Questioning Our Texts, Questioning Our Lives by Agnes Zapata

Can discussing our own questions inspire higher investment in our writing and ultimately inspire higher investment in particular issues?


Towards the end of last school year in 2013, one of my English 3 students wrote, “my favorite lesson was when we read about Janie & Tea Cake’s love” referring to the book Their Eyes Were Watching God.  Last year’s batch of juniors were more invested in writing in general, but I knew this would not always be the case.  While I knew that many students enjoyed the book, I was still left with the problem of how could I consistently use that energy to inspire higher investment in their writing and higher investment in particular issues born out of the text.

This year’s crop of juniors similarly would be interested in the reading, however when it came to writing, produced much less.  Their investment in the issues born out of our texts was often short-lived and it was like pulling teeth sometimes even to produce just a couple of paragraphs.

In the past, I had used a combo of student based leveled questions and teacher based questions for class discussion and then once we went to the writing stage of our unit, the only available prompts for students were teacher based questions.  Leveled questions are student created questions that include “level one” questions as “on the surface” questions–questions that have only one response and can be found explicitly in the text.  “Level two” questions can have multiple responses that come from deeper analysis of the text.  “Level three” questions make more connections between the text and our lives.  My teacher based questions are normally “level three” questions.

Earlier in the year, in a non-fiction unit on Euthanasia, student “Q” emails me asking “Is this good so far?” referring to his essay responding to the teacher made prompt “Is euthanasia ever justified?”

Miss Moore believes that Francis inglis did not have the right to kill her son to take him out his misery. I agree with Miss Moore because Francis inglis did not have the right to kill her son to take him out his misery.

First I disagree because this was the wrong thing to do. For example last year at Oakland tech I knew this kid named jahkil and he had a mental disability but it wasn’t bad to where his mother wanted to put him out his misery. This lady was completely wrong her son could have been smart just like jahkil but she didn’t know.

Second no one has the right to kill someone to put them out there misery. I feel that was the absolute wrong thing to do

In response to this email, I spoke to student Q the next day telling him that he needed more analysis and I asked him what happened to all of his ideas and analysis that he talked about during the Socratic Seminar.  He said that he did not really know what else he could add on the essay.  So I asked myself, where did the engagement fall flat? Why didn’t student Q take his engagement in the Socratic Seminar to his writing and elaborate more on his ideas?

Moving Towards Student Centered Choices

I decided to use leveled questions not only to spur class discussion but also as the basis for student essays.  In order to translate the same engagement from the reading and discussions into the writing, I decided to have students use google docs to have an online discussion with their leveled questions, vote on the top questions, and then use those as the basis for their writing prompts.  Maybe, if student Q could not only talk about his own questions and the ideas he was curious about, but also have the option of writing about his questions, he would be more invested in the writing and in turn, write more analysis.  We would also incorporate civic engagement through mimicking the democratic process of voting and choice.  In this process, I hoped that students would realize that their voice matters and that they had a responsibility to the rest of the class to share their ideas and weigh in on what would be the best questions to write on.  I did take a deep breath–I was giving up A LOT of teacher power.

Period 2 Their Eyes Were Watching God Leveled Questions

Directions: First write TWO level 2 questions and TWO level 3 questions. Put your name in parenthesis behind each question. SECOND, right click and comment on EIGHT questions of your choice.  Put your initials next to your top FOUR favorite questions (either L2 or L3) to vote. ***If I see you erasing or messing with other students’ work you will earn yourself a 0.***

Level 2 Questions

Level 3 Questions

1. Why do Janie’s marriages always end bad?

(Salma) JO LO SZ

2. Why did Janie get fucked for the third time?

(Salma) AC SZ

3. Why did Janie say Teacake is still alive? (Daisy)

1. Would you have gotten married 3 times like Janie? AC SZ


2. Would you have shot your husband/wife if he/she shot you first?

(Salma) AC DE JO LO FZ SZ  dk

3. why did they change somethings from the book in the movie?(jose)GL SZ

Would students maintain interest in the issues at hand or would it simply die once I announced the palabra of pain for so many students far and wide…ESSAY!

After reading Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, students made their leveled questions and then joined together in a Socratic Seminar.  After, we went to our shared google doc and students voted on the most popular questions which would then become the choices for the essay prompts.  In both the in person Socratic Seminar and the online discussion, students were able to share their question and this time, many students who previously wrote little, this time wrote much more.  Many  students with uncompleted essays wrote more than their “complete” essays in the past.  Compare student Q’s essay  with his previous work I had shared earlier.

In the beginning he explains why he wants to write about this particular question.  His response is very similar to many other students.  Many students chose questions that (1) they found interesting (2) they felt they could write a good essay (3) they felt they knew appropriate evidence to back up their point.

Currently, student Q still talks about how this book was the best book we read the whole year and he still talks about how this was probably his best essay he ever wrote.  During the writing process, student Q was the most focused I have seen him during an essay–rarely choosing to goof around or play with his phone.

Unlike student Q, I cannot provide an example of another student, W’s earlier writing in the class because he had not written an essay the entire school year until this one.  Student W’s essay is below.

Another student, J talks similarly of the success of using academic discussion, online discussion, and choosing questions for writing.  He discusses how students need to pay more attention if it is a question they created rather than a question the teacher created.  He also discusses how students had to learn how to listen to other people’s opinions and hear different ideas.


However, the process was not smooth sailing for every student.  I found that Student P wrote much less than she had in the past and complained that this wasn’t writing, it was typing.  In the next writing assignment after, she chose to write about how using technology like computers are more of a distraction rather than an asset.

Later I would observe student P and several others like her who, rather than becoming more engaged with the writing, just stared at the screen or went to other websites.  Previously, when I chose the essay prompt, I could offer them quote trackers so they knew what quotes to look for and so they could record them for use during the final essay.  I also had very clear and organized outlines geared towards the teacher prompt and depending on the student–could offer them sentence starters very early on since I knew the prompt since the beginning of the unit.  Since the leveled questions were student-created, the quote scaffold was not there as well as the outlines and sentence starters.  While most students seemed to find this liberating as evidenced by their ease with writing more, it was difficult for student P to write without the teacher created question and scaffolds that accompanied it.  Although it is fairly easy to write out the general essay outline regardless of the prompt, each question does require its own scaffolding (at least for eleventh graders!).   Additionally, student P also complained that “this isn’t real writing, it’s just typing!”

The following is her essay from Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Compare with her work earlier in the year in response to a teacher-based prompt in which she wrote out her essay before typing:

She would later agree with this EAP prompt:

In “Shakespeare Never Lost a Manuscript to a Computer Crash,” Theodore Roszak of CSU Hayward argues that “the computer contributes nothing essential to the life of the mind. No, not even all the information that comes gushing out of the World Wide Web . . . Am I saying that computers might actually get in the way of significant

intellectual work? Yes, I am.”

–Theodore Roszak

Drawing from your own experiences, explain whether you agree or disagree with Roszak’s claim that “the computer contributes nothing essential to the life of the mind.”  Support your position with reasons, explanations, and examples.

Student P’s response:

After completing this questioning process with two novels now, I wonder, how can I accommodate both types of students?

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *