Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Questions as Invitations, Not Inquisitions

When you are a writer, inspiration for your writing can come from all over, suddenly, unpredictably, sometimes even against your will. Into my in box this past week came an email from the Academy of American Poets, with a collection a poems for the beginning of the school year. Most were familiar, including this one by the acclaimed American poet of the working man, Philip Levine. 

M. Degas Teaches Art and Science at Durfee Intermediate School - Detroit 1942

He made a line on the blackboard,
one bold stroke from right to left
diagonally downward and stood back
to ask, looking as always at no one
in particular, "What have I done?"
From the back of the room Freddie
shouted, "You've broken a piece
of chalk." M. Degas did not smile.
"What have I done?" he repeated.
The most intellectual students
looked down to study their desks
except for Gertrude Bimmler, who raised
her hand before she spoke. "M. Degas,
you have created the hypotenuse
of an isosceles triangle." Degas mused.
Everyone knew that Gertrude could not
be incorrect. "It is possible,"
Louis Warshowsky added precisely,
"that you have begun to represent
the roof of a barn." I remember
that it was exactly twenty minutes
past eleven, and I thought at worst
this would go on another forty
minutes. It was early April,
the snow had all but melted on
the playgrounds, the elms and maples
bordering the cracked walks shivered
in the new winds, and I believed
that before I knew it I'd be
swaggering to the candy store
for a Milky Way. M. Degas
pursed his lips, and the room
stilled until the long hand
of the clock moved to twenty one
as though in complicity with Gertrude,
who added confidently, "You've begun
to separate the dark from the dark."
I looked back for help, but now
the trees bucked and quaked, and I
knew this could go on forever.
(from What Work Is, Knopf 1991)
What jumped out at me in this reading of the poem was the question the teacher asks: What have I done? 
What have I done? To me, this is an invitational question. The question invites speculation. The question invites a variety of possible answers. The question has no right or wrong answer. The question taps into each individual student's background knowledge, schema, conceptual understanding and for some apparently, mischievousness. The question invites talk.
As teachers we ask a lot of questions. Indeed questions may be the most important tool in the teacher's arsenal, but too often our questions are inquisitional, rather than invitational.
Inquisitional questions have right answers. They do not encourage speculation. They cut off talk. Literary theorist, Louise Rosenblatt, criticized these inquisitional questions in her seminal article, "What Facts Does This Poem Teach You.?" The title giving away what she viewed as the objectification of an art form through unenlightened questioning. 
Here are some inquisitional questions for the poem above:
What is the significance of the poem being set in early April?
How does the narrator characterize the student, Grace Bimmler?
What evidence does the narrator provide that he is not interested in what is happening in class?
I think it would be much better to approach this poem, and most reading material for that matter, with a liberal use of invitational questions. Here is a list to get you started. The first one is my favorite and one that was taught to me by my wife, Cynthia Mershon, a literacy teacher.

What stood out for you?
This question invites the reader to participate in a conversation with a fellow reader. You can't be wrong, because you are answering from your personal experience with the text. After this opening invitation, we might follow up with these questions:
Can you say more about that?
What makes you think that?
What does this get you thinking about?

Does that make sense to you?
What is another possible way of thinking about this?
How does what (another student) said square with your understanding?
In a world increasingly focused on the standardized test, it may seem counterintuitive to recommend these invitational questions as a way into reading comprehension. Doesn't the student need to be skilled at answering the inquisitional questions?
Well yes, but I would argue that the best way to help students develop their comprehension of a text is through first inviting them into the world of the text and then, through skillful follow-up questioning, helping them refine their understanding of the text. This is, after all, what all readers do when they read independently. In Rosenblatt's words it is that initial "lived through experience of the text" that provides the baseline for ongoing interpretation and understanding.
So as this school year begins, may I suggest that you redouble your efforts at refining your questioning techniques in such a way that will invite your students into the learning.