Thursday, March 17, 2011

It's All About the Questions

I will never forget the summer before I began my first teaching job. Fresh out of college and excited to finally have a classroom of my own, I quickly became overwhelmed when it came to planning and mapping curriculum. I fell victim to what is often referred to as the "shopping mall" classroom, full of fragmented, isolated learning opportunities that failed to connect and relate to the lives of my students in a deep, authentic way. In American Literature, I resorted to the only thing I knew; a yearlong, chronological study of literature that attempted to cover it all. The witty words of Melinda Sordino, a teenager in my favorite novel, Speak, haunted my reality:

"We are studying American history for the ninth time in nine years. One week of Native Americans, Columbus in time for Columbus Day, the Puritans in time for Thanksgiving. Every year, they say we're going to get right up to the present, but we always get stuck in the Industrial Revolution. We need more holidays to keep the teachers on track."

It didn't take me long to realize this approach to studying literature was not effective, nor relevant to the teenagers in my classroom. I was looking at literature all wrong. Instead of attempting to uncover the answers in a given text, literature is about the questions. A question-driven, inquiry-based approach to teaching language arts is key to making the language arts classroom meaningful, purposeful, and relevant to today's high school students.

In language arts, we become investigators. We still read and write papers over Native American literature; however, study marginalization and seek to answer the question, How do we overcome stereotypes in order to become ourselves? We uncover the stereotypes that influence Native Americans, analyze their writing, and find these same themes within our own hallways. We watch The Breakfast Club, debate the Indian mascot issue in today's high schools, and examine the influence of stereotypes in the media.

Through this approach, students learn to connect, justify, and deepen their perspectives. Students study Henry David Thoreau's Transcendentalist plight against society, while weighing the pros and cons of technology in their world today. While Thoreau argues for simplicity in a world caught up in needless distractions, we study how our world would look without Facebook, text messaging, or fast food. Soon, students begin to discover Transcendentalist thought in the music on their iPods, the videos on YouTube, and in their conversations at the lunch table.

Right now, we're studying dreams; the dreams we have for our lives, compared to the 'dream' society has for teenagers today. We examine the concept of 'The American Dream,' how it started, what it has become, and how it will change in the future when our students are indeed, the future. We interview the immigrant living next door, our science teacher down the hall, and our grandparents, who lived during The Great Depression. We understand Biff Loman's angst towards his father in Death of a Salesman, and study the effects of Holden Caulfield's decision to not play society's 'game of life' in Catcher in the Rye. Soon, these conversations begin to expand outside the classroom walls.

I will never forget an experience last year during a student-led discussion. Every Friday, select students must research a topic relating to our current investigation, design a range of questions, and propel a fifteen minute discussion. Last year, as I observed one of the discussions, I watched a student process the information in front of him. This student, often one of the last to participate in class, suddenly spoke up.

"I got this. So there's this wall, and in order to get the American Dream, you have to get to the top. Some people, like Ben and Howard (characters in Death of a Salesman) have a ladder that makes it really easy to get there. Other people, like you and me, have a stepping stool, and have to work a little harder to reach the top. And some people don't have anything, and they'll never get there, I guess unless they steal the ladders."

After processing this metaphor in silence for a few seconds, the students applauded their peer for his unique insight and continued to debate his viewpoint, sharing examples from the class texts, making connections to the world around them, and justifying why they agreed or disagreed with his interpretation. Students left the classroom this Friday afternoon in deep conversation. A year later, we continue to discuss this metaphor as we tackle the following questions: Is the American Dream the same for everyone? Is the American Dream a reality for all? Is it our job to help others achieve the American Dream?

Building a classroom around essential questions is exciting as students become the catalysts. Every discussion, every day, every year is different. Students become engaged in the literature, while developing necessary skills to help them tackle difficult 'texts' in the future.

Ashley Jorgensen


  1. Ashley,
    Can you join us in shaping future of Iowa Curriculum? We need great thinkers.

  2. Great post! If all students could experience literature in an environment such as this, they would all love to read. As we look at questioning in our K12 setting, I'd also like to suggest that what happens after the questions are asked and how the students collaborate and process the answers is equally important. I'll look forward to reading more of your posts.

  3. Great insight. Obviously effective strategies were in place for that level of analysis. Love when kids have that breakthrough moment. Thank you for sharing.