Friday, February 17, 2017

Using Reading Strategies with High School Students: Asking Questions

Students using the reading strategies of asking questions and envisioning images to create a chapter poster.

Why did Hester stitch the A on herself?
Why does Hester dress herself plainly?
Was it man’s place to punish Hester?
Was Pearl a blessing or a curse?
Is there a meaning behind the name Dimmesdale?
What was on Dimmesdale’s chest?
Who’s more wrong, Chillingworth or Dimmesdale?
Will Dimmesdale confess?
Will the new happiness last?
Why was Pearl reluctant to come to Hester and Dimmesdale?
Is this 7 years later because in the Bible 7 is the number of completion?
How much power does Pearl have over Hester?
Why is Dimmesdale changing?
Which is Dimmesdale’s real face?
How did Chillingworth find out about their plans?
What are Chillingworth’s intentions?
Will the people’s view of Hester and Pearl change?
Did everyone get what they deserved?

I did not ask my 11th graders those questions about The Scarlet Letter. They asked them. They asked each other. They asked me. What a difference from the early days of my teaching career when I gave students lists of questions to answer for every chapter of every novel we studied! It may have taught some students to be careful readers—for the answers to other people’s questions. But it never taught them to do what mature readers do—read for the answers to their own questions.

Mature readers ask many different types of questions, as can be seen from the list above, and all of them are important. Some are for clarification—you can look for the answer in the text or in an outside reference. Some are about the author’s craft and intent. And then there are the great questions of motivation and meaning that we’ll be chewing on for the rest of our lives. 

The unit didn’t start out on this high note of student engagement. (See this blog for that story.) I forgot to remind students of the reading strategies they use unconsciously and fluently with simpler text, but need to be intentional about employing with difficult text. 

Of those strategies, asking questions is one of the most important ones to teach, model, require, encourage, and foster because students can so easily form the false impression in school that questions are a sign of weakness—good students understand, and bad students have questions. But nobody understands without first recognizing what they don’t understand and asking questions and looking for answers until they do. 

So after the first day debacle, every day I asked students to come in with enough notes on their reading that they would have something to contribute from each chapter to a group poster that had a central image, at least one quotation, and at least one question. I gave them about 10 minutes, and if they finished early, I encouraged them to add more quotations, questions, and commentary/connections. Then we presented the posters to each other and posted them on the wall. (Side benefit: This posting gave us a running plot/symbol summary to refer to, and when we finished, the structure of the scaffold scenes at the beginning, middle, and end was so obvious the students realized it practically on their own.)  

Our finished wall of chapter posters gave us a plot summary and symbol chart. 

Sometimes the strategies of asking questions and envisioning images are related, as in this interaction over chapter 27:

“When it talks about Hester ‘flinging herself on the fallen leaves beside him,’ was it like this?” and one student drops to her knees on the classroom floor. 
“I thought it was like this,” says another student as he falls onto his back. 
A third student finds the page and reads, “…[s]he threw her arms around him, and pressed his head against her bosom.”
“Oh, so it must have been like this,” says the first student, flipping over sitting up, and cradling an imaginary head in her arms.

So what happens when students ask questions, envision images, and make connections to engage with an old, dusty classic by a dead, white man? They begin coming to class bursting with questions. I stopped them one day and said, “Do you hear yourselves? This is so different from the first and second days when you were so overwhelmed and scared! And no action really happened last night.” They replied, “But there were so many reveals!” 

A group presents their chapter poster.

And they leave the last discussion with final thoughts like this about what they learned:
  • To be honest, I think, and not let all my feelings internalize, like Dimmesdale when he was alone in the closet.
  • I really like that Hester made her mistake a lesson instead of making it something completely shameful.
  • I learned how hardship can help someone else out. 
  • Even if you don’t know or won’t like the outcome of a confession, you should.
  • Humanity is not perfect. 
  • I realized, or saw more clearly, that sins don’t stay hidden, whether it is closed to people or not, nothing is hidden from God.
  • Forgiveness.

Do your students engage their reading with questions? What questions do you ask while you are reading? How do you let your students know? How do you model, require, and foster questions? What results do you see?

**Spoiler alert!** Our final two chapter posters

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