A few years ago, I overheard my husband teaching a lesson on genetics. He explained the difference between dominant and recessive traits and how sometimes a child will exhibit an unexpected trait because they inherited a trait for which their parents were both just carriers.
Now, this wasn’t an unexpected moment in my husband’s life; he has been teaching biology for fifteen years. His audience on this particular occasion, however, was our then- 5-year-old daughter. She woke up that day, her long curls framing her sweet face, wondering why she didn’t have “flat” hair like her mom. He gave her what I have to assume was a very simplified version of the science behind DNA, but the conversation didn’t end there. As most 5-year-olds are wont to do, she peppered him with questions. By the time I joined in, they were having a fairly philosophical discussion for two people still wearing their pajamas. We talked about how everyone looks different on the outside, but how being different is actually what unites us. We talked about love and acceptance and kindness. It was a powerful, important, and completely unexpected conversation for six o’clock on a Saturday morning; it was also a conversation that started with a question posed by one curious little girl.
By the time students cross the threshold of my classroom, they have been heaped with praise. Bright. Articulate. Hard working. Talented. It is, after all, Advanced Placement Literature: a class for readers, achievers, seniors. They are applying to highly competitive universities. Their lists of activities, achievements, and accolades make me relieved that I applied to college twenty years ago when expectations seemed slightly more attainable. These students have all the right answers. But what about the right questions?
High achievers, for the most part, long to answer questions. Answering questions earns the high grade. Answering questions pleases the teacher. Answering questions is safe, comfortable, familiar. Asking questions? Not so safe. What if my peers think I’m stupid? What if the teacher thinks I don’t have all the answers? How will asking a question help my grade? For these kids, it’s the teacher’s role to ask, and their role to answer. But if I’m asking all the questions, they’re only learning what I’m teaching. And that, I decided, is not enough.
So, when the Right Question Institute presented the Question Formulation Technique to our department at a professional development day, I latched onto the idea of reteaching kids how to ask questions. They certainly could do it when they were preschoolers. Why not now? I set out to reignite their sense of intellectual curiosity and confidence that it’s not just okay to ask questions, it’s essential to ask questions.
I wanted to find a way to use this technique to prepare for the first essay of the year, which requires students to choose one character from Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, The Poisonwood Bible, and analyze how that character’s experience with exile is both alienating and enriching, and how that experience illuminates the meaning of the work as a whole.
In the past, students have struggled with this prompt. I initially chalked it up to the fact that it was their first attempt at AP-style analysis. But when I really thought about the essays they were writing, I realized something my students would probably never admit: They needed a vocabulary lesson. Did they know what “exile” meant? How about “alienating” and “enriching”?
With that in mind, I created a QFT. I used the Question Focus, “Exile from one’s home can be alienating but also enriching.” I wanted to familiarize them with the language of the prompt in a way that pretty much forced them to ask the questions they normally wouldn’t. Students asked questions that I anticipated: What is exile? How is exile different than alienation? Can something be alienating AND enriching at the same time? But they also asked questions that I didn’t expect: Was the exile forced or self-imposed? Is it a literal or figurative exile? What do they mean by “home”?
That last one got me. What do they mean by home? For an AP student, this was a risky question. Isn’t that a simple word, “home”? Shouldn’t that be self-evident? But in literature — as in life — things that seem simple or self-evident rarely are. If you take the time to consider the shades of meaning in even the simplest of words, that’s when the magic happens. That’s when you move from accurate, well-supported analysis to insightful, original analysis. That’s when you stand out from the crowd. That question led to a whole-class conversation about what home means, and why exile from one’s home would be so transformative. And the kicker? We never would have had this conversation if one student hadn’t asked this one question.
This conversation about “home” didn’t end with the essay prompt, either. The kids naturally made connections to their imminent “exile” from home when they take off for college or work in a few short months. They wondered how alienating and enriching their own experience would be, and how much their separation from the familiar would transform them. At one point, a student apologized for the tangential nature of his comment. I pointed out that the power of literature lies in what it can teach us about our own lives and the world around us. The QFT process had naturally led us to the true meaning of the work.
In the end, the essays I read after having done this exercise were far and away more insightful, focused, and eloquent than the responses I have received in the past. And beyond that, students walked away with the notion that the ability to ask questions is just that — an ability. It’s an asset to celebrate, not a weakness to hide.
The QFT showed my students the value of asking questions, taking risks, and looking at every word in a text. This process validates every student’s contribution and teaches them it’s not just about having all the answers. Sometimes, being able to ask the questions has more value than anything else.
Lauren Carlton has been a teacher in the English Department at Foxborough High School in Foxborough, Massachusetts, for the past 15 years. Her courses include Advanced Placement Literature and Composition, Grade 9 Honors English, and Journalism. She is passionate about poetry and writing; in addition, she is an unapologetic grammarian. Lauren graduated from Tufts University with a bachelor’s degree in English and went on to earn a master’s degree in teaching English from Salem State University. When she’s not in the classroom, you can find her running slow half-marathons and playing with her three young children.