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If essential questions are new to you, basically they are "big idea" questions about recurring themes in a novel or literary piece. These questions encourage students to do the following:
- weigh evidence
- analyze different perspectives
- create thoughtful connections
- spark debate
Essential questions are SO essential (really though!) to creating novel units that this should be the VERY first thing you do before planning any other part of a unit. Seriously.
Follow these three easy steps to utilize our Essential Questions Graphic Organizer (click here to access for free) to begin creating and implementing your own essential questions.
Look at the novel and ask yourself the following questions. Jot down ideas to begin creating broad, open-ended questions for students to discuss.
- What are some of the themes of the story?
- What lessons do I want my students to take away from the reading of this book?
At the start of a new novel, have your students write the essential question in the front cover of their book (or if you're reading a short story or poem, at the top of the piece of literature). Explain to students that at the end of the novel, they will be writing a Response to Literature that answers this question ... thus, taking away the element of surprise and helping your students feel more prepared for their final assessment!
As you read, require students to annotate their text (see this post for helpful strategies and a great free rubric to use) and keep track of any quotes that support their reasoning. You can utilize our Evidence Tracker to help students organize their quotes and justification. By the end of the novel, students have a bunch of textual evidence to help them begin writing their RTL.
Read on to see an example in action ...
Here's the essential question we used for the novel, Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine, in our 5th grade literature class (check out the book if you haven't heard of it ... our students always love it!).
Using Caitlin's experiences in Mockingbird, does the novel support the notion that empathy is essential for human relationships?
TOUGH question for 10-year olds, right? Well, when we first introduced the question to them, we had to define "notion," "essential," "empathy," and "successful human relationships." It was critical that they understood the question before they searched for evidence in the novel to answer it.
Using our Evidence Tracker, Socratic Seminars, student-led blog posts, and art projects that focused on the main character and her ability to empathize with others, we were confident our students were well-prepared for their final Response to Literature.
Just to give you an idea of the quality of work we received, here's an excerpt from one student's response:
"To form a successful human relationship with anyone, both people must demonstrate empathy ... It is very important to put yourself in another's shoes and realize how they are feeling. That is what Kathryn Erskine, the author of Mockingbird, teaches readers. She demonstrates this lesson by using the protagonist, Caitlin, a young girl with Asperger's syndrome, as an example of someone who doesn't quite understand the concept of empathy. Erskine uses people from Caitlin's everyday life, such as Josh, Michael, and her dad, to model the notion that empathy is essential for successful human relationships.
Caitlin expresses her knowledge of empathy when she shows kindness to one of her classmates, Josh, who has bullied her in the past. Josh and Caitlin have a very shaky relationship in the beginning of the novel. They disagree a lot and fight. Since Josh's cousin took part in the Virginia Dare School shooting, he is labeled 'the bully.' However, Caitlin shows a significant improvement in her social skills when she confronts Josh. Erskine says, 'I watch him and wonder if he wants a fleece or a sofa cushion to cover him up. That's what I want when I feel bad' (209). When Josh is in the center of the circle crying, Caitlin shows empathy for him. She knew if she was in an uncomfortable position like Josh, she'd want her purple fleece to pull over her head, or shove her head under the sofa cushion. So she kneels next to him and comforts him. At the end of the novel, Caitlin and Josh's relationship starts to become successful. They share things like Caitlin's gummy worms and markers. By showing empathy for Josh, Caitlin has built a successful relationship with him."
You can say it. WHOA. We, too, can't believe a ten-year old wrote this. But she did!
By starting the novel with an essential question, students are able to dig deeper and come up with some amazing observations. It's such an excellent way to meet Common Core Standards, and more importantly, engage students in a close reading of the text.
**Important Tip: When creating an essential question, PLEASE make sure you write your own essay or Response to Literature answering it. As teachers, when we sit down to write our own response to the essential question we've come up with, we are more easily able to find gaps in the question. The question might not be entirely clear and needs to be reworded. Or there might not be enough evidence from the text to adequately support an opinion.**
Looking for more ways to improve writing in your classroom? Check out this blog post.
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