Questions as Invitations, Not Inquisitions

By Russ Walsh | Russ On Reading | 2017 | Twitter: @ruswalsh | Author of A Parent’s Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century: Navigating Education Reform to Get the Best Education for My Child | ON SALE 20% off on Amazon, $15.95. | Syndication made possible through Patreon.

By Russ Walsh

When you are a writer, inspiration for your writing can come from all over, suddenly, unpredictably, sometimes even against your will. Into my in box this past week came an email from the Academy of American Poets, with a collection a poems for the beginning of the school year. Most were familiar, including this one by the acclaimed American poet of the working man, Philip Levine. 

M. Degas Teaches Art and Science at Durfee Intermediate School – Detroit 1942

He made a line on the blackboard, 
one bold stroke from right to left 
diagonally downward and stood back 
to ask, looking as always at no one 
in particular, “What have I done?” 
From the back of the room Freddie 
shouted, “You’ve broken a piece 
of chalk.” M. Degas did not smile. 
“What have I done?” he repeated. 
The most intellectual students 
looked down to study their desks 
except for Gertrude Bimmler, who raised 
her hand before she spoke. “M. Degas, 
you have created the hypotenuse 
of an isosceles triangle.” Degas mused. 
Everyone knew that Gertrude could not 
be incorrect. “It is possible,” 
Louis Warshowsky added precisely, 
“that you have begun to represent 
the roof of a barn.” I remember 
that it was exactly twenty minutes 
past eleven, and I thought at worst 
this would go on another forty 
minutes. It was early April, 
the snow had all but melted on 
the playgrounds, the elms and maples 
bordering the cracked walks shivered 
in the new winds, and I believed 
that before I knew it I’d be 
swaggering to the candy store 
for a Milky Way. M. Degas 
pursed his lips, and the room 
stilled until the long hand 
of the clock moved to twenty one 
as though in complicity with Gertrude, 
who added confidently, “You’ve begun 
to separate the dark from the dark.” 
I looked back for help, but now 
the trees bucked and quaked, and I 
knew this could go on forever.

(from What Work Is, Knopf 1991)

What jumped out at me in this reading of the poem was the question the teacher asks: What have I done? 

What have I done? To me, this is an invitational question. The question invites speculation. The question invites a variety of possible answers. The question has no right or wrong answer. The question taps into each individual student’s background knowledge, schema, conceptual understanding and for some apparently, mischievousness. The question invites talk.

As teachers we ask a lot of questions. Indeed questions may be the most important tool in the teacher’s arsenal, but too often our questions are inquisitional, rather than invitational.

Inquisitional questions have right answers. They do not encourage speculation. They cut off talk. Literary theorist, Louise Rosenblatt, criticized these inquisitional questions in her seminal article, What Facts Does This Poem Teach You.?” The title giving away what she viewed as the objectification of an art form through unenlightened questioning. 

Here are some inquisitional questions for the poem above:

  • What is the significance of the poem being set in early April?
  • How does the narrator characterize the student, Grace Bimmler?
  • What evidence does the narrator provide that he is not interested in what is happening in class?

I think it would be much better to approach this poem, and most reading material for that matter, with a liberal use of invitational questions. Here is a list to get you started. The first one is my favorite and one that was taught to me by my wife, Cynthia Mershon, a literacy teacher.

  • What stood out for you?

This question invites the reader to participate in a conversation with a fellow reader. You can’t be wrong, because you are answering from your personal experience with the text. After this opening invitation, we might follow up with these questions:

  • Can you say more about that?
  • What makes you think that?
  • What does this get you thinking about?
  • Does that make sense to you?
  • What is another possible way of thinking about this?
  • How does what (another student) said square with your understanding?

In a world increasingly focused on the standardized test, it may seem counterintuitive to recommend these invitational questions as a way into reading comprehension. Doesn’t the student need to be skilled at answering the inquisitional questions?

Well yes, but I would argue that the best way to help students develop their comprehension of a text is through first inviting them into the world of the text and then, through skillful follow-up questioning, helping them refine their understanding of the text. This is, after all, what all readers do when they read independently. In Rosenblatt’s words it is that initial “lived through experience of the text” that provides the baseline for ongoing interpretation and understanding.

So as this school year begins, may I suggest that you redouble your efforts at refining your questioning techniques in such a way that will invite your students into the learning.

About Russ Walsh

Russ Walsh has had a forty-five year career in public education as a teacher, literacy specialist, curriculum supervisor and college instructor. He is currently the Coordinator of College Reading at Rider University in Lawrenceville, NJ. His major academic interests have been in reading fluency, content literacy, instructional practice and parental involvement in education. Russ blogs on public education, literacy instruction and teaching practice at Russ on ReadingHe lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania with his wife, Cindy Mershon, and their three cocker spaniels.

A Parent’s Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century: Navigating Education Reform to Get the Best Education for My Child

Book: A Parent’s Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century
Author: Russ Walsh
Garn Press (248 pp.) ISBN: 978-1-942146-33-9
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