Writing & Posing Questions

Ninth grade composition is a laborious class. Students write more than they’ve ever written for a single class before, learning the basics of essay writing through repetitive, but critical, practice in forming sound topic sentences, evidence, and analysis. At just over halfway through the school year, students have learned the theory of what makes a good paper and have grown in their own ability to compose well. But, as with learning anything, part of this process is seeing more and more clearly all your own faults. Students often arrive at the end of third quarter knowing that their writing is subpar, but not having quite the maturity and experience to revise their work thoroughly and consistently. Nonetheless, composition class tasks students to wrestle with their language and seek the words that express exactly what they think. Between their writing assignments, as well as the demands of their other classes and the general malaise of winter, students often lose sight of why they are bothering to do schoolwork at all about this time of year, and long for spring break.

The end of third quarter is also the time of year when our senior class defends their papers they’ve composed in Senior Tutorial. At the close of their classical education, all seniors have the opportunity to take full leadership in their own learning by posing a “big question” to consider through the lense of a famous text. Along with teachers, who each serve as their individual tutors, seniors explore their question in light of what they’ve exhaustively read and compose an extended paper with their findings. Then, they must stand before their teachers, peers, and family to defend their conclusion in a short presentation and question and answer session. 

As a teacher, Senior Tutorial appears to be a great opportunity. When else in your life do you have the chance to ponder questions like “Why do people commit crimes?”, “What is love?”, or “What does it mean to be a leader?” over an extended period? Particularly if they undertake their task in their formative years, taking time to engage with a deep question will inevitably define how people approach their future lives and can only serve to make our students grow into more intelligent and virtuous adults. Moreover, Senior Tutorial is the moment when students cease only to provide answers to teachers’ questions and must intrinsically pose questions of the world themselves. In this sense, Senior Tutorial is the culmination of a student’s education.

When ninth grade students, so inexperienced in writing and weighted down with their failures, find out about Senior Tutorial in more detail, they often cower at the project. Writing a paper that is ten or more pages? How could one possibly do that? And then to present about it, in front of the headmaster and an audience? The prospect can often seem like a task to dread, especially if students are already feeling discouraged in their studies. 

This year, I tutored a senior for his project. Due to the timing of his defense, my ninth graders attended the defense during our composition class. The senior I worked with chose to inquire of the relationship between achieving goals and happiness through the lense of the myths of King Arthur. He discussed what amazing feats man might achieve when he sets his eye on a goal and meets it, as well as the dangers of an excess of pride and a lack of patience and prudence. He related how personal happiness is often found when one fulfills the expectations one sets for oneself. My students listened attentively to his defense, and even posed some questions of their own during the question and answer portion.

Here, in this moment, I saw students beginning to do what we hope all students will do when they complete their education: think independently and earnestly about what matters most in life. 

As the defense ended and my class and I walked down the hall back to our classroom, I sensed the students’ minds were racing. Even amidst their end-of-third-quarter fatigue, this senior’s defense had them thinking. When we sat down, I asked, “Does anyone have any observations or questions about what we just heard?” 

A barrage of hands shot into the air and students began posing questions: “So, what if your goal is to love someone and that person dies. Does that mean you can’t be happy?If you continually set goals and never stop, how can you be content? Is happiness really the most important thing? It’s so fickle!” Just absorbing the findings of another student prompted them all to think deeply about happiness, their own objectives in life, and contemplate, even if just for a moment, some of the great questions of this world. 

One of my goals as a teacher is to help students find the answers to my questions, but at this moment, I remembered that the goal is also for them to pose their own questions, without prompting from me, and challenge themselves to find the answer. Here, in this moment, I saw students beginning to do what we hope all students will do when they complete their education: think independently and earnestly about what matters most in life. 

Of course, as students posed their questions, I responded that I have no short answers. I told them these were wonderful ideas to consider and they will have the opportunity to explore ideas like this in their own senior tutorial. And despite them having to return to the task at hand and revise their current short essays for our class, the ninth grade had a short reprieve from their labors, to gain enthusiasm for learning once more and remember why they are working in the first place.