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 Auburn Teacher Gives Students, Other Teachers the Focus They Need

12/9/2019 12:00 PM

​If you want to learn, you have to be willing to fail. And you have to know the right questions to ask.

Those two principles are behind Barb Dowdakin's instruction at Auburn High School. One day a week, she is available for mini-professional development for teachers. A Title I teacher, Dowdakin is an expert at helping students who lack confidence and the context for higher-level work. But her strategies can help students – and teachers – at all levels.

The best part? The strategies can be used right away – the next hour, if necessary.

Andrew Smith is in his eighth year of teaching science at Auburn. He has been known to see Dowdakin during his prep period to fine-tune a teaching method that went wrong the previous hour. "By your third hour, you could be knocking it out of the park.

"She's really good at helping you brainstorm and get ahead of the problems before they start in the classroom."

A key to effective teaching, according to Dowdakin, is something called the Question Formulation Technique. The teacher provides a stimulating or controversial statement and then asks the students, "Do you have any questions about that?" The students, working in groups, improve on their questions, making them closed (one answer) or open (multiple answers). The class picks the best questions, which then drive instruction.

Auburn Principal Jenny Keffer couldn't have predicted how soon she'd put her lesson to work.

An English teacher had an emergency and had to leave the classroom, requiring Keffer to step into the class.

"Students typically see a sub walk in (and say) oh, it's a free period," but the questioning technique made all the difference, she said. "They quickly latched on, they took the bait and I had them on the line for the entire class period. It was great."

The questioning technique reinforces curiosity, something people are born with. "There are no children born bored," Dowdakin said. "The hard part is teaching them to start asking those questions."

And a curious class is a better-behaved class, as English teacher Jessie Moran found out. While Moran has taught for three years, it's her first year at Auburn. She said she knew a lesson from Dowdakin worked when she didn't have to raise her voice as much.

It began with a cue to the class for quiet. When the cue didn't work, Moran told the students, "I'll wait." And then something magical happened: A couple of kids got quiet.

"And then more kids got quiet. And they looked at each other and said, 'Could you stop talking because she's waiting?' One girl was very firm: 'You need to stop talking so we can learn today.'"

Students can struggle with willingness to fail and how to proceed when they don't already know the answer. Because many teachers were good readers themselves, they may be unfamiliar with not comprehending material. Strategies like predicting, questioning and being unafraid to make mistakes can "fix" students' thinking, Dowdakin said. She has taught at Auburn for 20 years. 

Andrew Smith said Dowdakin's strategies have allowed his students to zero in on content. "They know where to go and what questions to ask. They knew exactly what I wanted."

He added, "I know we are very, very, very lucky to have a good resource like Barb in our school. She's been an invaluable tool."

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Andrew Smith works with Barb Dowdakin on classroom strategies. Both are teachers at Auburn High School.
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