After almost twenty years of teaching, I’m starting to think I might be getting the hang of it. I’ve used essential questions over the past few years, but they weren’t producing the deep discussion and analysis that I’d hoped for. It wasn’t enough to use the EQ to help us approach whatever we were reading together. I needed to do more with it.
This past year, after reading “Text Dependent Questions” by Fisher and Frey, and What’s the Big Idea by Jim Burke, something clicked. Now, the EQ has driven pretty much everything in my planning –my selection of informative texts, some of the prompts for their Writer’s Notebook, even some of the vocabulary that I select. (Though I am also having a lot of success with student choice in vocabulary, thanks to a November post on 3TT!) Now, my students are leaving class and discussing the essential question and issues from our text in other classes. A colleague mentioned (complained?) last month that he had trouble starting his class, after students leaving my class were continuing our class discussion into his room.
They are struggling with real-world questions and topics and thinking about how they really want to approach them.
Here is what that looks like in my current English class:
We are reading The Kite Runner together. Our EQ has been “When is forgiveness important?” Their final assignment will be writing about their own answer to that question.
Along the way, we are reading news articles about Afghanistan, which include the idea of someone being wronged. Students respond to guiding questions (and generate their own questions) about the articles, and they struggle with those questions in their Writer’s notebooks. We’ve read about forgiveness from people betrayed by their families, by the government, and by strangers. [To find these, I used my subscriptions to the NY Times and Washington Post and searched “forgiveness” and “family”. Sadly, a wealth of resources came up…]
One really rich pair of stories I found for them to consider centers around the shootings in South Carolina in 2015. One article highlights the teenaged children of one of the victims having expressed forgiveness toward the shooter. The other is an opinion piece that says the children forgave too quickly because “the almost reflexive demand of forgiveness, especially for those dealing with death by racism, is about protecting whiteness, and America as a whole.” The author points out that there has been no rush to forgive after any of the ISIL beheadings or 9/11. Students really dug into that idea and explored it.
In their Writer’s Notebooks, students have been responding to the idea of betrayal and forgiveness in a number of ways. They chose a quote from a list and responded to it. They reread parts of the book and considered how ‘betrayal’ or ‘forgiveness’ played a role (Thank you Fisher and Frey). They used words from their vocabulary list and wrote a poem about betrayal.
While they haven’t written their final products yet, I expect the students will have differing answers to the essential question. I believe that their writing will express the wrestling match they’ve had with the ideas. Thank goodness Burke’s book helped me see how I can use more aspects of my class to help students explore a “big idea”, and give them examples and smaller pieces of writing that they can draw from in writing an answer to the essential question. I believe my students are developing the skills to wrestle with the big questions that life has thrown (and will continue to throw) at them. They will look for more than one point-of-view, consider the source, and question the message so that they can form their own opinion based on more than something they read on Facebook.
Cyndi Faircloth teaches English, Social Studies, Art, and Journalism at Paradise Creek Regional High School in Moscow, Idaho. The school is small – with only two full-time teachers – so it’s easier to say that she teaches everything that isn’t math and science. As an interdisciplinary teacher, she works to incorporate writing in all of her classes and is learning to incorporate the writing workshop into her classes. Cyndi is a National Board Certified Teacher in English Language Arts – Adolescence and Young Adulthood.