Guiding Learners to Ask Deep Questions and Advocate for Themselves

 Third grade teacher Sheryll Orbase encourages her students to become independent thinkers and see the purpose in their learning

For the past two decades, Sheryll Orbase has been a teacher and administrator at schools throughout the world. A native of the Philippines, she received a Master of Arts in Teaching English Language from De La Salle University in Manila, and began her career as a fourth grade teacher in Las Pinas City. Sheryll took a position as an ESOL and Middle School teacher in Hubei Province, China, then joined the Canadian International School of Beijing where she was an ESL teacher, ESL Head for Lower School, and Principal for Early Childhood. She relocated to the U.S. to earn her Master of Arts in Educational Leadership from Western New Mexico University, then served as Program Leader at Pacific Northern Academy in Anchorage, Alaska. Sheryll has been a third grade homeroom teacher at Catlin Gabel since 2019.

The following are excerpts from an interview with Sheryll in February 2022.

In my classroom, we start a day with the morning meeting wherein everybody has a chance to share their answer to a morning question. They all get to share. And I always tell them there's no right or wrong answer. Questions are always encouraged. You learn more when you ask questions.

So, they're very used to asking questions, telling me what they wonder about. And I think it's very important that they feel that it's safe in the classroom if they ask questions, or if they say their ideas. I really think that they respect each other too. They know that they learn from each other.

I want them to be advocates for themselves. When they don't understand a thing, ask. I want them to be not just independent learners, but to see the purpose of why they're doing things. When they learn about water, for example, or learn about clean water, to ask, “Why are we learning about this?” I want them to ask those deep questions and find a purpose to why they do things. I think that they want to learn more if they know why they're doing it.

One of our classroom guidelines is to stand up for what's right. I want them to learn that if you speak up you're not being mean or rude. It's okay to tell what you think. And usually with our lessons, too, we do a lot of, “What do you see? What do you wonder? What you think?” It's all about teaching them the way to say what they think. You're not being arrogant if you speak your mind.

We do a lot of that in third grade. And I really think that they just need to know prompts. They just need that guidance because sometimes they don't know how to say it, or how to express themselves. And you can just give them a few words, “You can start with, well, I don't like it when you...” or “I really like it when...” or “Maybe next time....” Just sentence starters.

I tell them that there will always be challenges, and revision is such an important part of the process. I tell them, “If you have a perfect idea right away the first time, it's good for you, or you got lucky, but usually you need revision.” And it's a part of every class. In math, we do that, in writing, in reading. You reread if it doesn't make sense. I teach them that improvement and reflection is a part of the learning process.

They do a lot of reflection. Like, here are my strengths, and here are my challenges, and these are my goals. Every time they have an assessment, that is part of their reflection. What were you good at? What was kind of hard for you? And then what are you going to do so that next time you will improve?

I've taught other grades, and there's always something that I like about each grade. But with third grade, I love how they’re so curious, and how they still think that they're little kids. They're more independent–they don't need you to tie their shoelaces anymore, and they don't need you to open something anymore­–but they still want to please the teacher. They’re still so affectionate. They don't feel like, “Oh, I'm too old for this.”