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  • Pam Koutrakos

Two Magic Words: "What Else?"

Flashback to the year 2000: As a starting teacher, the principal met with me almost every week. . . for a full hour. Her questions always got at what I did, why I did it, and how it went. And then after a pause, she’d kindly look me and ask, “What else could you have done?” This follow-up question intimidated the heck out of me at first, and I imagine my responses initially were halting half-sentences of generalities; my 20-something year-old self couldn’t quite process where she was leading me. Overtime, I got that hang of it but back then I couldn’t have known what a life-changing gift the principal gave me.

What Else?

Being asked these two magic words over and over. . .

  • fostered an enduring habit of reflection.

  • trained me to always know the purpose and “why” behind my instructional decisions.

  • taught me to remain curious about the impact of any decision I make, and own it, and name it.

  • gave me the confidence to consider what else I could have done that might have lead a learner or learners to a different result—not necessarily a “better” result, but a different one.

Seventeen years later, I constantly ask myself, “What else?” It’s what made me a reflective practitioner, and helped me realize that when instruction and learning went well, it was not luck. It was me. No longer did I proclaim “phew” when a lesson went well or when a student showed growth.

If you suspect too much of your teaching is done on a wing and a prayer, following are a few common, simple moments in the classroom when you can ask “What else?” in order to develop a deeper well of expertise. And doing this only takes minutes—I promise!

When you plan: Asking “What else?” as I plan a lesson or learning experience nudges me to think through the endless what ifs, and even if I don’t jot them down, I feel better prepared to be responsive to what might arise. What else might engage my students? What else might I pair this (story, inquiry question, etc.) with to make the content multimodal? What else might be a big leap for some during this lesson? What else can I do to scaffold them? What else might I ask students to get them thinking about this idea?

When you model: Often when I demonstrate, I ask, “What else?” and think aloud what comes to mind. When students see me asking myself this question, they see my choice-making in action and it helps them learn how to make an informed decision too. For example, I might say, “What else might help me figure out what this word means? What else could I do to picture the scenario in this word problem? What else might spark my readers’ interest at the start of this piece?”

When you confer: Sometimes, in my well-intentioned haste to meet with as many learners as possible, I teach the first thing I see instead of what might be more fruitful as a next step. By taking extra time to see what else students need, I prioritize my teaching. For example, if I see a student writer has a grasp of dialogue and is ready to try inner thinking, I might listen a bit more to what the student is trying and realize teaching something else (perhaps infusing a message or lesson throughout the narrative piece) will actually take him farther.

After something goes well: Just because something worked this time with this group of learners doesn’t mean it will work another at another time, in another place, or with other learners. Even when a lesson, a period or an entire day goes well, I find it is valuable to consider other avenues I could have gone down, and how something might have gone even better. For example, I recently did an Interactive Read Aloud where I modeled and fostered thinking about reading, speaking, and listening. After I listened to partner turn & talks, I reported back to the class what I heard. However, I later asked myself what else I could have done in the lesson, and decided that next time, I’d invite several students to share what they heard their partner say, to more explicitly promote intent, active listening and students’ speaking.

After something crashes and burns: I’m being deliberately informal here to underscore that we have got to stop beating ourselves up so much when things go south. If a lesson or day doesn’t go well (which, if we are honest, happens to all of us on a pretty consistent basis) asking “What else?” will help us develop a growth mindset about our practice. For example, last week I I modeled a new word study routine and then had the first graders try it in small groups. Noisy chaos ensued. If I were a driver’s ed teacher, those kids would have been completely off-road. So, as I drove home, I asked, “What-else?” and by the time I reached my driveway, I knew just how I’d support students over three sessions before expecting independence.

Through this regular practice, I also built another habit. I began to ask “What else?” to students as a means to get them to say more, think sideways, and in general get comfortable considering a range of options before, during, and after a learning experience. I’ll share how to get this going with the students you teach in my next blog, so look for it within the week!

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