How to make any text relevant to your students using essential questions

The Relevance Trap

It’s become the go-to question when English teachers are looking for new texts to teach: My students don’t read the books I used to assign. These old books don’t have anything to do with my students’ lives. They can’t see themselves in my usual texts. What new texts can I teach that are relevant to my students?

We all want our students to be engaged in our classes. We also want them to feel like their experiences are important and worthy of study, and teaching a range of diverse texts is undoubtedly an important part of showing them that this is the case.

However, especially as New Zealand looks set to require English classes to focus heavily, if not exclusively, on New Zealand literature, I can’t help but feel that it’s extremely limiting to suggest to our students that the only way to relate to a text is through characters that share our race, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, gender, age, or other group membership. Those identities are hugely important to us, but they’re only a part of the total human experience. In addition, no one text is ever going to seem relevant to everyone – increasing the diversity of texts we teach should be as much about confronting students with different experiences as it is about validating their own.

That’s why, rather than choosing texts based on relevance and student interest, I think we should be designing our teaching to show students how a text can be relevant to them, and to teach students to seek out that relevance by consciously applying what they read to their own experience of the world. I’ve been trying to do this ever since I started teaching, but it’s really only been since I started experimenting with Essential Questions that I started to see students truly making those connections and taking ownership of the texts. And essential questions haven’t just increased engagement – they’ve also helped me guide students to some of the core knowledge at the heart of English.

The Theory Bit: Making the Subjective Objective

(This bit of the post digs into some of the academic theory behind why I think essential questions are such a powerful tool. If you want to get straight to the practical classroom application of these ideas, feel free to skip to the next section!)

There are plenty of arguments for the importance of knowledge in education, and about why the move away from knowledge has been so disastrous, especially for disadvantaged students. However, this has always posed a bit of a problem for me as an English teacher. While I find it relatively easy to point to the knowledge in science or history, in my own topic things seem a bit more nebulous. I’ve fallen back before on language techniques, and grammar, and knowing about major authors and texts, and I do believe that all of those pieces of knowledge are an important part of the picture, but I always felt like something was missing: understanding literature.

Responding to literature can, of course, be a very subjective thing, and so it can seem impossible to translate it into anything resembling objective knowledge. We can teach students the standard interpretations of a given text, of course, and I think that has huge value, especially when students are new to literary analysis. However, that probably doesn’t help so much with helping students appreciate how the texts can be important to them; for that, some kind of personal interpretation or response is necessary.

I had a revelation regarding this issue when I read the chapter on English in What should schools teach? Disciplines, subjects and the pursuit of truth, edited by Alka Sehgal Cuthbert and Alex Standish. The chapter, written by Cuthbert, argues that the importance of literature lies in its ability to make the subjective objective:

The universal in aesthetics, human experience and subjectivity can be made objective in the arts not by generalization at a conceptual level, but by attending to the particular aesthetic form of a particular work.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert (2017, p. 111)

In other words, literature takes the weird, subjective experiences that come with being a person, and puts them down on the page, effectively turning them into an ‘object’ which can be studied, analysed, and interpreted. Despite being subjective, people’s experiences are nonetheless very real, and are often also universal – think of every time you’ve felt strongly connected to a book, or a poem, or a song because it reflected something that you experienced yourself. When these subjective-but-universal experiences are put down on the page, we can gain some distance from them and scrutinize them differently from how we think about what’s going on in our own heads, while maintaining that connection to our own experiences.

How essential questions make the subjective objective

That’s all very well, but none of us want to stand up in front of year eleven and explain to them that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is going to be great for them because it will render their subjective experience in an objective form. Instead, this is where I bring in essential questions.

Essential questions are the ‘big questions’ that texts help us explore. They provide a perfect bridge between our students’ subjective experiences and the texts we want them to read. For example, when I teach Hamlet, these are the essential questions I use:

  • How do we make difficult decisions?
  • How do we balance thought and action?
  • How do we find our true identities when we play so many different roles in our lives?
  • How can we find or create meaning in our lives?

These are questions that Hamlet doesn’t answer, exactly, but that are certainly explored in the play. Because none of the questions are directly about text and can all be applied to real life, they make the real-world connections with the text more obvious to students, and open up possibilities for exploring students’ own subjective experiences of these questions along with the ways the questions are explored in the text.

Working with these essential questions alongside the text also creates a context for doing what Cuthbert refers to as “training the imagination.” While students should certainly develop their own answers to each of the essential questions, they should also be required to imagine what it would be like to be someone who answers them differently – how would Hamlet answer these questions? What about Horatio or Laertes? As students put themselves into the minds of others, they also see further possibilities for themselves, which is crucial if we’re teaching with any kind of social justice goal:

While there is an established literature in political philosophy that argues for the importance of reason and rational knowledge in democratic politics, it could be argued that the imagination is just as central for any progressive politics. Prior to organizing politically to change anything in the world, it is necessary to first imagine ourselves as subjectively intentional agents who are able to effect change in our social arrangements and relationships.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert (2017, p. 118)

Tips for using Essential Questions effectively

There are two main things to be wary of if you’re thinking of integrating essential questions into your next unit. First, it’s easy to tack these questions on to the beginning or the end of the unit without really making full use of them. Essential questions are most powerful when students return to them over and over again, developing their understanding of the questions and the texts as they go.

The second challenge is ensuring that students do plenty of work that requires them to engage with the question in terms of the text. While it’s certainly a good idea to create space for students to develop and share their own responses to the questions – I do this at the beginning of my courses, and again at the end to see how their thinking has changed – if students are to benefit from the objectification of subjective experiences that we find in texts, they need to, you know, actually think and write about the texts.

Speaking of which, it is important that students write about the essential questions as well as discussing them. Just as literature objectifies subjective experiences, writing about that literature allows students to “objectify their internal responses to the rich world of textual meanings” (Cuthbert, p. 116). In other words, in writing their ideas down, students are forced to solidify their ideas and make them into an object to which others can respond.

Students should write about their answers to the questions at multiple times throughout the unit, and from multiple perspectives. As I mentioned, I always start by having students respond in their own voice. Later, I might have them answer the questions again from the point of view of a character in the text. You can also go a bit more general – how would a Romantic respond to the question, and how would it be different from a Realist’s answer? It can also be extremely helpful to bring in sources from philosophy or other disciplines. A highlight of my last Hamlet course was the time we spent learning about how an existentialist might answer the essential question “how can we find or create meaning in our lives?”, after which the students wrote paragraphs about whether or not Hamlet is an existentialist. That assignment does have some issues with anachronism, of course, but it certainly got students thinking harder about both the text and the essential question.

Essential Questions transformed my most recent courses on both Hamlet and Frankenstein. The quality of discussion skyrocketed, and students were much more ready to see the relevance of these texts to their own experience – without me needing to change to more ‘relevant’ texts. The questions created the relevance for us and gave students a number of different ways to explore the text as they read.

References

Cuthbert, A. S. (2017). English literature. In A. Standish and A. S. Cuthbert (Eds.), What should schools teach? Disciplines, subjects and the pursuit of truth (pp. 104-120). London: UCL Institute of Education Press.

Related Products

Full set of discussion questions for Hamlet, based around four Essential Questions! Includes two different sets of slides to suit your teaching style.

Finish your unit by having students write an essay about an Essential Question! This product includes a task sheet, brainstorming guide, essay planning template, thesis statement activity, and rubric.

Beginning a unit with a preview text: Using the Amleth legend to introduce Shakespeare’s Hamlet

There’s a certain kind of student who loves to remind you that Shakespeare “stole” most of his stories from other sources, usually citing this as a reason why the bard isn’t so great after all. But this knowledge can also be used to a teacher’s advantage. I like to start off my teaching of Hamlet by reading Amleth, the Danish folktale on which Shakespeare’s play is based.

Like most folktales, the Amleth story was passed around orally for hundreds of years, but it was written down by Saxo Grammaticus (“Saxo the Learned”) in 1185, making his version of the tale as old to Shakespeare as Hamlet is to us. Saxo’s version – handily available in a public domain English translation by Oliver Elton – is fairly similar in plot to the play, but with enough differences to avoid completely spoiling the story.

Why start with Amleth?

I always like to start off any unit on a longer text by reading a “preview text” – something shorter, whether it be an earlier text that inspired the longer one, as in the case of Amleth, or a picture book, a children’s retelling, or a non-fiction article that introduces important themes or context for the work to come.

Reading Amleth helps students put Hamlet into some kind of context, beyond being writing by that old Shakespeare dude. It puts Shakespeare himself within a wider context, which I find helps take him down off the pedestal a bit. Rather than being this great and powerful literary figure all on his own, we can discuss Shakespeare as just one stage in a sequence of different approaches to the same story, from Saxo to Shakespeare to The Lion King. As I said above, Amleth also provides a preview of the story, which helps students keep track of the narrative as they read the play, but Shakespeare made enough changes that you can always remind students that they don’t really know how it’s all going to end.

I also think it’s important to give students practice with the skills they’ll need for reading a longer text on a smaller scale first. As English teachers, we’re sometimes in the position of teaching a play or novel to students who have never read a text of this length before. That can be intimidating enough without also using the skills of analysis and working out how to read a challenging text at the same time. Reading and doing some writing about a shorter version of the story first gives students a preview of the kind of work they’ll be doing as they progress with the longer text.

So how do I use a preview text like Amleth?

Simply reading and talking about a preview text in class will help provide some context and introduce the plot before you begin reading your extended text, and that may be all you have time for. If you can, though, I recommend giving your students some of the following supports and tasks to really leverage your preview text to prepare students for their extended text study:

Vocabulary Support
Ideally, your preview text will be somewhat challenging (short texts are a great opportunity to get students working with complex language in small doses!). If that’s the case, you may want to provide a glossary to help with vocabulary, especially if that vocabulary also crops up in the main text you’ll be studying. For instance, Oliver Elton’s Amleth translation includes a few vocabulary words from Hamlet, like “obsequies” and “aught.”

Check for Understanding
When they dive into challenging texts, students need to monitor their own comprehension so that they can stop, slow down, and work out what’s going on. Although we ultimately want students to do this independently, the start of a unit is a particularly good time to remind them of this by explicitly checking their understanding every few paragraphs.

Scaffold writing skills
You’re going to want students to write about the main text, right? Probably in paragraphs and essays? Again, this is something that some students are going to find challenging, and a preview text is the perfect place to ease students into the demands of writing about literature using sentence-level tasks. If you’ve read basically any other blog post by me, you know I’m a big fan of Natalie Wexler and Judith Hochman’s The Writing Revolution for this. Having students finish a few because/but/so sentences, for example, is a great way to both check for understanding and help students see how to write about a text, while still keeping things manageable.

Introduce literary analysis
Short texts are perfect for getting students to start flexing their literary analysis muscles in short bursts. Elton’s translation of Amleth provides just enough interesting language choices to give students a taste of what to look out for, and a chance to try out writing about it. You can always ask students to have a go at drawing out evidence from multiple parts of the text to explain how it explores key themes that come up both in the preview text and in the main text; when my students read Amleth, I draw their attention to the importance of bloodline and rank, and the role of spying and subterfuge, both of which also turn up in Shakespeare’s version. This also gives us a chance to practice the all-important skill of pulling quotes out from the text to support our ideas.

This sounds like a lot of work to put together before I even start teaching the play!

Yeah, it kind of is. But don’t panic! If you’re teaching Hamlet and want to start off your unit with Amleth, I’ve got you covered. My Amleth: Hamlet Introductory Activity resource in the Scholar’s Atelier Teachers Pay Teachers store does everything I’ve said above. It’s got:

  • A full eleven-page version, and an abridged four-page version, depending on how much time you have available.
  • SIX different versions depending on whether you want the full text or an abridged one; whether you want a digital or a printable version; and whether you prefer to use PDFs or PowerPoint slides (which can also be uploaded to Google Slides).
  • Vocabulary support on every page, with a focus on words that appear in Shakespeare’s text.
  • Questions on every page to check for understanding, scaffold writing skills, and get students analyzing the text.

You can check out this product here and let me know in the comments what other preview texts you use!

Literature and Literacy: What’s the point of English?

Schools make students take English for longer than any other subject. At the same time, English has become less about literature and more about literacy. Should it be?

When I was in year twelve, on the heels of an exciting assignment in one subject and some less wonderful test results in another, I started to think that I might prefer a career as an English professor to one as a physicist. But this posed a problem; while the value to humanity of unravelling the secrets of the universe seemed readily apparent, I wasn’t completely convinced that allowing myself to be paid to read and write about Shakespeare wouldn’t basically be robbery. I started an English degree anyway, telling myself that education was about more than preparing for work, and that if I did pursue an academic career in the subject, I at least wouldn’t be contributing any less to the world than an investment banker or professional athlete.

By the end of my degree, I had added a major in Education, which came closer to fulfilling my need to be doing something useful. Still, the question of what studying English was meant to achieve continued to haunt me. I wrote essays about the importance of the humanities in education, and sometimes temporarily convinced myself that I was right. I’ve always been aware, though, that I was looking for reasons to justify a belief that I would have held regardless of its logic, and that this was affecting my judgement. Ultimately, the reason why I continued to argue for the importance of studying literature was because I loved doing it.

Most New Zealand schools require students to take English for longer than any other subject, usually through year twelve. Despite our constant bewailing of the emphasis on STEM above all else in our schools, English is actually treated as more essential than maths and science.

This has an impact on what high school English looks like, because for longer than any other subject, English classes are filled with students who don’t want to be there, who don’t see the point of the subject and may struggle with it. Last year I had a student who was moved into my class halfway through the year because she was refusing to complete any assessments in Music. There was no point in her remaining in the Music class if she wasn’t going to do the work, so she moved to a different option and her timetable was rearranged, landing her in my English class. She had no intention of doing any English assessments, either (despite being very able), but she couldn’t simply drop the subject. It was compulsory to be in an English class, regardless of what you were doing while you were there. Keeping such students engaged and earning credits becomes the English teacher’s job, adding another incentive to centre English classes on films and pop culture instead of literature.

So, why is so much importance placed on English? You don’t need me to tell you this: it’s because of literacy.

Despite frequent claims that all teachers are responsible for literacy teaching, and the availability of NCEA literacy credits across the curriculum, English retains responsibility for the actual teaching of literacy skills. When I’m hired as an English tutor, what’s usually wanted is literacy help. It’s English teachers who (hopefully) keep helping students improve their writing skills. It’s in English class that students are introduced to essay writing. English class is the only place where it makes sense to frequently put content on hold to work on the way a student expresses themselves. The lofty status of English in our schools is fundamentally tied to its reputation as a “skills-based” subject; while we can argue that the specific content of any other subject isn’t strictly essential, we have retained some sense that becoming educated entails becoming literate, and requiring students to sit in an English class for four years enables a school to at least appear to meet that obligation.

But what if English class isn’t the best way to teach literacy? There’s plenty of evidence that literacy skills are best taught in the context of learning content knowledge, but English classes (especially those for struggling students) have a tendency to turn into “literacy” classes. A glance over the NCEA English standards or the New Zealand Curriculum achievement objectives for English is enough to see that the study of literature (the content of English as a discipline) is not a priority. And fair enough: while studying literature has some advantages for literacy teaching in terms of encouraging attention to language and high text complexity, literary analysis and writing are very different skills, and writing a literary analysis essay has little in common with day-to-day adult writing tasks. Teaching students to analyse Shakespeare while also teaching them to write about it isn’t actually any easier than teaching writing alongside teaching chemical bonding. Because English teachers carry the responsibility for literacy teaching, however, the chemistry teachers get to continue teaching their subject, while the study of literature is cut out of English class to make room for literacy.

This is a shame, because the study of literature has much to offer students. Literature takes students out of their own heads, broadening their worldview and building empathy. Like other academic disciplines, studying literature builds conceptual knowledge. It also builds cultural capital, allowing students to participate in the wider intellectual conversation. Literature-centred English classes also give students access to the classroom’s most valuable resource – the teacher’s expert knowledge. Most English teachers have degrees in English literature, not literacy development.

However, just because something has benefits doesn’t mean everyone should have to do it. There are similarly strong arguments for the value of history, science, even PE (much as it pains me to admit it, as someone whose decision about which secondary school to attend was heavily influenced by finding somewhere that didn’t require PE beyond year ten). This is is how we end up with a bloated curriculum; we can always come up with a compelling list of benefits for any subject an enthusiastic teacher would like to offer. Literature is important. For some people (the kind who become English teachers), it makes our lives better. But I don’t see any reason why the study of literature – as opposed to literacy development – should be treated as more important than other academic subjects like history and science. In fact, when it comes to being an informed citizen, both of those subjects have more obvious value than knowledge of literature.

So, I’m not saying that high school English should be abolished. I’m saying that we should make room for English to be a subject in its own right, with a focus on literature rather than literacy. In this form, it probably makes sense for English to be equal in status with, say, history — introduced in the junior school, but optional for seniors. Perhaps there should be a requirement for students to take one humanities class, just as many schools require year elevens to choose a science option. Most importantly, this requires a significant increase in literacy across the curriculum. My favourite books on how to make this happen are Hochman and Wexler’s The Writing Revolution, and Mike Schmoker’s Focus. By properly, deliberately teaching literacy in every class (not just assuming that literacy teaching is happening because students have to read and write occasionally), students can spend more time building this essential skill set, and English teachers can get back to teaching the subject they know and love.

Image credits

“old books” by vandentroost is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

“Emptiness” by YuMaNuMa is licensed under CC BY 2.0