Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

During my first year of teaching high school, I had a class after lunch that was almost comically chaotic and difficult. Every 50-minute period was like an episode in a bad teenage movie. The students had their own agendas, didn’t seem to like each other, or me, or books, or school.

What, I wondered, would happen if I set up an anonymous system for students to share what was going on inside them? If they could just see how everyone was struggling with the same problems, I thought, maybe they would develop a bit of empathy for each other.

This tiny seed of an idea grew into fourteen years of work in helping children voice the questions they carry inside them but rarely ever talk about. I’m not a philosophy teacher, nor was I ever trained to be one, but I wondered if I could incorporate questions inspired by it.

At its best, philosophy invites inquiry, normalizes the uneasy feeling of not knowing something, and encourages thinking and discussion — exactly what I needed my students to practice.

(More context for how and why I began using this kind of questioning is in Episode 88 of the Talks With Teachers podcast)

This idea traveled with me during my year of service as 2015 National Teacher. In a special partnership with the U.S. Department of State, I visited the Middle East as an ambassador of American teaching.

Even though I’d never met them, the senior class at the American Jerusalem High School in Jerusalem was willing to play along. We gathered in an auditorium, and as I looked at the 200 assembled students, I felt a wave of insecurity wash over me. But I opened the lesson the same way I did at my high school: by sharing a personally meaningful story with my own questions.

“Before I was a teacher, I was a reporter and I covered some really sad and scary things,” I told them. “And some of them, I don’t think I’ll ever forget — especially when they happened to children. I accept that bad things happen to good people. That’s just the way of the world.”

They stopped fidgeting.

“What I can’t seem to accept is when good things happen to bad people,” I continued. “Why do some people ‘get away with it’? Why are some people never made to answer for what they do to others? I don’t know that I’ll ever get a good answer, but it’s a question that haunts me.”

“What about you? What are the questions that stay with you? What haunts you? Or makes you sad? Or makes you angry? Or just confuses you no matter how much you try to think about it?”

By this point, they were silent. I could see that they were considering whether or not to trust this strange woman from the United States.

“I’ve asked your teachers to give everyone a piece of paper. I’d love to know what your questions are,” I said. “What are the things you’ve kept inside you that you’ve been afraid to ask? Would you mind sharing them with me? If you want to, please write them on the paper.”

An engaged quiet settled over the room as they began writing. I exhaled. They were repeating the behavior I’d seen in my own classes.

What I’m sharing here is an abridged version of this lesson. Part of the reason the room gets quiet, I think, is because of a willingness to be authentic and vulnerable with our own authentic questions. I share my own frustrations with the difficult nature of justice, which is also an engaging topic for teenagers.

After a few minutes, I stopped the students and asked who wanted to share. So many hands went up that the administrators were startled.

“Why is there so much intolerance in the world?”
“Is it ever okay to tell a lie?”
“Why do we equate money with success? Are there other ways to be successful?”

Their teachers were as surprised as I was. “We will definitely be talking about these in class today,” one of them told me. As I was leaving the school, an older teenage girl stopped me and said, “I just want to give you a hug and say thank you for listening to us.”

When we worry that students want more technology or games or for our lessons to be more fun, maybe what they really need is just for us to listen to them and trust the intellectual power inside them.

The Why of This Lesson:

This process helps students think about the questions that really matter to them, draws out those questions and makes them explicit. You can then use those questions as a base for the work of your classroom. With this base, you can help students link what they are deeply curious about to what you need to teach. This link makes the work of learning explicit and engaging for students of various ability levels.

Starting the Process

The conditions you need are the following:

• A sacred space for writing and thinking
• A culture of respect, kindness, and openness to new ideas
• A comfort with discussion and basic facilitation skills
• A willingness to listen down deep to teenagers

If you haven’t yet established these, hold off on using this lesson. The culture supporting the kind of trust and vulnerability for this lesson is critical. Without it, the lesson is an empty “strategy” that will gather mostly shallow responses.

Generating Students’ Authentic Questions Protocol

• A reading or personal story to open the session
• A timer of some kind
• Quiet
• Index cards (enough so that each student gets one)


Ten minutes — This time is to allow for a mini-lesson format that will fit into any secondary schedule. You may extend the time, if needed, for double-blocked classes, but keeping time short will produce better quality work.


There are many problems in our world right now — problems with how we treat each other, problems with how we share the earth, problems with technology, problems with money, problems with families, and many others. These problems, if we think about them, make us ask questions like the following:

• How should we live?
• Who am I?
• Why was I born?
• What can we know?

And so many other questions. People have wondered about these questions for a long time, so if you think about these things, you are not alone. In school, we don’t often take the time to think about deep and serious questions, but what if we did? If you could ask the smartest person in the world questions, what would you ask?

Don’t write your name on the cards; these are anonymous, so you can write honestly. Write down the questions that you would like to ask the smartest person in the world. Write as many questions as you can. Don’t stop to talk about them, worry about them, or try to answer them. Just write the questions as fast as you can.

After five minutes, ask students to fold cards in half for privacy and then collect them. You can use these as hooks into the content you will be reading, or topics you’ll be studying. More ideas are available in my book.

You can preview it for free here Think Like Socrates: Using Questions to Invite Wonder & Empathy Into the Classroom, Grades 4–12.

Modified and cross-posted from Ap Lit Help.

Newly minted Harvard Ed.L.D. | 2015 National Teacher of the Year | Author: Think Like Socrates | Otter enthusiast