Encouraging Students to Craft Better Questions

In an effort to reflect on my classroom practice, as well as reacting to news of the day, I am endeavoring to spend more time collecting my thoughts about my practice. This post dives deep into the last couple of weeks in my ninth grade English classes.

Since beginning the school year with a literacy focus, we started to apply a series of reading strategies, discovering they were also in play when writing too. Still, the early focus is on reading and attenuating the students to the kind of reading they need to do to be successful in my class and beyond.

Preparing for More Rigorous Discourse

Comprehending challenging texts independently is something that certainly seems to be a significant ask of new freshmen year after year. Of course there are always a handful that are more than eager to devour new, interesting, and different literature, but they are a definitive minority. A number of students have already reached the point where they want to chuck reading for school. More to the point, they have grown to rely on a heavy dose of teacher interpretations, pre-reading activities that essentially make the actual reading redundant, and all manner of plot-centric quizzes oriented to catch them if they are not reading or at least listening as the teacher reads to text to them.

While I confess to reading short texts aloud quite often, it is almost always the first of multiple passes I ask the students to take through a text. We have been introducing the concept of draft reading or revisionary reading, with each pass through the text rendering new understandings and insights.

Of all the generic reading strategies that the students were able to essentially name and list on their own, questioning becomes a central part of my approach. I try to fashion my class with a general inquiry stance about nearly everything. Consequently, I spent the last couple of weeks focused almost exclusively on creating questions with students.

Starting Simply

I began by distributing Graham Greene’s “The End of the Party” and introducing the Great Books Foundation’s Shared Inquiry method of questioning. Greene’s language is pretty accessible but requires a lot of inferring to truly understand it. Plus, there is an unexpected ending that usually leaves many students quite puzzled as to what happened. It has proven to be a good foundation for the three types of questions associated with Shared Inquiry.

The students took to the different types of question with relative ease. They intuitively understood that factual questions have only one correct answer that can be found explicitly in the text or requires minimal connections. Similarly, they recognized that interpretive questions afforded multiple potential answers and had to be gleaned from the text. Furthermore, they recognized the use of applying more reading strategies to “read between the lines” and investigate what a text means. Evaluative questions were newer to them, although not to troublesome. I stressed the idea that we were not quite ready for much evaluation, which requires a deeper knowledge to avoid rash judgments.

I asked them to pair and share the questions they had developed individually and report. What is always interesting to me are the questions that students generate independently while reading the story. Upon listing them on the board in each section and asking students to label them, there was a noticeable divide between regular sections and honors sections in the kind of questions generated. The honors section had about two thirds interpretive questions, while the regular sections tended to be closer to half and half, if not favoring factual.

We used the student questions to drive all discussions about the text and I freely incorporated quality questions from different sections where it would push deeper understanding. This has become pretty common practice in my classes, letting students dictate how we will interrogate a story. Not only does this honor what students notice when reading, but it begins to empower their capacity to ask meaningful questions on their own.

Adding Some Literary Filters

Using another short story, Stephen Crane’s “An Episode of War,” I introduced five essential elements of fiction: Plot, Character, Theme, Context, and Style. This is more about seeding later inquiry, when we will focus a little more on investigating literature as a discipline of study. At this stage, using these elements becomes about associating their questions with more specific aspects of the story and how it works. I couple the elements of fiction with the 5W1H journalistic approach for questions, because it is more familiar to students and matches so well.

Additionally, I employed a more prescriptive strategy for creating and collecting questions, modified from some of the work of the Right Question Institute. Students worked in groups of three or four to develop as many questions as they could in a limited amount of time, 8-10 minutes. Then I had them label all the questions based on the element of fiction and whether is was factual or interpretive. From there, they selected the the three most important questions with an explanation why they were selected and only the those questions were collected from each section in a Google Doc, which was used to lead discussions about the text.

Crane’s story is also generally accessible, but the setting proved most challenging without any advance information. As a result, the vast majority of factual questions generated were related to context. Still, the students were able to compile an impressive list of details that evidenced the Civil War. Once that conclusion was established, I provided some limited background on Civil War to clarify student misconceptions and background knowledge voids. Apart from the majority of factual questions being contextual, the overall number totaled more interpretive questions than anything, a positive development. Together, students were able to assemble enough answers collectively to gain a much deeper understanding of the story through discussion.

Complicating the Process with Bloom’s Taxonomy

Since the students had been progressing so well and developing a high volume of quality questions to help them not only comprehend but analyze the their readings, I decided to challenge them with a more difficult text, Toni Cade Bambara’s “Blues Ain’t No Mockin Bird.” While being set in the rural South, likely sometime during the 1950s or 60s, it is also written in dialect. This provided a much more significant hurdle in terms of the language accessibility. So the complexity of the language as well as the meaning was no in play.

Prior to discussion but after reading the story, I briefly introduced the students to Bloom’s Taxonomy. With some examples of the different types of thinking, as well as printed listing, students quickly grasped the list and the difference between higher and lower order thinking. The reverse side of the list included a handful of generic reading questions matched to the type of thinking. It also included a list of question stems, partial questions to get students started, matched to each type of thinking. Due to the abstraction of Bloom’s Taxonomy, I used the stems as a scaffold for easier application of Bloom to our questioning process.

Again, the established student groups used the timed strategy from the prior story. Only this time I asked them to use the stems to help them generate new questions. Then they quickly labeled all questions in accordance with Bloom’s Taxonomy, matched them to the appropriate elements of fiction, as well as determining whether they were factual or interpretive. Asking for this reflective question construction was not lost on the students. Multiple students were able to offer cogent reasons for why labeling the questions in this way was valuable. Said one student, “I think this helps order our thinking.”

Reflections

Ultimately, I am always trying to economize my teaching, weaving a handful of strands into any one single or unit. While my primary focus was on guiding students to develop stronger questions to help them understand their reading, we covered a number of other foundational concepts as well, building off the earlier reading and writing connection work. I hope to encourage greater facility with an array of strategies and approaches that students can easily apply, as needed. A larger goal is to begin to teach them how to read like writers.

The questioning naturally afforded early seeding of literary concepts, established a major component of how texts will be discussed in class, and began to orient students to the kind of meta-cognitive awareness that I will increasing ask of them in future. There were some other benefits too, but those are significant achievements, while reading and responding to short stories. Students definitely demonstrated and believed they had much deeper understanding of the stories through multiple readings and in-depth discussions.

As we wrapped this exploration of questioning, I asked them to synthesize some features of the texts that they believed were particularly noticeable or strong. Again, the list they were able to assemble was impressive. It will also serve as the platform for the next mini-unit of study where I will turn the tables and begin to ask them to now write more and try out some of the elements and features that they have now begun to notice while reading. In short, through an extended exploration of narrative writing, I will now ask them to write more like readers.

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