“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” – Voltaire
(Note: an edited version of this article originally appeared in Wild + Free Magazine, Rain)
Except for the random stifled cough or the sound of shuffling papers, silence permeated the room. Staring over my book to the list of perfectly-composed critical thinking questions, I repeated the one I had hoped to discuss, the one I had labored over writing. More shuffling papers. I knew my students wouldn’t dare skip their reading homework the night before Parents Day, and as I scanned their desks, I could clearly see study notes written on their question packets.
For several weeks I had sensed that I was losing them, that Emma (while being my favorite novel) had proven uninspiring to a room of sixteen-year-old girls, and that I had lacked the energy and enthusiasm to encourage their interest. My fascination with Austen’s writing style had guiding my curriculum planning—not the big questions of the text that I later realized could have engaged them. In fact, Emma’s situation has been considered quite relevant to the typical teen girl (as Clueless revealed in the ’90s). It was an epic fail on my part, one I will never forget.
That horrible year in the classroom ultimately transformed my teaching career and likely planted the early seeds of my interest in home education.
In my early career, I hustled hard—like so many young teachers—trying to do it all and hoping to create an amazing classroom experience for my students. I planned until midnight, graded papers all weekend, and designed interactive activities to ensure “student engagement.”
But in that particular year, something had drastically changed in my life; that was the year I welcomed my first child, my Ellie. And while I was grateful to be teaching at a school with an on-campus childcare center, to be able to continue nursing throughout the year, to even bring her to school events wrapped snuggly against my chest, becoming a mother had changed me. As it does with most women.
The hustling was not only undesirable, it was simply unsustainable—yet the workaholic, super-involved, hands-on mentor/educator had become my professional persona. I had developed no alternative. I had unintentionally nurtured a teacher-centric classroom that fostered insecurity and dependence in my students. As a result, I was left exhausted, deflated, and feeling like I had failed both my students and my precious newborn daughter. My classroom atmosphere suffered, and by third quarter (around the time of that fateful Parents Day), my students had checked out.
The summer after that horrible school year, I read a book that—along with personal reflection—helped me make a drastic shift. Jim Burke’s What’s the Big Idea? transformed my pedagogical perspective and inspired me to reconstruct my curriculum from a chronological, teacher-centric structure to a thematic, student-led one. And this shift changed everything.
Before long, the students’ thinking became the main priority. Not my teaching. Not my curriculum. Not my agenda.
And now, over six years later, I’m using this same strategy to lead our local homeschool co-op teens in a “Great Books Club.” I truly believe it is one of the most effective methods to engage young people with great literature.
Because what is great literature but a portal through which we can enter others’ experiences, allowing us to safely ponder big ideas and ask universal questions? Allowing us to struggle, to suffer, to develop empathy, and to live greatly—all while sitting on our living room sofa.
So that when the time comes—as it does for us all—maybe we too will choose to live greatly, kindly, boldly.
When we see great literature as something we “need to know,” something to be tested, a list of characters, quotations, and themes to be crammed into often-resistant minds, we lose the beauty. The adventure. The catharsis. At that point, we risk losing the most essential element: the thinking.
In contrast, when we invite young people into great literature, equipping them with the tools to engage, and honoring their unique thoughts throughout the process, they so very often rise to the occasion. We all want to feel capable. Don’t we? So that’s the secret. Make them feel worthy, valued, capable. But how?
First, teach them how to identify theme.
This is where you can start with your youngest children; I already do this with my first grader. All good stories, even picture books, have a big idea. A theme. From the youngest age, during their narrations, focus as much on ideas as you do on facts. Of course it’s essential that comprehension is there, but don’t belabor the facts. Factual thinking and comprehension is the lowest level of reading. As soon as you can tell that your student has a solid comprehension of the text—whether it be Charlotte’s Web or Shakespeare—try to move them past the who, what, where questions and into theme.
Secondly, once they can identify theme, teach them how to ask good questions.
In my former teacher-centric classroom, we would discuss the themes and ideas that I had selected in advance. But don’t we all know how boring it can be for everyone to respond to the same set of prescribed questions?! As a student, how much more engaging and interesting to think that your question may be the one to guide the entire lesson! And as a teacher, how freeing and exciting it can be to watch students come alive through honest inquiry—to let loose the reigns of control and empower them to direct literary discussions.
Practically speaking, I replaced the classic “critical thinking review questions” that I had previously assigned with one simple homework assignment: read the set pages and generate three high-quality questions (one of each: factual, inductive, and analytical). When students walked in the next morning, the first thing I did was collect their “note card questions.”
I soon discovered that I prefer a great question over a right answer any day! In fact, I can remember multiple dynamic literary discussions on my classroom floor (yes, we rarely sat at desks) where a cluster of sixteen-year-old girls debated the theme of nature vs. nurture in Wuthering Heights for over an hour—and it all began with one excellent question! And the student who created that question not only received extra points, but she walked out of the room beaming with newfound confidence.
Of course, this process takes some time and training, but believe me, once a young mind can do these two things—identify theme and ask “big idea” questions connected with theme—they are equipped to engage meaningfully with great literature, and thus, with great ideas. This skill they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.