This week's Monday Motivator is from Angela Suzanne Insenga. It focuses on using driving questions and classroom dialogue in young adult literature. Insenga speaks to the power of this method, and highlights examples across both books and film.
The Daily Driving Questions assignment (DDQs) in my upper-division Young Adult Literature (YAL) course presents students with a crucial expectation failure, or a moment of cognitive dissonance in which existing ways of knowing do not work as they have in prior situations (Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do). In most English courses, professors ask students to listen, annotate, collaborate, and interpret verbally and/or in writing. Since my YAL course has outcomes that require me to teach students how to teach, I put forward the claim that good learning–the kind that sticks–comes from asking good questions, not from providing answers or staid, fleshed-out interpretations to be regurgitated on tests or essays. The latter sort of practice creates a feedback loop resulting in shallow learning. Deeper inquiry arises from engaging in careful questioning and exploration as we experience material. Deeper and sophisticated inquiry results from consistent practice of excellent questioning and exploration over time.
Learning in English and Language Arts is a social act; we read as part of a varied discourse community (a class) and discuss to create meaning. Practicing questioning encourages students to exercise care in their sentence structure and dig deeper into the subject matter as they share and answer others’ questions. And, finally, developing questions for discussion connects to written argumentation, as a sophisticated, interpretive (hypo)thesis derives from an answer to a complex question.
After providing this rationale, models of former students’ DDQs, and sharing my DDQs to ground class discussion early in the semester, I ask my students to create and bring two open-ended, complex questions to each class, both arising from assigned reading(s). I encourage them to:
- Design their questions to foment discussion via specific textual observations and querying (e.g, specific details that orient readers and use of open-ended questioning)
- Gear said questions for an audience of peers (e.g., use language and concepts befitting your audience)
- Remember that your questions should drive analytical discussion, since everyone will have read the material (e.g., no “quizzy questions”)
Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give (2016) recounts Starr Carter’s struggle to grieve, heal, and grow after she witnesses a police officer shoot and kill her friend Kahlil during a traffic stop. An early example of a DDQ arising from study of Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, both novel and film, is:
“Why does Starr, who is underage, stay at a party where she knows alcohol is being consumed?”
This question connects to the first scene of the novel in which Starr compares herself to her peers during a party in her neighborhood, Garden Heights. Instead of leading us to discuss how and why Starr feels a chasm opening between herself and the others as she watches others drink, this question led us to discuss Starr’s direct reflections on the party (plot) instead of what these reflections could mean, and it led to a discussion of underage drinking–an important yet nevertheless tangential issue–rather than to characterization of the protagonist’s state of mind in the text. We did discuss, mind you, but the focus was not on the novel.
Here are two more sample DDQs from our study of the novel and film, the first more squarely focused on characterization in the text:
“On page 71, Starr depicts her process of transforming into ‘Williamson Starr,’ [thinking]: ‘Williamson Star doesn’t use slang–if a rapper would say it, she doesn’t say it, even if her white friends do. Slang makes them cool. Slang makes her ‘hood.’ Williamson Starr holds her tongue when people piss her off so nobody will think she’s the ‘angry black girl.’’ How does this description reveal some Black Americans’. . .need to. . . construct a ‘white identity’ to be more palatable to white society?”
This question, anchored in the moments in which Starr reflects on her double bind, asks us to consider the formation of an adolescent self despite great experiential and geographic disparities. Starr is both an adolescent attempting to grow into a multi-faceted adult and a young Black woman navigating the acute challenges of developing a cogent self at home in her “hood” and at school, where she feels the need to “pass.”
Here is a DDQ arising from a student’s viewing of the film adaptation of Thomas’s novel:
“When describing Garden Heights, the camera follows Starr as she is driven to Williamson. During that trip, the camera reveals the dilapidated buildings in Garden Heights, the gangs, and the selling and purchasing of drugs. However, when Starr enters the predominantly white city that Williamson is located, the camera [focuses on] mansions, well-kept buildings, and safety, evidenced by the woman taking a jog and by the lack of police cars patrolling the area. How does the contrast between Garden Heights and this predominantly white city establish the idea that racism involves more than just police brutality?”
Again, the writer anchors the question in the text–with details from the visual plane of the film–in an effort to drive detailed and informed discussion of the assumptions we may hold about the causes of radical inequalities and their effects on Black adolescents, Starr in particular.
In both examples, the writer calls attention to the text and develops an analytical question related to the reading. Note how each question draws attention to plot but uses that information to build a question that asks “how” and “why,” not simply “what.”
Other questions from our study of Thomas pinpointed textual features and asked us to discuss the logic of narrative structure:
“Angie Thomas’s book is divided into five parts: ‘When it happens,’ ‘Five weeks after it,’ ‘Eight weeks after it,’ ‘Ten weeks after it,’ and ‘Thirteen weeks after it - the decision.’ What fascinates me the most about the titles for each part is the way Thomas refers to the shooting of Khalil. Why does Thomas refer to this tragic event using the ambiguous term ‘it’? How does the employment of this term help readers become aware of the diverse and racialized experiences they bring to Thomas’s text?”
And some questions broadened out, asking us to put the novel’s events into larger cultural context, both as a way to discuss realism in YAL and as a way to discuss the integral role YAL can play in discussing current events that affect teenagers:
“The issue of racially motivated police brutality is extremely sensitive, and Starr’s account of Khalil’s murder and the following events mirrors reality. In recent years, there have been far too many instances to count, but the tragic rise of police brutality cases is undeniable, and the lack of justice has continued. Considering these genuine cases, is the police's handling of [Officer] One-Fifteen accurate? [Why or why not?]”
Students completing this assignment may struggle to take risks, to ask complex questions. This results in lower-order “safe” questions, which are okay – at first. But I am not content for a student to remain at the level of comprehension. To sustain the DDQ expectation failure during the semester and increase performance in both composing and answering, then, I put student questions to work in varying ways:
- Students receive and use “question stems” for collaborative practice, especially early in the semester.
- Students Peer Review each other’s questions prior to discussion and/or submission, providing suggestions based on the assignment’s goals, especially early in the semester as we practice open-ended discussion questions and become acclimated to listening and answering.
- Students participate in Socratic Seminars that use the inner/outer circle structure. Student groups discuss answers to one DDQ of my choice while they are in the inner circle, and the outer circle annotates or thinks about their own answers to the question in play. Conversely, the outer circle can identify an excellent question from small group discussion of the DDQs they brought to class and pose it to the inner circle.
- Students participate in Question Swaps, wherein they answer each other’s questions verbally or in writing.
- Students craft two new questions arising from one DDQ and or discussion.
- Students practice revising questions–form and content–for other stakeholders (e.g., gearing a question posed at the collegiate level for an eighth-grade class).
The assignment has worked its magic in my classroom on three levels:
- Students own class time. They ask and answer their questions during at least one half of one class period per week, modeling for each other different forms of questioning: global and local; lower and higher order; synthesis between secondary and primary reading; and the like. And their questions, when asked in class, serve as suggestions for others who may still be asking lower-order questions connected to plot or meaning of words.
- Students synthesize English and Language Arts practices with learning models from their education courses. In particular, they learn about and reinforce their understanding and application of Bloom’s taxonomy, the epistemological paradigm often used in secondary standards as well as in university course learning outcomes. Through sustained practice, they can also create discussion-based activities in their larger pedagogy projects for the class that align with this paradigm (or another, should they so choose one).
- Students and I enter into a semester-long meta-dialogue. We discuss developing high-level questions for thinking (writing and rhetoric focus) and answering high-level questions asked in class (textual content and analysis of it). Via practice of writing, answering, and engaging my detailed commentary on each pair of questions each student submits, they access writing skills to design content questions that allow for investigation of the art objects they will teach.