Craft the Essential Question

Section 4 of the Coming-of-Age Unit Planning Toolkit

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Essential questions invite students to grapple with complexity, deepen their understanding of a topic or theme, and explore connections between what they are reading, what they are experiencing, and what they are learning about the world today. When students revisit essential questions over the course of a unit, in their journals and in conversation with others, they come to realize how questions can lead to new questions, as well as how literature can deepen their understanding of themselves and their world.

According to Grant Wiggins, an essential question “causes genuine and relevant inquiry into big ideas.” In the same vein, Harvard professor David Perkins describes these “big questions” as inspiring wonder and curiosity about the human condition and our world.1 Unfortunately, classroom research shows that most of the questions that students encounter are review and procedural rather than exploratory. 

Facing History essential questions invite students to use their imagination and lived experiences to explore complex questions about human behavior with the hope that these questions will spark new ones as students deepen their understanding of the literature they read and the world in which they live.

Essential Questions for a Coming-of-Age Unit

Educators can choose from the following Facing History essential questions to frame their coming-of-age unit. Each question invites students to wrestle with complexity and to engage the mind, heart, and conscience in an exploration of the text and reflection on their own lived experiences. 

For educators who plan to implement the “This I Believe . . .” Personal Narrative summative assessment, consider one of the first five essential questions for your unit.

  1. What makes me, me? What story do I want to tell about who I am and what matters to me? 
  2. What do I believe? What factors have shaped my beliefs as I’ve grown up?
  3. What individuals and experiences have shaped my beliefs about myself and the world around me? 
  4. What does it mean to be a (insert label) ________ (boy, girl, gender-fluid person, immigrant, person with a disability, Latinx teenager, Jewish teenager, cisgender teenager, teenager in foster care, etc.) and how can I embrace, amplify, challenge, or escape this label?
  5. What do I stand for? Who/what do I stand up for? 
  6. How can growing up and experiencing adolescence impact or change an individual’s identity?
  7. What are the internal and external factors that help shape identity? What aspects of my identity can I control and which ones are impacted by other people, society, or circumstances?
  8. What does it mean to grow up? When does an adolescent become an adult? 
  9. What does it mean to belong? How do I navigate the tension between my desire to fit in and my need to express my individuality?  
  10. What is the relationship between who I am, who others think I am, and who I will become? 
  11. What responsibility do I have to my family, friends, and community? What responsibility do they have to me? How might my understanding of my responsibilities toward others change as I grow up? 
  12. Where do I see myself and my experiences in the stories that other people write and tell? Where am I missing from these stories? What is the story that I want to tell the world?


  • 1 : David N. Perkins, Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014), 73–74.

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