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Sunday / November 19

The Questions We KEEP

On the very first day of my very first class of my doctoral program I learned something that has stayed with me for 33 years. My research design professor was talking about the importance of research questions when he said something like this (as you read, remember that he shared this thought experiment long before the era of cell phones):

Imagine a driver lost in a rural area. No gas stations for miles and miles. No traffic. Not much of anything around except for some abandoned farms. The driver, looking to scavenge some vintage farm artifacts, pulls into one of those farms and runs over an old rake, destroying a tire. The driver asks himself, “Where can I find a jack?” and looks around for one.  Nothing to be found, so the driver has to trudge miles and miles to the main road in the hope of flagging down a car to ask for assistance. Now imagine if the driver asked himself instead, “How can I raise my car?” That question may have caused the driver’s noticing the old pulley system in the barn that had been use to lift bales of hay. A few feet of driving, easily possible even with the flat, some tinkering, and the driver is on his way. You see, the question is what matters.

What’s true for the driver in this thought experiment is largely true of the students we teach. The question is what matters. Little wonder teachers spend so much time asking them. But, that’s the problem we see with questions in the classroom. The teacher is the one doing the asking. Questions indeed matter greatly, but they are only really useful under two conditions:

  1. Students can ask them on their own
  2. The questions are applicable to a variety of texts.

Professor Getzel’s story makes the first point. Let’s take a minute to explore the second, starting once again with a thought experiment, this one taken from Uncommon Core, written by Deborah Appleman, Jeff Wilhelm, and me:

Imagine that you have a class full of the ultimate go-getters, kids who resolved to complete their summer reading assignment the moment school is let out in June. Now imagine you’re writing your lesson plans for the first week of school. How much knowledge of the book can you count on? If your kids are like the kids we’ve taught, not so much.

This answer has profound implications. If our questions elicit only knowledge of a particular text, they don’t do our students much good because students will soon forget that knowledge. We need to teach them something they’ll remember and be able to apply to their subsequent reading. When a teacher asks a question, the teacher has done most of the interpretive work by noticing what aspects of the text are worth asking about. Rather than drawing students’ attention to what they should think about, we need to teach them how to formulate their own questions, questions that prompt them to notice particular textual features that will help them think about texts, and their meanings, on their own.

That’s why in each chapter in Diving Deep, we present a lesson or set of lessons that teach students a questioning strategy. For example, we know that experienced readers read different kinds of texts in different ways. Think of how different newspaper headlines are from the carefully chosen titles of (most) poems. But because there are so many kinds of texts, we can’t teach the characteristics of all of them. Instead, we teach students a set of questions they can use over and over again:

  • What kind of text is this?
  • What are the essential features of this kind of text?
  • How did the author employ these features?
  • What was the author’s purpose in employing them that way? What meaning and effect did the author want to achieve?

We call these KEEP questions and we think they are important for readers to ask themselves no matter when (or what) they read. Doing so helps students to make meaning with their genre expectations as well as to make meaning when those expectations are violated.

One last thought experiment:

Imagine finding a piece of paper with some text on it. When you pick it up and read it, the first thing you’re likely to ask yourself is, “What kind of text is this?” Your answer to that question will determine what you do with it. If your answer is, “Oh, it’s just an advertisement,” you’ll probably toss it in recycling. If your answer is, “Hmm, it seems to be a research paper,” you might think of the kids in the neighborhood who might have been writing such a paper, so you could let them know what you found. If it were the signature page of a contract, you might let people on the neighborhood listserv know that you found it.

You see, what we do with a text depends in large measure on how we categorize it. The KEEP questions help students focus on doing what experienced readers do as a matter of course. Noticing genre is a crucially important reading strategy. We have to help our students develop it. Casting them as questions-askers instead of question-answerers is an effective way to help them do just that.

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Written by

Michael W. Smith, a professor in Temple University’s College of Education, joined the ranks of college teachers after eleven years of teaching high school English. His research focuses on understanding both how adolescents and adults engage with texts outside school and how teachers can use those understandings to devise more motivating and effective instruction inside schools. Michael is the author of Uncommon Core and Diving Deep into Nonfiction.

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Latest comments

  • My comment echoes Jeff’s in that we think that much of the knowledge that experienced readers bring to texts is tacit. We do what we do without thinking much about it. One of the things experienced readers do, I think, is try to understand what kind of text we’re reading or watching or hearing. The KEEP questions are designed to encourage students to do what experienced readers do unconsciously.

    I have to say I disagree that the questions are “school-y” because I think we categorize the texts we experience both in and out of school in similar ways. We use the example of comic strips in the book to illustrate this point. I think we read joke-a-day strips differently than, say, serials, in that our job in a joke-a-day strip is to get the joke. We don’t try to get the joke in serials, at least not in the same way.

    The questions you pose are interesting ones. In fact what we call the rule of the reader’s response asks kids to focus on what they find most striking. And surely it’s crucial to identify what’s most important in a text. Our whole project in the book is to help students understand how to do just that.

  • Hi, I don’t really believe that any one of those four questions – at least as you put them – would be asked by the “usual” reader. Well, perhaps not overtly — I do get that the advertisement example makes some sense.
    Are there less “school-y” ways to put them?

    And, yes, yours are important questions, useful for a citizen as well as a student.

    What’s your feeling about these questions? The first, a favorite of Betty Jane Wagner, “What strikes you about this writing?” and the second from David Bleich, “What’s the most important passage in this writing?”

    • Thanks for your comment, Marilyn. I hope Michael will also chime in.
      Actually, when we researched expert teacher readers when we began this study, we found that they always oriented themselves towards as a text AS something – as a kind of text – and that informed their reading and navigation and expectations. We found that KEEP helped student readers to do that same kind of orienting. Certainly kids don’t typically read in this way, but experts do, so the KEEP questioning heuristic helps them to do what more expert readers do and to consider how genres and text structures organize texts for meaning and effect.
      The two questions you share are really excellent ones but they’d need follow up to tune most student readers into genre and text structure noticing – and that’s what we are trying to do with KEEP.

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