Getting a Handle on KWL (pt. 3)

Today was a culminating day in our exploration of student-generated questions. (Please check out part 1 and part 2 of this discussion to get up to speed.)


I was a bit nervous for several reasons:

  • This is really uncharted territory for both me and the students. I had a pretty clear vision of what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know where things were going to get hung up, and I really wasn’t sure how the students were going to respond.
  • Things have been very disrupted recently. PSSAs last week and I was out of the classroom twice this week. Once for field trip and a second time for a unexpected family matter. Any break in routine automatically means lost time to get us back in the groove.
  • I invited my supervisor and our literacy coach to observe the lesson. (For what it’s worth, they both seemed generally pleased with what they saw. I will be following up with them next week for a debrief.)


But whatever, no guts no glory.

1. Students read over the list of questions they created and put a check mark next to any that they thought they could answer. Then, I gave them about ten minutes to compile their questions on this graphic organizer. I made a requirement that they needed at least 5-7 (depending on the class) questions for each side of the organizer. If they did not have enough questions for one or both of their columns, they could make up new questions on their own, or get additional questions from a partner.

2. We discussed the difference between “open” and “closed” questions. Closed questions are fact-based questions with one clear and uncontested answer. The answers are usually short and straightforward. Open questions are based more on opinion and interpretation, and have multiple possible correct answers. Students coded their questions with a (C) or (O) to represent closed or open. We discussed a few examples as a class, and the students could help other out with the coding. I think this is an important distinction for students to consider, but I also told them to not over think it when categorizing the questions.

3. Students picked their most important closed and open questions from both their “answered” and “unanswered” list.

  • Their “answered” questions will be used by the students on their test. That is, each student has created an individualized response section for their test.
  • Students may ASK me one question from their “unanswered” list. I will respond in writing when I grade their tests.


Here is the test that I am handing out tomorrow. Students will have two days in class, and extra time at home if necessary, to work on their responses. The test will be open notebook, they can refer to any materials we used during instruction. Students must cite the source of all of their facts. Responses can be typed or handwritten according to student preference.

Everyone must answer: (30 points) 

Summarize the French and Indian War. Be sure to include:

  • What caused the war?
  • What different groups were involved in the war? What were their motivations?
  • Where was the war fought?
  • In your opinion, what were the two most important battles and why?
  • How did the war end?
  • What were some major changes or effects of the war?

Pick one of the these: (20 points)

Mr. Walp says that the Native Americans were not important during the French and Indian War! Prove him wrong with multiple examples.

Mr. Walp says that the British had better military leaders than the French during the French and Indian War! Prove him wrong with multiple examples.

Do both of these: (20 points each)

Pick the most important fact question from your “answered” list.

  • Write the question.
  • What is the answer? (cite your facts…)
  • Why do you think that this is the most important fact question on your list?

Pick the most important opinion question from your “answered” list.

  • Write the question.
  • In your opinion, what is the answer? (cite your facts…)
  • Why do you think that this is the most important opinion question on your list?

On the back of your Question Organizer, write one question from your “unanswered” list that you want Mr. Walp to answer. (5 points)

Staple the Question Organizer to your test answers. (5 points)


My thoughts:

Timing during the lesson was very challenging for me. It felt as though I was trying to stretch out a 20 minute activity to fill a 40 minute period. Some of that was my own self-consciousness, like I don’t feel like I’m hitting my mark unless I push an aggressive timeline for the lesson. But I think it also had to do with the fact that I was not clear on my own goals. Was this a fairly straightforward administrative task, or a more complex analytic/discussion task? In the end, I defaulted to completing an administrative task with time to spare, rather than trying to have a deep discussion that was cut short because of lack of time.

Overall, I am very happy with this first run through. There were a lot of distractions during the unit, and I had to content with my own learning curve on the content. So all in all, it could have fallen apart in a lot of places.

I have to make a student reflection to get their feedback.

I think I am pushing them a bit for this test. There are just so many things I am asking them to keep track of at this point. For the most part, they are not losing points anymore for what they write, but rather losing points for what they forget to write (e.g., improper citations, lack of detail to support an argument).

One the one hand, it’s really cool to see them developing and growing as writers and junior historians, on the other hand, there are some students that just refuse to budge. No details. No opinions. No personal connections. No citations. Just a dogged regurgitation of the bare minimum of facts. No amount of coaching or feedback on my part seems to help at all.

    • Is it me? Have I been unclear about my expectations? Am I not reaching them? Should I structure things differently to help them?
    • Or is it them? Do they just not “get” it? Do they not care? Are they stubbornly abiding by an internal clock that regulates the amount of time they are willing to spend on an assignment, regardless of the outcome? Are there circumstances in their life that are negatively impacting their ability to do the work at a high level?
      • No doubt the answer is, as always, D. all of the above.


Go to KWL Student Reflections


Comments and feedback welcome!

Getting a Handle on KWL (pt. 2)

Yay…PSSA Week…might as well finish watching our movie.

However, this also seemed like an opportunity to have students continue their work creating and answering their own questions.

Rather than fall back on the ol’ low-ball “write 10 facts from the movie” routine, I instead asked students to write down 10 questions about the movie over the course of four days. I think this task is easier said than done, because students have to simultaneously listen and watch to get information. I reminded students to be as specific as possible to avoid questions like, “What was that guy talking about during that thing?”

So far so good after a few days. Engagement during class discussion seems to be higher in general. Although for the most part, there are only a few students that drive discussion by volunteering to share their questions, there have been a lot more students volunteering to answer questions. If nothing else, my students can’t stonewall me when I ask if anyone has questions.

So in solidarity with my students, I have some questions:

  • How much time do we spend collecting information to create questions vs. answering questions?
  • Should students only develop their own questions on their own, or should they work together to do it? Or both?
  • Who should spend more time answering the questions? Me? Their peers? Do I just keep throwing them back in until they figure it out on their own?
  • What about student questions that never get answered? What about AMAZING student questions that never get answered?

I don’t know the answers. I don’t think there are clear answers. But these are my thoughts so far:

  • At the moment I’m all fired up about student-generated questions, but it stands to reason that eventually getting answers to at least some of the questions is probably important too.
  • Creating a flexible structure is key.
  • Of course, the chief enemy is time.
  • Hooray for PLNs! Some awesome feedback from a connection on Edmodo directed me to a strategy I’d never heard of called Question Formulation Technique. It ties together a lot of ideas that were loosely bouncing around in my head. Although I feel like it’s a too late for steps one and two this time around, I can still easily incorporate steps three through six.

Step One: Create a prompt

The most effective prompts for this activity are statements that are focused clearly enough so that there is a direct link to the purpose of the lesson and are neutral enough so that students feel free to respond to the prompt. Many teachers use prompts that begin with stems such as “Your role/task is to…” or “You want to / A group wants to.” A prompt could also be a description of a class project.

Step Two: Students generate questions
In groups, give students a fixed amount of time (5-10 minutes) to generate a list of questions, adhering to these rules:

1)      Write down the questions exactly as they are said

2)      Do not stop to discuss or answer the questions

3)      Write down as many questions as you can

4)      Statements should be rephrased as questions.

Step three: Students identify open and closed questions
Ask students to look at their lists and put an “O” by all of the open-ended questions (questions with many possible answers) and a “C” by questions that elicit one answer (a “yes/no” question or a question with a factual answer).  Then, have students change one of their open questions into a closed question and one closed question into an open question.

 Step four: Students prioritize questions
Have groups select 3 questions from their list. It could be the three questions they find most interesting or important or the three questions that they think need to be addressed first.

 Step five: Groups share questions
When groups present their questions, ask them to share why they selected these three. The questions that the class generates can be used as the focus of a class discussion, a writing assignment, a research project, or as a tool to help you plan future lessons.

 Step six: Reflections
Give students the opportunity to reflect on this process by writing in a journal and/or through a brief discussion.

*This six-step summary is available for download at

 So here’s my checklist for the rest of the unit:

  • Spend some time in the textbook. We actually haven’t done that yet this unit. I also want to try out a new open-ended study guide format.
  • Take a day or two to regroup and reassess our KWL list. What do the students know now? Which of their questions have they answered? What questions do they have left?
    • Complete steps three, four and five from QFT.
    • Maybe give another day or two in the computer lab to let students do research to find more answers. I swear it feels like such a guessing game to figure out the best time to go to the computer lab. What I wouldn’t give for a 1-1 laptop classroom…
    • Develop an assessment plan to close out the unit.
      • Teacher-generated questions. What key questions do I want students to answer to ensure we address essential content? I am thinking of using a counter argument format. For example, “Mr. Walp says that the Native Americans were not important during the French and Indian War. Prove him wrong!”
      • Student-generated questions. Let students select a few questions they created AND answered during the unit. This should be a mix of closed and open questions. The most interesting part for me is that this will result in completely individualized tests, but it shouldn’t be any more challenging to grade than my current format which is almost exclusively based on essay responses at this point.
      • Mandatory reflection component.
        • What did students like/not like about creating their own questions? 
        • What was the most important question they had, that did not get answered? I could answer them back on their reflection. 
        • Suggestions for improvement.


Go to Part 3


Comments and feedback welcome!

Getting a handle on KWL

So for awhile now I have been trying to incorporate student-generated questions into instruction. The most common method for doing this that I am aware of is the “Know-Want to Know-Learned” (KWL) model. It probably has a lot of different names, but that is what is was called when I went to college. The basic model is a three column chart. Students list their existing knowledge in the KNOW column, create questions or make predictions in the WANT to know column, and track their learning over time in the LEARNED column.

Sounds great, right? Then why have I had such a hard time figuring out how to effectively incorporate a formal KWL into instruction?


Roadblocks to implementation:

1. Remember to do it. OK, so this one is totally on me. I guess I should add it to the collection of Post-It notes on my desk and computer monitor.

2. Make time to do it. Easier said than done, right? However, my sense is that process takes a full class period. Completing the first two columns (KNOW – WANT to know) works great as a class activity because it creates easy opportunities for Pair and Share collaboration and student driven class discussion.

3. Timing. This one is trickier than it might seem at first. The great fear is that students’ will just respond with a resounding “NOTHING!” for prior knowledge, which will lead inevitably to an equally enthusiastic “NOTHING!” for what else they want to learn…and then we all just stare at each other uncomfortably for a few minutes before I change the subject. I believe strongly that students need a chance to browse the topic before starting a KWL graphic organizer for two reasons.

  • First, it gives students a chance to actually develop prior knowledge. Yeah sure, most of the time students are “familiar” with a topic because they learned about it in a previous unit or grade level. But what about the kid that shockingly doesn’t remember a specific history unit from two or three years ago? What about the student that moved in the middle of the year, and his old school had a completely different curriculum? What if they just didn’t pay attention the last time they saw it? Give students a day or two to explore in the textbook or online. Show a video. Do something to help them access the memory banks, or generate new connections.
  • Second, I don’t think it is reasonable to ask students to generate their own questions for understanding, which is a task near the very top of the Bloom’s taxonomy, without giving them supports. They don’t know what they don’t know at first. But give them a little taste…and the questions come flying out. I have found that maps, particularly before and after maps, are incredibly useful to help students generate questions.

4. Make it meaningful (a.k.a Follow through). This is actually where I have stumbled the most. I have asked students to create and submit a list their own questions on multiple occasions…but then what? Now I have a big pile of questions. It’s too much information for me to process, which at least in part contributes to problem #1 and 2 for me. So, what usually happens is…nothing. I look at their questions. I feel super happy that they came up with awesome questions. I wonder what to do next. I don’t do anything with the questions. I have a vague sense of failure as a teacher.

Happily, I feel like I have finally connected the dots a little bit.

We are learning about the French and Indian War right now. Honestly, I came into the unit a bit disorganized. I spent so much time and energy on the slavery unit, that I just needed to take my foot off of the gas pedal for a few days and regroup. So, in true history teacher fashion, I decided it was the perfect time to watch a movie. The PBS documentary “War that Made America” is superb. Part One highlights the first two battles of the war, and prominently features George Washington. I started it about 8 minutes in, but it still ran slightly over one period.

We had a brief discussion after the movie about main groups that were fighting, and the different fighting styles that were used. In short, I asked the students to consider what the British have to do differently if they want to start winning some battles.

Then, I gave them a packet with some quick facts and two blank maps. I asked the students to try to find some patterns in the timeline. Typical answers included: the French won a lot in the beginning and the British won a lot in the end, they usually only fought during the summer months, and it looked like a lot of fighting happened in the year 1758. Then we colored in the before and after maps. I simply asked student to describe the difference between the two maps. Of course everyone pointed out how much territory changed, especially between England and France. (On a side note, I had a real “D’oh!” moment when I realized how much more sense it would have made to color British territory red and French territory blue. Oh well.)



French and Indian War map (After 1763)



Then we spent two days in the computer lab. I asked students to find answers to key questions using the French and Indian War resources posted on my page. Their homework after completing their initial research was to create three questions where they wanted to learn more information.

That brought us to today.

Walking in the door I asked the students to summarize what they knew about the French and Indian War in 3-5 sentences. They could use their notes to help. Class discussion to fill out the “Know” column on a T-chart on the white board was quick and painless. All five classes generally came up with the same basic facts.

The British were fighting against the French.

They fought over land.

They were fighting over the Ohio River Valley.

Native Americans fought for both sides.

There were more Native Americans fighting for the French than the British.

George Washington was a British officer.

France won a lot of battles at first.

The British won the war.

France lost most of its land in North America.

It was also called the Seven Years War.

Cool so far. To keep the mental juices flowing, I then asked students to categorize each fact as “France” “America/British” “Native American” or “Other”. They could use more than one category for each, but I preferred if they picked just one, otherwise we would quickly fall into an “all of the above” trap. I clarified that it didn’t matter which category they used, as long as they could explain why (The fact that it was also called the Seven Years War was a prime example of the “other” category).

Then we moved on the “WANT to know” column. I asked them to take a few seconds and categorize the questions they made for homework into the same groups (French, American/British, Native American, Other). They then had ten minutes talk with anyone in the class to complete a task sheet to find 8-10 (depending on the class) questions, including the three questions they already had from their homework. Finally, I asked the students to identify the two most important questions on their list with a star. The last ten or so minutes of class was spent taking volunteers to share their questions for the T-chart. This is where it really felt like everything was paying off, they came up with terrific questions.

Sample of student questions:

Did Britain and France always fight?

How many people died?

How many people died for each group?

How did the British win?

Why was the Battle of Quebec important?

Did France ever go on the offense in the war?

Why did the British fight differently from the French and Indians?

Were the Native American axes more powerful than guns?

Why did the Native Americans have guns?

Why did more Native Americans fight with the French?

What happened to the Native Americans after the war?

What is Pontiac’s Rebellion?

How did George Washington become a British officer?

Why did George Washington fight for the British in French and Indian War and against the British in the American Revolution?

Why did France help America during the American Revolution?

Why did Spain help France?

What if France had won the war?

How was the rest of Europe impacted by the war?

What if more Native Americans had fought for the British?

How did the colonies deal with all the new land they got from winning the war?


I did a few things during this discussion that I think were really important to help it be more successful than in the past.

  • I did NOT try to answer the questions. Usually I get so caught up in “teacher mode” that I just start lecturing. I think that tendency is a killer for this activity because it means we only get to hear a couple of questions and I step on my own toes by making later lessons and activities redundant.
  • I had the students keep their question sheet rather than turn in it for me to put in a pile on my desk. Now they always have their questions ready to go for study or discussion. I haven’t tried it yet, but I think an effective closure for a lesson would be to have them re-read their list and check off any questions we answered that day.
  • I made them promise to keep me honest. The students kept their list of questions for later reference (This was not a graded assignment). Our goal is to find the answers to their questions before the end of the unit. If they find their answers as a natural result of lessons in the unit, great! If not, make sure to ask me, or another student, again later on. It seems like this will create a cool infrastructure for class discussions throughout the unit. When in doubt, check the list.

I feel pretty hopeful about the elusive KWL finally working out for me. I’ll have to ask the students for their perspective to be sure. Just for kicks, I also want to somehow incorporate their questions into the unit assessment as well. More on that later I guess.

Go to Part 2



Comments and feedback welcome!

Themes in History: Colonial America




One of my favorite conceptual models is to have students categorize historical facts into themes. I stress three major themes throughout the year, Politics, Economy, and Culture. Of course, it takes a while to get them to the point where they can reliably do that on their own. The first time I introduce the concepts is usually with a graphic organizer, where I give them all of the information, and we are just examining one culture or region. Usually by the third unit, most of the students are ready reliably try it on their own.

We are currently studying the pre-Revolutionary era in the American colonies. This time period is tough for the students to grasp, because there are relatively few large-scale events to define it. But it does provide a great opportunity to compare the three different colonial regions using our themes of Politics, Economy, and Culture.

I reserved a week for students to complete their basic research.

Day One: I introduce the topic, and go over the supporting materials. I provide them with the following:

  • A task sheet.
  • A packet of three graphic organizers, one for each region.
  • A reference list of the types of information that go into each category. I like to check their understanding by having them work in partners to think of specific examples from previous units that fit each category.
  • A textbook index. We used three texts and an atlas for this particular project.

Yeah, it was a lot of stuff, and to be honest, I wanted to overwhelm them a little bit. Part of their task was just to keep track of all their information and resources.

Day Two – Three: Students worked individually or in small groups to conduct their research. My job was mainly to put out fires on their first day of research. By the second day of research, they were basically up to speed and in the groove. At that point, it was pretty boring for me to be honest :).

Day Four: Pause, reflect, and prep for the group activity. This was also a great chance for students to catch up from being absent.

  • I asked students to select their “most important” fact for each theme in each region. For example, the most important political, economy, and culture fact for New England, etc. Students just put a star next to each selection.
  • Then I divided them into three different working groups (I like to use poker chips for group selection) to represent each region.
  • Once in their new groups, I handed out strips of color index cards. Each region had it’s own color (Red = New England, Yellow = Middle Colonies, Blue = South Colonies). Each student got three cards of the same color (I purchased packs of 5×8 and cut them down), and I asked them to write their three most important facts for that region. Once they finished I collected all of the cards.
  • Finally, students completed a reflective journal about their experiences with their research. I love reflective journaling, and use it for almost every activity we do.

Day Five: Group activity. During the previous days of collecting information, I asked students to keep four spaces free on each of their three graphic organizers. On the last day, the students were required to fill in those blanks using work from other students.

  • As students came in, I asked them to go back to their working groups from the previous day to make it easier to return their index cards.
  • Then, they posted their cards on the board in thematic categories (Politics, Economy, Culture).
  • Finally, the students were able to rotate around and collect the rest of their information.

Colonial Regions and Themes

Colonial Regions and Themes

Colonial Regions and Themes

Colonial Regions and Themes

All in all I felt it was a pretty successful activity. Due to the time required, I wouldn’t do it every unit though. Next week, I’ll need to do one or two days of lecture to tie things together for the big picture. But I am most looking forward to facilitating a student debate using the themes. I have found in the past, that one of the greatest benefits of thematic mental models, is that they create natural frameworks for debate. For example, is slavery political, economic, or cultural? Of course, it is all three, but that’s the point. Now the students can argue a point of view rather than factual “correctness”.


Comments and feedback welcome!