Why do they make him look like a celebrity?” “Was the date and location of the bombing significant to him?” “What did his family do to fail him?” “Does where he comes from have anything to do with violence?” “Who was the catalyst?” “Why put a bomber on the cover of Rolling Stone?” and “How does his family feel about what he did?”
photo by James McGowan
Like many, I was both repulsed and riveted by the tragic events at the 2013 Boston Marathon. As an avid runner and teacher, I followed the stories of the victims and the assailants closely and considered how I might be able to incorporate their stories into my instruction of sophomore English. The opportunity did not present itself until Rolling Stone published its August 1st, 2013 issue with the now infamous “selfie” of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover. Immediately after seeing the cover, reading the feature article “Jahar’s World” by Janet Reitman, and watching the controversy boil over online, I knew that this would make for an ideal Question Focus (prompt for students’ questions) to use with the Question Formulation Technique.
I let the idea percolate for several months and carefully considered where to bring this topic and technique into English 2 curriculum. After much thought and collaboration with my colleague Tracey Flint, we determined that it would be best to use the Rolling Stone cover and feature story as an introduction to a unit on argument writing. We were confident that the subject matter would lead to divergent points of view among our students and would motivate them to locate evidence to support their claims and to craft persuasive reasoning. This unit also afforded us the opportunity to focus on the Common Core State Standards’ expectations for reading and analyzing informational text.
We determined that our Question Focus (QFocus) would be the Rolling Stone cover along with the caption, “The controversial August 1st, 2013 cover of Rolling Stone magazine.” The cover of the magazine is rich with visual and textual information that would provide a wealth of opportunities for closed and open questions, but the caption plays an important role as well. We predicted that there were going to be some students in the class who did not know the person on the cover of the magazine was, what he bombed, and perhaps what Rolling Stone magazine is. Therefore, the key word in the caption is “controversial.” There is no bias in stating that the cover caused controversy, and for students without the prior knowledge of the Boston Marathon bombings, this word provided an entryway into beginning to ask questions about the QFocus.
Before moving on, I would like to make one final point about the creation of a QFocus. I cannot emphasize enough how valuable it is to try to develop a QFocus with another person. While it does take extra time and a colleague who is also versed in the QFT, the highest quality QFocuses that I have written have come from sustained collaborative conversations.
I presented the Rolling Stone QFocus to my students on October 17th, 2013, some five months after the events at the Boston Marathon. As predicted, there were some students who had followed the story closely and others who knew little to nothing about it. This is one of the reasons that I placed students randomly into groups of four relying on the fact that each group would most likely have one or more students well versed in the topic and one or two others with little prior knowledge. The QFocus prompted significant question generation from the groups. On average, the groups posed 33 questions during the approximately five minute time frame. Many of their questions were closed and focused upon details related to the bombing, the role that Tsarnaev played in the bombings, and what has happened since April 15th. The QFT served as a formative assessment and informed my future instruction on the topic. Since the students’ questions revealed that the majority of them had little prior knowledge and would benefit from additional background information, I provided students with an article from The Boston Globe as a primer on the bombings.
photo by James McGowan
photo by James McGowan
The groups’ priority questions provided the motivation for where the unit headed next, the feature length non-fiction piece “Jahar’s World” by Janet Reitman. The students’ priority questions from the QFT focused upon what was controversial about the cover, why Rolling Stone put Jahar Tsarnaev on the cover and used this particular picture, and the role that Tsarnaev’s family played in his downfall. Some of their best priority questions were: “Why do they make him look like a celebrity?” “Was the date and location of the bombing significant to him?” “What did his family do to fail him?” “Does where he comes from have anything to do with violence?” “Who was the catalyst?” “Why put a bomber on the cover of Rolling Stone?” and “How does his family feel about what he did?” These questions got the class deeply invested in the subject matter and motivated them to seek answers to their questions. Some of these answers could be found in “Jahar’s World,” so the students’ priority questions set an excellent reader’s purpose for tackling a piece of informational text that was far longer and more in-depth than what students typically encounter in English class. Their search for answers also guided their annotation of the text. At the conclusion of the unit, one student reflected, “I’ve never annotated so thoroughly before. I really think we should do more of this stuff.” He was not alone in this sentiment; I noticed improvements in both the quantity and quality of textual annotation of “Jahar’s World” due to the QFT process that preceded it.
Our study of the Rolling Stone cover and article concluded with a graded seminar discussion that returned one final time to the students’ priority questions from the QFT that began the unit. After reading articles and editorials from The Boston Globe, Slate.com, and Rolling Stone, students had to prepare written responses supported with textual evidence to answer the overarching questions regarding the controversial nature of the cover and article and the role that Jahar’s family played in his downfall. The seminar was sustained for an entire class period, and on average, each student in the class spoke at least three times during the class period. Our richest conversations focused upon the appropriateness of using a “selfie” taken by Tsarnaev as the Rolling Stone cover image and whether or not the cover complimented Reitman’s story. With students taking different sides on these issues and supporting their ideas with evidence and reasoning, the seminar discussion and the students’ written preparation was a fitting culmination of our study of the topic and served as excellent formative assessment for me to gather data about my students’ argumentative skills as we transitioned into the composition of a formal persuasive essay.
When I provide staff development on the QFT, teachers often ask what should be done with the questions generated from a QFT, and in almost every situation, I emphatically state, “Answer them!” Using a variety of sources and methods, my students explored and attempted to answer their original questions from the QFT on the August 1st, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone magazine. Their questions served as the unifying thread that connected each of the texts and activities that followed. And at the unit’s conclusion, after our exhaustive attempt to answer our questions, one student in her reflection wondered, “I think that the article shows that innocence and friendliness can be worn like a jacket. What’s really underneath?” This QFT on a controversial, current event has been the most rewarding teaching I have done this year due to the desire it instilled in my students to be in a constant state of asking and answering their own questions. Curiosity is a quality that we must nurture at every stage of our lives, and the QFT is a proven way of doing so.
Matt Parrilli is the English Department Chair at Maine South High School in Park Ridge, Illinois. He has been an English teacher for the past nineteen years and chair for the past seven. Matt graduated from Indiana University with a bachelor’s degree in English and went on to receive master’s degrees from DePaul University in English Literature and Northeastern Illinois University in Educational Leadership. He can be found on Twitter at @mattparrilli.