Right Question Stories from the Field: Beowulf, Romeo and Juliet, and Modern-Day Hester Prynnes

How English teachers use the Question Formulation Technique to support students as they pursue deeper understanding of texts and develop their critical thinking.

By Chris Orchard

Teaching English is more than drilling students in the details of punctuation, pronouns and parallel structure, though such things are important. It’s more than lecturing about poetry and prose, Pride and Prejudice and Pericles – also worthy tasks.

It’s about nurturing independent thinkers who are able to engage critically with words, texts, and the world around them.

It’s why the Common Core English Language Arts standards emphasize not only the ability to “ask relevant questions” in pursuit of understanding texts, but to go even deeper, to “question an author’s or speaker’s assumptions and premises and assess the veracity of claims and the soundness of reasoning.”

Many English teachers no doubt harbor a more personal goal: to help spark a love of books and reading that will enrich students for the rest of their lives.

It’s an area where educators and authors are on the same page.

Madeleine L’Engle, who wrote the popular A Wrinkle in Time, once said, “I believe that good questions are more important than answers, and the best children’s books ask questions, and make the reader ask questions. And every new question is going to disturb someone’s universe.”

Scott Westerfeld, another writer of young-adult fiction, put it this way: “Good books make you ask questions.” (“Bad readers,” he added, “want everything answered.”)

English teachers have had success using the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) to connect these dots – between literature and literacy, questions, curriculum standards, and the sense of wonder and curiosity that make books beloved companions.

Take 12th-grade students in Jenifer Lopez’s English class in California.  They used the epic poem, Beowulf, as the basis for asking questions: “How has Beowulf become a warrior?” “Why does the epic poem make biblical references?” “Does Grendel deserve to go to hell?”

In Oxnard, California, Jennifer Brickey’s high school students engaged with a play by Shakespeare. To help them analyze Romeo and Juliet, Brickey used as a Question Focus (QFocus) Aristotle’s definition of tragedy:

Tragedy depicts the downfall of a basically good person through some fatal error or misjudgment, producing suffering and insight on the part of the protagonist and arousing pity and fear on the part of the audience.

Here were some of the students’ questions: “What is the downfall of a good person?” “What is the protagonist?” “What is arousing?”

Of course, Romeo and Juliet is a play taught in classrooms around the world. If you’re ever looking for a fun Romeo and Juliet QFocus, Verity Olliff suggested this amusing cartoon, which she used to lead a discussion about gender norms:

In Ontario, Sandra Snooks used the QFT as a pre-reading activity. She provided a two-sentence summary of The First Stone, by Don Aker. It’s about an angry young man (Reef) whose habit of throwing stones from a bridge onto the highway puts a 17-year-old (Leeza) into the hospital. Their lives become intertwined when Reef’s mandatory community service mistakenly sends him to the same hospital.

Having not yet read the book, Snooks’s students prepared insightful questions to help guide them with the task: “How did throwing a rock off a bridge bring their lives together?” “Does Reef always act out when he’s angry?” “Did Reef and Leeza get closure?”

Twitter user @YaguiarYornell, an English teacher from Oceanside High School in New York, and her colleague Erin Gilrein (@EGilrein) presented her students with a quotation from Plato: “The measure of a man is what he does with power.”

Here were some of the questions: “What do they mean by measure?” “How much power do they actually have?” “Who is Plato?”

Finally, Mr. Z, an English teacher in California, developed a thoughtful exercise about Nathaniel Hawthrone’s The Scarlet Letter. Using the QFT, he helped his class develop a key question they wanted to answer. Their question “asks under what circumstances an individual can have more power or impact than their community,” Mr. Z explained on Twitter. His students then looked for real-life examples and compared them to characters in The Scarlet Letter.

They made comparisons to Steve Jobs, Emma Watson, Jackie Robinson, Drake, and many others. In fact, the students Tweeted their responses as part of the project.

These are just some of the creative ways English teachers are using the QFT to push analysis of text, critical thinking and the joys of reading.

We love hearing about this work, and we occasionally post examples like these. If you’re interested, here are some others:

Keep the Tweets coming! You can find us at @RightQuestion and use #QFT, the abbreviation for Question Formulation Technique. Also, visit us at rightquestion.org and join our Educator Network of more than 30,000 educators around the world.

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