of creativity?  Or is the digital platform perhaps better?

Being a curious teacher (or coach) means taking on the stance of a researcher, a researcher who brings the curiosity of a scientist to his or her professional practice.  In the blog post referenced above, Jennifer Serravallo quotes the poet Nancy Willard who once said, “Sometimes questions are more important than answers.” By being the kind of writing teachers whose curiosity drives work our forward, we likely might end up with more questions than answers.  But I would assert that formulating questions about our kids is healthy.  In a recent article entitled, “The Surprising Power of Questions” published in the Harvard Business Review, authors Alison Brooks and Leslie John write about the value of natural inquisitiveness and questions.  According to recent research cited in the article, “Asking a lot of questions unlocks learning and improves interpersonal bonding.”

So this year, let’s make curiosity our best friend.  It might be interesting to see where that takes us…