Asking the Right Questions


Notes from the Backpack

Episode 108 │Asking the "Right" Questions

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

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Show Notes

Luz Santana

What questions should you be asking to get the information you need when you communicate with your child’s teacher? Are certain questions “better” than others? We turn to Luz Santana, co-director of the Right Question Institute to learn how to prepare questions that will produce meaningful and helpful answers. She shares how parents can go beyond the typical, “How is my child doing?” to spark more in-depth conversations. We also get her advice on common issues families have and how asking the right questions can improve these situations!


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What questions do you ask your child’s teacher when you want to get to the heart of the matter? Share with us on social media using #BackpackNotes.




Transcript (Disponible en Español)


Intro: Welcome to "Notes from the Backpack," a PTA podcast. This series features real conversations with real experts, real parents, and real educators so families can get the real behind-the-scene story on what's happening in education. Get the inside scoop on how to help your child become successful in and out of school. As parents, we know that your child can sometimes forget to share the notes from their backpack. They tell you everything that's happening at their school. That's why we've launched this podcast just for you. Welcome to "Notes from the Backpack," a PTA podcast.

LaWanda: Hi, everyone. I am LaWanda Toney, Director of Communications at National PTA, and you're listening to "Notes from the Backpack," a PTA podcast. Today, we're gonna share how to ask your child's teacher the right questions. We want to make sure you have the answers you need about your child's academic success.

Helen: Hi, there, and I'm your co-host, Helen Westmoreland, National PTA's Director of Family Engagement. We're excited to dive into this topic today because we know parents have so many questions about their child's education. We have questions for our kids. We have questions for our teachers. We have questions for our counselors, and many more. But as parents, you don't always get the answers you want with the questions you give. Why not? It really starts with developing and asking the right questions.

LaWanda: Helen, it's a good thing we have Luz Santana, co-director of the Right Question Institute, with us today. She's definitely gonna help us educate families about the right and wrong ways to ask questions. Luz Santana is a mother who has spent the last 30 years with students, families, schools, in low-income communities. Her work is dedicated to helping educators build effective partnerships with parents and families. She is also the co-author of "Make Just One Change," and "Partnering with Parents to Ask the Right Questions."

Helen: Luz, thank you for joining us today.

Luz: Well, thank you for having me.

Helen: We are so excited to talk to you. Could we just start off, Luz? Will you tell us a little bit about your journey in education? What got you started working with families and where are you today?

Luz: Today, I'm the co-director of the Right Question Institute. I do work in education with educators so they will build a stronger partnerships with families. That's now. Before, I am an immigrant from the Caribbean. And when I came to the United States, the mainland, I could not put together straight a sentence in English. And this is why I know how important it is for parents to be able to ask questions and to participate in their children's education even if they don't know the language. What I have been doing here at the Right Question Institute is basically learning from families. So, we were working in a prevention program with immigrant and low-income families. And about a thousand times, we heard that the parents were not going to the schools because they didn't even know what questions to ask. So, the parents identify an obstacle to their participation. And then, we gave them the questions to learn that it was not about giving the questions, but it was about developing the skill so they could ask questions in all kinds of settings and situations. And what we have done over the years is to distill the components that are essential to effectively and quickly build the skill of question formulation.

LaWanda: So, you talked a little bit about question formulation. And a lot of times, when parents go into a parent-teacher conference, I think the first question that comes out of your mouth is, "How's my kid doing?" Is that the right question?

Luz: The right question is the question that you want to ask depending on what you want to know. So very often, you will ask very simple questions and that is the question that will allow you to get important information. I think that "How is my child doing?" can go deeper because you want to learn more than that. You want to know if the child is making progress, if he's meeting the expectations, if he's learning at the level that he or she should be learning, and much more. When you ask the question, "How is my child doing?" the answer that you might get is, "He's doing well," "He's doing good." You want to know more than that. So, you want to ask a question that will allow you to get more information.

Helen: Luz, could you give an example of how the question formulation technique is used by parents?

Luz: The question formulation technique is a step-by-step process that allows parents to think about many different questions. There are some rules in the technique in which the parents ask as many questions as they can without trying to answer or judge them. In the process of producing questions, they need to write the questions exactly as they come to mind. Then, they work on different kinds of questions. They look at those questions that can be answered with yes or no, or with one word. And they also look at those questions that need an explanation. And it's interesting because when you post the question, "How is my child doing," that can be a closed question because that can be answered with just one word.

Helen: And that word is usually "fine"?

Luz: Good.

Helen: Or, like, "Hmm, so-so?"

Luz: So, in the process, once the parents work with the different kinds of questions and they realize that depending on how they ask the question is the response that they will be receiving, they work on prioritizing the questions. As you know, if you have 20 questions, it is almost impossible that in a meeting with the teacher, the teacher will be able to address all 20. Usually, we recommend that the parents will choose three questions that they want to get answered first or that they would like to discuss first. As a last step, they think about the work that they did, what they learned, and how can they use what they learned further.

Helen: I'm interested, Luz, to hear more about what the impact of that question formulation technique is.

Luz: Very often, parents are invited in an interaction with the teacher to ask any questions that they have. So, what the question formulation technique does, it gives parents a tool so they will prepare their questions ahead of time and choose the most important ones. I have been working with groups in which once the parents go through the process, they realize that there is a burning question that they wished to ask but that they never felt that they had the license to ask. A group brought parents together for a dinner and they decided to use the meeting to build skills. It was just an amazing experience, mostly Latino parents, Spanish-speaking. And the parents came with their children.

They sat around a table to work and produce questions around a specific topic. There were even parents sitting in the floor. And there was a parent who, through the process, she said, "Oh, I have a meeting tomorrow at my child's school. I didn't know what I was going to talk about there. And now, I have the questions." So, she had a series of questions that she wanted to ask, but she wanted to ask them the next day because she had no preparation for the meeting. It is likely that she was going to go and then have a conversation unless, again, without the information. So, parents feel that they should be asking questions, that asking questions is a way of communicating better with the teachers and to also begin to build a partnership.

LaWanda: So, it sounds like you gotta be prepared. You have to come in and start thinking about what questions you wanna ask your teacher prior to the parent-teacher conference. Sit down, write your questions down, and then take a look at them to see if they're open-ended or if they're closed. And you want more open-ended questions. And then from there, go into the parent-teacher conference being more prepared and more confident about being able to ask questions because sometimes it can be intimidating.

Luz: One thing about the close and open-ended questions is that both types of questions are good and useful depending on what you want to know. Sometimes, what you want to do is to ask a close-ended question because you want that yes, no, one-word answer to pose the next question. And that's contrary to a common belief that the open-ended are better than the close-ended. So, one of the great things about our process is that it allows parents, wherever they are, to start asking their questions. Sometimes the push for open-ended, it is more work initially. So, they feel comfortable asking both types of questions, and that's an okay thing to do.

LaWanda: I'm glad that you were able to dispel that myth. Some close-ended questions are good.

Luz: Yes.

Helen: Because sometimes, you probably just need to know, like, what's the answer? Give me the yes, no, green light, red light. Because from there, you can ask more of some of those probing questions, like you're talking about, Luz.

Luz: Even with that example that we began with, "How is my child doing?" "Well." So what do you mean by "well," right? How would you define "well?"

Helen: That's a good one. What would you say to parents who feel that it's threatening or intimidating to ask questions of teachers?

Luz: Very often, people think, okay, but the questions can be threatening. Well, a couple of things happen when parents go through the question-asking process and they prioritize the questions. I have seen that very often, there is a situation, an unpleasant situation at the school, and initially, the parent is all upset. When they formulate their questions, they realize not only what they want to focus on but they also realize that if they go to the school and the question is not presented, what I will say the right way, rather than helping, you know, there will be more problems and more challenges in establishing the partnerships. So, one of the things that parents have said over and over is that the question formulation process or working with their own questions allows them to pull out the better questions and also to deal with all the emotion and all those questions that might not help with the partnership. Because bottom line is that they want the best for their children. They want the school to be able to help the child. And, you know, they want to play a role as well.

LaWanda: What happens when you have a teacher or an environment that's not open to questions? What can parents do?

Luz: They can find different ways of presenting their questions. So they might not have the face-to-face meeting, but they might be able...yeah, you know, and this will work especially for parents who have had negative experiences and who are sort of afraid of going to the schools. There are other ways of communication. They can set up a telephone call. They can get help from other school staff who might be able to help get the questions to a teacher. And then, there is all the technology today that people are using. Now, that might not change the behavior of the teacher who doesn't welcome questions. But, at least, if the parent gets the question somehow to the teacher, is a way of holding him or her accountable. I think that the important thing here is for the parents to get that license and to feel that it is okay to ask the questions regardless of the outcome. And they should also be prepared. Okay, so there would be situations in which you will not get answers to your questions and you will get the runaround. But that's why also you develop the skill. They should develop the skill so they could ask the questions in a different way.

LaWanda: We have a couple of scenarios that we reached out to parents about questions or scenarios that they've had and we want some help with them. Do you mind if I read a couple and then you can try to give us some advice on the right question to ask in this scenario?

Luz: Okay.

LaWanda: Okay. So, here we go. "I'm worried my second grader isn't making friends at school. When I ask her teacher about how she's doing socially, the teacher just says that she is not worried about my daughter and she's a nice kid who'll be fine." How can this parent get the information they need from this conversation?

Luz: So, is the parent the one who said that this child is not making friends?

LaWanda: Yes. She's worried about it.

Luz: And the teacher says that she is not worried about it?

LaWanda: Yes. The teacher responded and said, "I'm not worried about it. Your kid is a nice kid."

Luz: Okay. So, you know how very often we talk that parents know best because they really know their children.

LaWanda: Oh, yeah.

Luz: So, the parent is bringing a real concern. So, I will ask, what makes you not worry? What have you observed about my child socializing with other children? Is she the only one in the classroom who is not socializing well? At what point should we worry?

LaWanda: Those are great. I like those a lot.

Helen: At what point should we worry, yeah.

Luz: But now, let me do something. So, what questions would you ask in this situation?

Helen: I think I'm just gonna say all the ones you asked.

Luz: There are many more. Because, first of all, one of the things in asking questions initially is to understand what the situation is and to ask questions that will get the perspective of the teacher, because there must be reasons why the teacher is not worrying.

Helen: I just thought of one you could ask, like, "Who do see my child socializing with during the day?" Like, "Who are their friends during the school day?"

Luz: Thank you.

Helen: Okay. So, I have another scenario for you. I know you have not only done work with parents, but you've also done work with teachers and students. And so, I'm curious, with the student hat on, I wanna know how my fifth grader feels about school but anytime I say, "What do you think about school," the answer is always, "Fine," right? And I think, as parents, we get the answer "Fine" a lot even sometimes when it's not fine. What kind of questions should this parent be asking of their own child?

Luz: In that situation, I go back to the child defining what is fine, how is the school day? What are some activities that you are doing? What are you liking from school? And I will also do it as an exercise in which the child will be sort of forced to be the one producing the questions. So, I will turn it over to the child. We can do, like, an exercise even that the child can refuse to do that. But let me tell you what a teacher in New Hampshire has done.

A fourth-grade teacher in New Hampshire, she uses the question formulation technique with students to deliver classroom content. And after she used the process with students, she decided to use the process with parents as well. And the way that she does it is that she first teach the student how to go through the process of asking questions. And then, she gives an assignment in which the students use questions, produce questions to interview the parent around the topic of heritage. The students also teach the parent the process, how to go about asking questions. They have a topic. They have the parent producing questions, working with different kinds of questions, prioritizing and reflecting.

And done deal, the students come back to the classroom with their assignment. When it gets close to parent-teacher conferences, the teacher sends a reminder to the parent asking them to come prepare with questions that they want to ask. And if the parent comes without the questions, she sets aside three to four minutes so they will have to produce the questions on the spot. And that has been very, very effective for her in helping the parent and the student engage in questioning and working, so they will find that that's something that is okay to do.

Now, it is not all the solution to that isn’t for students to everything say "fine" but it is a starting point to start breaking that barrier of communication through the whole process.

LaWanda: Thank you, Luz for coming in and sharing all this great advice today. What is one thing parents should walk away with?

Helen: Yeah. If you could tell parents one thing, what would it be?

Luz: I will say to...all the time to figure out how they are supporting their children, how are they monitoring what they are learning and how they are doing in school, and think about those situations in which there is a need to advocate for their child. And then to formulate the questions that they want to get answer or that they want to explore, and to do that ahead of time, not to wait until, you know, there is an issue, that there is a problem. Use the questions to communicate with the teachers. Because very often, teachers might be thinking the parents don't have to questions because I'm not receiving questions. But once the parents start sharing the questions that they have with the teacher, that will trigger some sort of response. And the questions that they ask become the agenda for working together. I will say be comfortable with asking questions. It is okay to ask questions. If they need any help, we have resources on how to produce and come up with better questions.

LaWanda: And where can our listeners go to learn more about the Right Question Institute?

Luz: You can go to rightquestion.org. In our website, we have a page on parent engagement, and there we have resources that people can download. There are videos that they can watch as well.

LaWanda: Awesome.

Helen: Thank you, again, for joining us today.

Luz: Thank you so much. Thank you.

LaWanda: We learned so much about asking the right questions. I think that you really just have to be prepared. That's really the takeaway that I got from this conversation, being prepared, taking notes, and figuring out what is it that I really wanna gain from this conversation. Helen, what about you?

Helen: I agree. And I think, also, like you said, dispelling some of that myth that one question is necessarily good or bad, or better than the other. But really starting from the place of like, what are all your many, many, many questions, and then starting to pair them down to, like, okay, realistically, you might be able to ask two or three or, if you're lucky, four questions. So, what would those be?

LaWanda: I also love that she talked about when there are difficult situations where you're not able to get into the classroom, that there are other ways to communicate. You can pick up the phone. You can send an email. And you can ask those specific questions that you're trying to get answers from in a different way.

Helen: Everyone, let's keep the conversation going by using #backpacknotes on social media to share your thoughts about today's episode. We hope you tune in next time.

Outro: Thank you for tuning into "Notes from the Backpack," a PTA podcast. Be sure to follow us on social media @nationalpta and online at pta.org/backpacknotes.




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