Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Question from the Classroom

Is it ever okay to ask my students evaluative questions?

Shared Inquiry™ focuses on interpretive questions—questions that invite students to explore the meaning of a selection through close reading and thoughtful exchange of ideas about the text itself. Interpretation begins with the questions that we ask ourselves as we read. Why does a character act in a certain way? Why does the author include a particular detail? Why do things turn out as they do? What does a certain word mean in context? As we develop answers to such questions, we get a better sense of how the parts of the selection fit together and what the text means.

Evaluative questions, on the other hand, ask students to judge an author's creation in light of their own life experiences, values, and beliefs; to decide, for example, whether they agree with the author's ideas or approve of a character's actions. In Shared Inquiry discussion, students are encouraged to defer judgment about the selection until they have completed their work of interpretation. If evaluative questions are introduced prematurely, they are likely to invite digression and elicit only personal opinions having little to do with the selection itself.

However, asking students to think briefly about their own attitudes toward a character or situation in a story can sometimes be an effective way of involving them more deeply in the interpretive process. For example, if students participating in a Shared Inquiry discussion of Langston Hughes's "Thank You, M'am" (Series 4, Book One) have trouble responding to the question Why does Mrs. Jones give Roger money for the blue suede shoes?, a skilled leader might ask, Can you describe a situation where you might help someone who tried to steal from you? After collecting a number of different answers, the leader could then lead discussion back to the original question, Why does Mrs. Jones give Roger money?

Interpreting a work of literature draws on students' personal feelings and perspectives in many ways, and the interpretive activities in Junior Great Books® are designed to help students make the best possible use of these connections in exploring the selection at hand.

For example, the Prereading activity for "Thank You, M'am" asks students to share their thoughts about being taught right from wrong. To help students think about how people learn good behavior, the leader asks them to recall someone who taught them right from wrong, or a time when they taught someone right from wrong.  After engaging in this personal reflection, students will be in a much better position to interpret the dynamic between Mrs. Jones and Roger and discuss why she gives him money for the shoes.

After Shared Inquiry discussion, the expository and creative writing activities give students further opportunities to express their thinking about a story. Students are called upon to use their own knowledge and experience to extend their thinking about a text, to relate it more concretely to their own lives, and to take full advantage of shared inquiry's potential for helping them improve their language arts skills.

The creative writing activity for "Thank You M'am" asks students to write a letter from one character to the other. The activity teaches them how to write an informal letter using a graphic organizer for ideas, and enables them to further develop their interpretation of the characters' actions.

Consider this question, Does a person need to be caught doing something wrong—like Roger— before he/she can learn right from wrong? Students will be prepared to address the issues in this evaluative question only after coming to an understanding of what Roger learns in "Thank You, M'am." In Shared Inquiry discussion, concentrate on interpretive questions, referring to the facts of the work for evidence and reserving evaluation for a time when interpretation is complete.

Michael Elsey is the Vice President of New Media at the Great Books Foundation. He has a long history as a Senior Trainer for the Foundation and in his new role is eager to explore the wonders of technology to enhance and expand the experience of Shared Inquiry discussion.

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