Essential questions and the Power of Storytelling


Two truths about teaching:

1. Questions don’t work too well unless students are in the mood for them.

2. Nothing sets a mood like a good story.

Two truths about stories: 

1. They captivate the imagination.

2. They create healthy soil on which to grow essential questions.

Here is what the dynamic between stories and questions looks like coming out of a unit on the Civil War and into a unit on Reconstruction.

We begin with this fictitious story I created about the break-up of a family. The story doubles as metaphorical commentary on the events leading up to the Civil War.

There once was a house and in this house lived a father and two sons. The mother, a strong and controlling woman, died a long time ago. The two sons, separated by just a few years, have never really gotten along. Arguments arise because the younger son always wants independence from the household. He never comes in on time, doesn’t listen to his father, hates his brother and is always threatening to run away.  The older son has always tried to keep his brother in line with the rules.  In the past, when the two sons argued, a compromise was always worked out. But recently, the arguments have increased to a dangerous point and the younger son is now very serious about leaving the family. Father is worried because, above all else, he wants to keep the family together. He asks his older son to find a solution. He makes it clear to his older son that if a little force is necessary to control the younger son, then it is okay to use it.


Then, a vicious fight breaks out between the two sons. The father hears his sons fighting from his room upstairs but does nothing to stop it, for he realizes that maybe the fight is necessary to end the conflict. If they don’t get out their anger now, father thinks, the arguing will just continue.

The fight last a long time and both sons hurt each other very badly.  The father hates to see his sons hurt, but refuses to stop the fight. Eventually the older brother overcomes his younger brother. The older son stands over his brother with a look of anger and victory.

The father comes downstairs and approaches his two sons, happy that the fight is over but realizing that serious work must be done to keep the family together. He loves his younger son dearly and doesn’t want him to be bitter about losing. He is relieved his older son won but is afraid that he will become too cocky and rub his victory in.

The father knows that he must show both sons that what is important is not who won the fight but that the family stays together. He decides to wait a week before he decides what to do.

A week later, the father hands out a piece of paper detailing his plans for punishing the younger son in a way that will accomplish a seemingly impossible task: keeping the family together.

Together we consider:  What should the father write on the piece of paper? Students get 5 minutes to brainstorm individually, then share responses in groups of three, then discuss as a class.

The discussion is always fascinating on so many levels. You’ll hear student insights on how punishment works in their own families (insights which can be terrifying actually!)  You’ll tap into deeply philosophical issues of the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways to treat others and explore the negative and positive consequences that flow from treating people certain ways.  You’ll talk about blame and personal responsibility. Students really get emotionally and intellectually invested in this discussion. I set aside an entire period at least.

To this point the lesson hasn’t been about US history at all.

It’s been about adolescent theories of punishment.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the essential question arrives: What is a fair punishment for the South after the Civil War?


Ambiguity, unclear definitions and multiple perspectives. This question meets the criteria for essential questions beautifully.

We make the historical connection by exploring the events of Reconstruction with a specific focus on the plans offered by seminal figures of the time–Lincoln, Johnson and the Radical Republicans. Students revisit the question repeatedly to assess the fairness of each of the plans and see if their recommendations for the South were in any way consistent with their recommendations for the younger son profiled in the story.

So think about what has happened here. Students read a story, which lured them into a personal discussion on punishment, which in turn gave birth to a question about how to treat the South after the Civil War. The story set the mood; the question anchored their understanding of the history of Reconstruction; and their passion and curiosity took over from there.

I know. It sounds like learning is moving so slowly and there’s so much work to get to a good question!  Yes, but the investment of time will pay huge dividends in the form of the enriching discussion and deep, meaningful learning.

Learn how essential questions can be used as fuel for conversations:

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”  Sun Tzu

“Right makes Might.”  Abraham Lincoln

“Your silence will not protect you.” Audre Lorde


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