Friday, June 12, 2015


Choose Your Own Question

I know I've been blogging a lot lately, but I am using my vacation as a chance to sort through all of the fun stuff I learned  and did this year. I know some of you may be on break, and not want to read through everything, feel free to bookmark it and come back to it later.

For example, about 3 months ago I was at CUE 2015 and I attended the end of Sean Ziebarth's and David Theriault's talk about questions. Their talk was recorded, and you can view it here, so I won't go through the process of summarizing.

This blog is about how I was inspired to find a way to get students asking more questions.

Do you remember those Choose Your Own Adventure stories? Something about being in charge of the journey  made the story so much better!

My class had just finished reading Things Fall Apart. I was really stuck on an essay prompt that was engaging and in depth, inspired by the talk I decided this was a great time to have students work on their inquiring and let them control a bit of their journey.


Since this was the first time we tried this I gave students a starting point. I picked three big things we had talked about as we read. For example:

Okonkwo is obsessed with the idea of being strong. 

This could be a no-preparation assignment. Simply ask students to think up as many questions as they can about elements of the story. Or use basic elements: characters, setting, plot, climax, etc.
If you aren't discussing literature, you can still use this to discuss whatever topics you want to cover. If you have a unit on careers why not find out what they want to know?

Step 1 - Think
Students were then given 3 minutes to come up with as many questions as they could. The first time we did the activity the students asked me, "So how many, like four?" This gives you an idea of the attitudes of this specific class. They were very much a "find the C level and achieve that" class. If you want give them a number, I just smiled and said, "As many as you can." Since I was walking round students stayed on task and usually by about two minutes they were into it. They usually started out simple,
  • Why is Okonkwo obsessed with being strong?
  • Is Okonkwo as strong as he thinks he is?
  • Who else is obsessed with stregnth?
And that's fine! They need to start somewhere, but with time their conversations (and questions) get more complex.
  • Would Okonkwo be considered strong by today's standards?
  • What evidence of his strength do we see?
  • Why doesn't he become more violent throughout the novel?
  • How does his relationship with his daughter show strength? 
  • Who is stronger? Okonkwo or his son?
  • Is Okonkwo's obsession a tragic flaw?
  • How is Okonwo's obsession different than Oedipus' obsession?

Photo by Oliver Tacke via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Step 2 - Pair
Share. I like this step, but you could skip it. Have students turn to the person sitting near them to share their questions. Are any good? Would they make any more specific? Why? Have them modify and use any questions they like.

Step 3 - Share
Class-wide. You can do this as a gallery walk (have students post their questions on the wall and walk around to see everyone's questions), or just have students volunteer their questions. At this point I still encourage them to make note of any other questions that they like.

Step 4
"What question do you want to answer? Adapt it as needed. Write your thesis statement based on the question you have chosen."

Voila! Students created their OWN essay prompts! They found the topic they were interested in and made it applicable to the class. 

Some students compared Things Fall Apart to other works we have read. 
Many wrote about how his stregnth made him weak (they liked the paradox).

All thesis statements did have to go to me for approval. I never rejected a thesis, but each one got a note. Sometimes giving help, "This sounds really interesting! You may be able to find some good examples in chapter 12." Sometimes pushing them to go further, "This is a good start, but very general. Can you think of an area you'd like to address specifically?" Other times suggesting they look another way, "I love the creativity you have with this topic, but I worry you may get stuck finding evidence. Let me know if you need my help, or want to change your topic later, and we'll brainstorm together." 

Most students stayed with their original topic. Some students did change theirs as they found something else they were interested in while starting their essay (or realized they actually wanted to show something else).

Overall I was happy with the way the lesson went and hope to get my student's asking more questions in the future! 

This doesn't have to be limited to essay prompts! So often in language classes we ask students the questions we want to know (or the book requests). Why not have them create the questions? What do they want to know about careers? What situations do they want to ask their classmates about? Having them create questions will make them more focused and motivated, I promise!

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