To ask or not to ask? That should NEVER be the question

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My family often refers to me as “the questionnaire” because I am constantly peppering people with questions during all of our conversations. What can I say? I spent four years as both an English literature student at Bates College and a reporter/editor for my college newspaper. I simply always have questions to ask of myself and those around me. Why sit back quietly when you can talk, discuss, laugh, challenge and learn?

I never leave a situation, project, paper, or classroom without feeling as though I have thoroughly understood everything and put forth my best effort and energy. I am eager to continuously learn how to improve and better educate myself. This inquisition has pushed me to be very mindful about how I interact with others. The ability to think critically about lesson plans, student behavior, and educational theories is a skill I believe to be invaluable. I am constantly striving to integrate this skill into all of my classes as an English teacher.

One lesson that I will always remember is one I taught my ESL students when I was on my Fulbright Scholarship in the Czech Republic. I taught William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in one class period to six classes of ESL students. Before this lesson, I had watched a modern version of this classic, tragic romance in Stratford-Upon-Avon in 2018 as an English major at Bates prepping for my senior thesis. However, the last time I actually read, analyzed, and discussed the text was my first year of high school. As a first-year student, I didn’t fully appreciate the themes and nuances that lie between the lines of well-known scenes and acts.

My indifference to English literature changed during my junior year of high school. During this year I signed up for a course called “Modern American Literature” and had a teacher who constantly questioned my thinking of classic American novels and plays, such as Of Mice and Men, Catcher in the Rye, The Scarlet Letter, and Death of a Salesman, by asking me strings of thought provoking questions. While in this class I learned about the importance of close-reading and rereading. I learned about the significance of seemingly small, out of place, moments. I loved feeling as though I could speak my thoughts about the reading and have my teacher challenge me to think through a thought even further. These are the moments that pushed me to become an English major. And these are the moments that I hoped to bring to my English classes as a teacher.

When I was teaching in the Czech Republic, I was told to teach the basic plot of Romeo and Juliet in 45 minutes. No more, no less. This seemed an impossible task for me. But after the first lesson, I realized that simply discussing the basic plot with my students not only helped their conversational English skills but also their inquisition. I was able to show the students that the tragic plot points can actually impart beautiful messages for readers.

When having the students discuss the play, I walked around to each group, sat with them, and asked them many follow-up questions to the answers they gave me. At first, they were stumped as to why I kept on asking them all of these questions. But then, slowly as they kept answering my questions, they realized the deeper meaning and looked shocked and proud as they shared their thoughts with me. The sight of these students’ faces showed me that not only has the Czech Republic provided me space to discover my passion for teaching…this country also granted me an opportunity to figure out what I want to teach – English literature.

During most of my lessons I asked my students the following questions:

  • Where does the story take place?
  • When at the Capulet party, did Romeo know the name of the girl he had fallen in love with? Explain.
  • What plans did Juliet’s father have for her? What did Juliet decide to do instead?
  • Why didn’t Romeo and Juliet’s plan succeed?
  • Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is known as one of his most famous tragedies. What is a tragedy and why is Romeo and Juliet’s story a tragedy?

While these questions seem to be merely about the basic plot points of the story, they are actually meant to scaffold the students’ understanding of the underlying themes. As I walked around to each group of students, I not only asked them the questions listed above, but also had them walk me through the story and explain why they think I asked them these questions. Again, this process seems tedious and excessive but it actually allowed the students to think, rethink and reflect upon how they could transform basic plot points into a thematic conversation.

At the end of the lesson I asked the students, “Why do you think Shakespeare would kill off these two young, innocent lovers? What’s the point? What’s his purpose?” When the students looked at me like I was a crazy person who was clearly overthinking the play I again had them walk me through the basic plot points: The Montagues and Capulets hated each other, Romeo fell in love with Juliet without knowing her name at the Capulet ball, they decide to secretly marry, Friar Lawrence gives Juliet a potion that allows her to fake her death, Romeo is unaware of the plan, sees Juliet dead and kills himself, Juliet sees Romeo dead and kills himself, and the two families make peace. This is Shakespeare in under 50 words and it is not a perfect summary by any means.

That said, by rehashing these points I helped the students see that the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, two young individuals who fell in love without considering differences in identity, showed their families the importance of peace and love regardless of conflicts rooted thousands of years ago. The students and I then talked about the value of living in the present and learning from the past to move forward and love more fully in the future. Knowing that they can pick a part and discuss Shakespeare’s iambic and archaic version of English gave them more confidence about speaking with me in passing after class. One lesson I planned became a year of continuous development as a teacher, community member, and friend for my students and colleagues.

I also had to alter this lesson to work for a more active and talkative class. I took extra time after my lessons on Tuesday to think about each student in this class and how I could develop a lesson that would ensure we had a productive and effective lesson about Shakespeare and Romeo and Juliet. This involved creating a scavenger hunt, designed to test the students’ reading comprehension of various Shakespeare biographies. I also included questions that were not found in the biographies, forcing the students to ask me questions in order to receive the answers they needed for the scavenger hunt. Creating this lesson reinforced the importance of thinking about the different ways diverse groups of students learn in my various classes.

So, to ask or not to ask? This should NEVER be the question because questions only improve learning and cultivate curiosity – traits that will translate to social and conversational skills far outside any classroom setting. The act of asking questions is how I was able to meet and interact with so many people in the Czech Republic. I would have been lost if I couldn’t ask questions. I would probably be somewhere in the far eastern side of the Czech Republic waiting for a non-existent train on the wrong platform and track if I couldn’t ask questions. I am able to confidently write this blog because I have been surrounded by a community of individuals eagerly trying to answer all questions I throw at them and know I am only going to keep on asking more and more. And I hope my students and friends keep asking me more as well.

Sarah graduated Phi Beta Kappa and Magna Cum Laude with an Honors English degree from Bates. After taking her Fulbright Scholarship to teach ESL in the Czech Republic, she completed her Masters of Arts in Teaching at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.


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