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Use of Questions
Submitted by Jean Trounstine (profile)

Strategy: Using questions in the CLTL classroom

One of my favorite quotes is from Night by Elie Wiesel, author of the Nobel prize-winning book about his experience as a child in the Holocaust. In that book, he says that the power of a question lies less in its answer than in the sheer fact that it exists. Finding questions that provoke real conversation and real thought are what makes the CLTL classroom ring with truth. Some questions aren't "answerable," but our efforts in trying to answer them make us dig into our psyches.

Using questions in the classroom is probably as old as teaching itself. Who can imagine the great philosophers without thought-provoking questions? And who among us cannot think of a time when someone asked us a question that took us into our inner selves? With texts, questions help organize the discussion, and they certainly help us link texts and themes. But I particularly like questions that help our students link the texts to their own lives, questions that rumble around inside; questions that we may come back to a few weeks later or think about at home, in our cars, or before we go to sleep.

I have listed below some of the more provocative questions I have used with my Lowell-Lynn Women's group. These books are also referenced in Teaching Specific Texts. I often use these kind of questions throughout the class. Certainly I will ask questions about the text, and we will talk in depth about the text itself; inevitably, however, the conversation goes beyond the text; it may go in different directions depending upon the probes. I have included the bare-bones version here of how I ask the question, but questions need fine-tuning depending on the person, a nudge here and there, and some follow-up to help the responder hook in more deeply. That is all part of using questions to get to deeper ground. So in some places, I've also indicated a way to get the question rumbling around inside by using a parentheses.

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

1. Toni Morrison says this is a woman's story. Do you agree with her? Why or why not? (What does it mean to be a "woman's story" anyway? Is there a difference between a man's and a woman's story? Have you felt your story to be gender based? Your friends and family members?)

2. How do we learn to feel ugly? (What is "ugly?" Is it defined universally? Is it different in different cultures? How do we get ideas about ugly or beautiful? From what sources?)

3. If you had "the bluest eyes" or something that meant as much to you as blue eyes do to Pecola, would they make you happy?

4. Do we give up things in this society in order to fit in? Do we have to?

5. What does it mean to be a victim? Who are the victims in this book?

6. What does it mean to be abused? To be an abuser? Who is abused, and who abuses? Does Cholly think he is actually loving Pecola? Do you?

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler

1. What does it mean to be nostalgic for home? (Define nostalgia. When have you felt it? Think of these words put together: home and sick.)

2. Why do we go to restaurants? What are we looking for?

3. What do we learn in this book about dying and death? (What does the word "dying" seem to mean to each of the characters? How do you know?)

4. Which character is the one you have most sympathy for in this family saga? Who will have happiness, and who won't? Who will have success? Who will live a life of regret? Who is most like you and who you want to be?

5. What does it mean to be "wounded" and, likewise, what does it mean to be healed? (Think about wounding. Think about the archery incident and what gets wounded. Think about healing. Where do you see it in the book?)

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

1. What do we learn from this book about friendship? Family? Community?

2. What is it to be a "good" mother? A "bad" mother? (Define the qualities of mothering. Do you need to be a biological mother to be motherly? Or unmotherly? Think of men who are nurturing. Is there a difference?)

3. (This question would come after discussing the Cherokee Nation and the Guatemalan Civil War of the 1960s.) What is your reaction to the hiding of refugees and the way in which Taylor ultimately keeps Turtle?

4. What is it that would make us go on a search across the country? What's the draw? The dangers? What compels us to leave and to stay?

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

1. How do we learn through our failed dreams? (What makes a dream, a dream? What's the difference between a dream and a fantasy? Do women dream about different things than men? What makes a failure or a success?)

2. What is love and what does the book tell us about love? Does this story leave out the suffering in love? (Does love require suffering?)

3. What does it mean, "They seemed to be staring at the dark but their eyes were watching God?"

4. What does this book show us about being a woman? (What have each of the books we've read shown us about being a woman?)

5. What does it mean "to grow"? How does Janie change and is her growth in any way familiar? How do we know when we've changed?

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