Asking Compelling Questions | Facing History & Ourselves
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Asking Compelling Questions

Students engage in meaningful discussions with their peers about a text while using text-based evidence to support their thinking and making real-life connections to what they're reading.


At a Glance

activity copy


English — US


  • English & Language Arts


  • Culture & Identity


About This Learning Experience

In order to internalize what they are learning, students need to participate in intellectual communities that value speaking and listening as much as reading and writing. Philosopher Hannah Arendt described this imperative: “However much we are affected by the things of the world . . . they become human for us only when we discuss them with our fellows. . . . We humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of it we learn to be human.” 1 When students bring their minds, hearts, and consciences to conversations about literature and life, it allows them to broaden their understanding of the text, themselves, and their world. Discussions are richer when students are grappling with questions that matter—questions that are open-ended, intellectually engaging, and transferable to their own lives. 

The following learning experiences support text-based, student-centered discussions. They offer compelling questions that invite students to draw evidence from the text to support their thinking, engage in conversation with their peers, and make real-life connections to what they are reading.

  • 1Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1968), 24–25.

In order to deepen their understanding of the text, themselves, each other, and the world, students will . . .

  • Read critically and ethically to understand thematic development, characterization, conflict, and craft in order to make personal and real-world connections between the text and their lives.
  • Analyze the internal and external conflicts that characters face and the impact these conflicts can have on an individual’s choices and actions, both in the text and in the real world.
  • Identify examples of injustice in the literature they read and in the world today. Examine how an individual’s identity, group membership, and relationships to systems of inequity can impact their sense of who they are and their agency when faced with a moral dilemma or choice.
  • Draw evidence from the text to support analysis of what the text says and what can be inferred about characterization and setting.
  • Set guidelines to designate roles and responsibilities for a discussion.
  • Prepare for and participate in conversations to practice expressing ideas clearly, building on others’ ideas, and incorporating evidence from the text.
  • Pose questions and share information to connect the ideas of other students and respond to others’ questions and comments with relevant evidence, observations, and ideas.
  • Integrate evidence from the text with analysis and personal reflection in a written response that includes language and visuals.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before using this learning experience, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

Facing History learning experiences are classroom-ready activities that you can incorporate into your lesson plans. They are designed to be modular and adaptable, so you can use them over and over again with a wide range of texts to help students explore characterization, point of view, perspective taking, setting, and thematic development through a Facing History lens.

This learning experience is divided into three sections—Introduce, Explore, and Extend—which increase in complexity and depth of analysis, but they don’t need to be used in sequence. The entry point depends on students’ familiarity with the concept and the level of complexity they are ready to tackle. Educators might choose to incorporate just one section into a lesson plan, teach all three over the course of one or two class periods, mix and match, or repeat one multiple times during a unit to help students track character or thematic development.

  1. Introduce: The first activity introduces a concept and helps students develop the schema they will need for deeper exploration. It may involve vocabulary work, schema building, and opportunities for personal reflection and pair–shares.
  2. Explore: The second activity engages students in a deeper exploration of the concept and helps them apply it to the core text of the unit. It includes opportunities for close reading, literary analysis, collaboration with peers, and rich questions for small-group and whole-class discussion about the text and how it connects to the real world.
  3. Extend: The third activity invites students to produce a reflective, expository, analytical, or creative piece of writing (or other form of expression) in order to explore connections between the text, key concepts from the learning experience, and/or their own lives.

Unlike with other Facing History learning experiences, when implementing Asking Compelling Questions, we recommend that you always do the Introduce activity, which asks students to revisit their classroom contract, before engaging in the Explore group discussions. If your students have not created a classroom contract, we suggest that you review the Contracting teaching strategy and make time for this important community-building activity. Our guide Fostering Civil Discourse: How Do We Talk About Issues That Matter? is another valuable resource that can help you prepare students to bring their minds, hearts, and consciences to reflective conversations with their peers.

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  1. Ask students to respond in their journals to the following questions. Let them know that they will be sharing their ideas with a partner. Project or read aloud the following prompts one at a time.
    • Identify a time when you have felt comfortable sharing your ideas and questions in a class. What happened in those moments to help you feel comfortable?
    • Identify a time when you have had ideas or questions but have not shared them. Why not? What was happening in that space?
  2. After pairs share, debrief as a class, asking pairs to comment on any patterns or similarities that they noticed. Record these on the board. Then discuss the following question as a class: What can we do as individuals and as a class to make sure that everyone feels comfortable sharing their ideas and asking questions during a discussion?
  3. Review your classroom contract, affirming the norms that students have already established and/or modifying the terms as needed. See the Notes to Teacher section for more information about contracting if it is a new concept for you and your students.
  1. Divide the class into small groups and pass out the Compelling Questions for Literary Analysis and the Keep the Discussion Alive! handouts. If this is the first time your students have used these resources, read the discussion questions out loud together and then choose one question to practice with as a class. Encourage students to use the sentence starters to keep the discussion alive and to support their ideas with evidence from the text. 
  2. Then have each student choose a question that they would like to discuss with their group members. Let students know if there are questions that you would like them to discuss as well. Give students a few minutes to gather evidence or identify scenes that help them think about the question they chose. 
  3. Have group members choose a facilitator, summarizer, and timekeeper and then read aloud their questions so they can decide on an order. Circulate while groups engage in their conversations, prompting them to support their ideas with the text as needed. At the end of the discussion time, have each group complete the following two sentence stems to help support the summarizer’s presentation: 
    • One important insight or connection that arose during our discussion is . . .
    • One question that arose during our discussion is . . . 
  4. Use the questions generated by the groups for a class discussion. Then have students synthesize any new understanding in a short journal entry that explores the following questions: What new, different, or deeper understanding do you have about the text as a result of today’s discussions? What new questions do you have?
  1. Have students choose a question from the “Connecting the Text, the World, and Yourself” section of the Compelling Questions for Literary Analysis handout to explore in a “one-pager” writing assignment. 1 (See examples of student work.) 
  2. Explain that for this one-pager, students will explore the question that they chose and represent their thinking on a single page using both language and images. The language can include their own reflective writing, notes from their group discussions, quotations from the text with short analysis, and connections to their own lived experiences. The images can use color, sketches, and/or collage to represent key concepts and ideas. While artistic students tend to gravitate toward these kinds of assignments, it is important to remind students that one-pagers are about deep thinking, not artistic ability. 
  3. Model the assignment by sharing your own one-pager. Consider giving students a template with shapes like boxes and circles as an option. 
  4. Have students reflect in their journals on the question they chose, responding with their own thinking, ideas from the text, and experiences from their lives. Then have them represent their ideas with language and images on the template or a piece of paper. 

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Facing History & Ourselves is designed for educators who want to help students explore identity, think critically, grow emotionally, act ethically, and participate in civic life. It’s hard work, so we’ve developed some go-to professional learning opportunities to help you along the way.

Using the strategies from Facing History is almost like an awakening.
— Claudia Bautista, Santa Monica, Calif