Can You Help Me Understand. . .?

There is a question that I use countless times a day. It is one that I use across all content areas. It is one that initiates inquiry. It is one that has helped me become a better listener. Most recently, it is a question that led me to notice a pattern in my students’ responses — a pattern that left me feeling confused and somewhat frustrated.

Can you help me understand. . .

  • how you _______?
  • why _______?
  • where _______?
  • what you mean when _______?

This question is applicable to anything and everything we are trying with the students before us. Most recently, I have been using it to learn more about my students’ understanding of division, thinking behind theme, and thesis statement development. However, I found that the words “Can you help me understand…” were leading students to erase their thinking or mumble something about how their minds had been changed. Although I had positive intentions, my inquiring words were not having the impact that I hoped they would.

I was frustrated by having to react with the words, “Why are you erasing that?” or “I didn’t say you are not on the right track. I’d love to know more about what you’re thinking.” One day, during math time, I finally felt confused enough to stop the whole group and just ask:

“Hey, fourth graders. Let’s pause our work for a moment. I’ve been noticing something, and I am hoping you can help me. I am noticing that when I say the words ‘Can you help me understand…’ most of you are immediately erasing your work or assuming that you are wrong. I have noticed this behavior across both cohorts in reading, writing, and math. Can you help me understand?”

My words caught their attention. Their eyes were on me, and they looked somewhat nervous. I reassured them that I was not upset but feeling curious. Then, hands started shooting up. They had their own words to share.

I learned something new that day. I learned that my students were struggling with self confidence. A couple of students offered that they doubt their attempts a lot, and when they hear the words “Can you help me understand…” it enlarges the doubt within them because they are already holding onto the assumption that they are wrong. I repeated the students’ exact words aloud and rephrased them, asking if I was understanding them correctly. There were students who did not share words but participated by nodding.

“Thank you so much for sharing that with me,” I responded. “When I say the words ‘Can you help me understand…’ it does not mean you aren’t on the right track. I genuinely want to know more about your thinking. It’s just like when I use the words ‘Say more about that.’ When you share what you are thinking or what you’ve tried, it helps me figure out the next steps we might take together. If you are not on the right track, I will help you get there. Does that make sense?”

I watched their shoulders relax as the whole room seemed to exhale together. They were ready to get back to work. Feeling thankful and refreshed, I was ready to get back to work, too. I was ready to help my students grow more comfortable with the words “Can you help me understand…”

I am also ready to think more about helping my students build their self confidence. It is an important life skill that I’m still working on myself. Our classroom community will be working on it together.


I’m joining an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #sosmagic

Published by Melissa Quimby

Melissa is a 4th grade teacher in Natick, Massachusetts. She can often be found with an iced coffee and middle grade novel in hand! Connect with her on Twitter & Instagram - @QUIMBYnotRamona.

5 thoughts on “Can You Help Me Understand. . .?

  1. Students are so used to teachers only asking questions when students are on the wrong track, so of course they immediately assume they are wrong. In Reading Recovery, we were to ask “Are you right?” when the student was right or wrong. They need to learn how to self-assess their own thinking. I love that you had that conversation with the class and now they have a better understanding of what you are asking.

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  2. I love that your observations led to this honest conversation with your students. And I love this response when you took the time to pause and explore together – “I watched their shoulders relax as the whole room seemed to exhale together.” Cheers to a new climate of understanding in your classroom.

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  3. It is interesting how the students can interpret our well intended words completely differently. Your choice to approach situations and student learning with curiosity allows to discover what is truly going on instead of making speculations. Thank you for sharing this learning story.

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  4. Can I just say…wow, what a teacher you are… this is such a valuable statement: If you are not on the right track, I will help you get there. Does that make sense?” What love and care you show. XO

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