I have never used Essential Questions as consciously in my teaching as I have in the past year, and I can’t believe what I have been missing all these years.
The way I used them this past year was to design year-long, overarching EQs that spanned the whole course and most of the texts; perhaps a given text would tie into four out of the six questions, while another text would tie into the other two and two of the same, etc.
I printed them up in bold on bright paper and posted them around the room by course, and I was delighted and amazed how often kids referred to them, Harknessed about them, used them in their homework and essays, and generally just tied into them. Something about making them big and visual and permanent in the room really helped.
In terms of assessment and design, I also consciously began the year with an EQ-related essay; then I tweaked it for greater complexity for the semester I exam, and then I tweaked further for the year-end exam. So, in grade 9, for example, we had the EQ “How do we know who to trust?” show in up three different ways on written assessments: “‘You can never fully trust anybody’ Write a multi-paragraph essay on whether you agree or disagree, using examples from real life and your own experience to support your opinion” was the first essay of the year, a benchmark essay (ungraded). By the end of the year, that question on the final exam became: “‘How do we know who to trust?’ Write a multi-paragraph essay (at least five), using one or more texts from this semester and your own experience to support your ideas.”
Using these layered approaches to the EQs in writing and discussion helped keep the class tied in to themes and seeing similarities between texts (Holden can’t be trusted as a narrator; Juliet’s nurse seems trustworthy at first, but why does she change? Should we always trust our parents?)
This more conscious use of EQs has been great, but something was missing, and it dawned on me when I heard of a math teacher using EQs that were related to process and not just content. She had a question that was like, “When I got stuck last time, what did I do?”
Suddenly I realized that all my EQs are always content based — never process based. This is crazy if the ultimate goal is transfer; the focus can’t be on ideas alone — it must also be on skills. It was a revelation of sorts. If I wanted students to achieve transfer of their skills, then I should consciously create a group of Essential Questions that probes how they might do that.
So here is my new and improved list of Essential Questions for grade 10 English this year:
1. Are we inherently good or evil?
2. What if my right is your wrong?
3. Do we have a responsibility to take care of others or only ourselves?
4. Who is telling the story and how is he/she manipulating me?
5. When is it OK to borrow someone else’s idea?
6. What do I do when I am faced with a text I don’t understand?
7. When and how should I speak? When and how should I listen?
8. When I write, who is the audience and what am I trying to make them think or feel?
You’ll notice that #1 – 4 are content EQs that tie in directly to the themes and texts we study this year (Lord of the Flies, Othello, 1984, The Kiterunner) , but 6 – 8 are about how students approach their skills work. #5 bridges the two, as it serves for a great springboard for discussion of what is and isn’t plagiarism, as well as an introduction to the examination of satire and spoof, modern-day remakes, pastiches, and correct citation.
But #6 – 8 are the ones I’m excited about this year. My hope is that by designing and posting process EQs, students must confront their own effectiveness, transfer and purpose regularly. I think it would be interesting, too, to play around with the meta-cognitive a bit, asking students to self-evaluate in a written essay by answering question #6 (“What do I do when I am faced with a text I don’t understand?”) several times throughout the school year; it’d be fascinating to see how the answer to that question grew and deepened in complexity.
I’ll let you know how it goes…