I’m working with an MAT (Master’s in the Art of Teaching) student this year. She’s assisting in two of my classes, and in the spring she’ll take primary responsibility for one of them part of the time. She’s terrific: smart, engaged, thoughtful, and dedicated; I think she’s going to be an awesome teacher. One of the projects she worked on recently was designing some lessons on the Haitian Revolution. I sent her off on this task knowing that it’s challenging: the Haitian Revolution is really complicated. It would be convenient for history teachers if the story were simple: The French Revolution calls for popular government and equality of all people; the enslaved people of Saint Domingue, the French sugar colony in the Caribbean, hear about it and demand to know why revolutionary ideals don’t apply to them; they rebel and create a republic, establishing a democracy that recognizes all races of people as equal. The reality was much messier than that. It involves at least three different social and racial groups, foreign intervention by Britain and Spain, French flip-flopping on the legality of slavery, and lots of infighting among the would-be founding fathers of Haiti.
My MAT student eventually came up with a great activity for our class (I’ll describe it shortly), but what’s relevant for this blog post is how she did that. When we were talking about her planning process she reported that, “the Four Questions were really helpful while I was reading through all this stuff. They really grounded me as I was researching, and kept me from going down rabbit holes that would have taken me really off track.” As she was researching, clicking on links and reading articles, getting sucked into the complications of the story, she would regularly pause to ask herself, “What Question is this thing that I’m reading right now trying to answer?” Once she determined that, she could then make a thoughtful decision about whether it was worth reading on or whether she should stop and get back to something more relevant. She was primarily interested in getting the story down, for herself and for our students. So if she found herself chasing a Question Two (“What were they thinking?) for an obscure minor participant in the story she’d stop and get back to something more directly connected to the narrative. Question Three (“Why then and there?”) is really interesting, but was not going to be the focus for this lesson. And Question Four (“What do we think about that?) has to wait until kids know something about the first three Questions. So by keeping the 4QM in mind as she read, she was able to make efficient use of her time and resources.
She ended up designing a great Question One lesson. The culminating activity was built around a series of paintings about the life of Toussaint L’Ouverture by Jacob Lawrence. She made laminated color copies of six of the paintings, and after kids had done some reading about the Revolution she gave them the paintings and had them put them in the correct order and use them to tell the story of the Haitian Revolution out loud. It was a challenging activity, because the story is complex, and putting the paintings in the right order required accurate knowledge of both the revolution and L’Ouverture’s role in it.
We’ve often said that the Four Question Method can be a reading tool for students. Of course it works well as reading tool for teachers too.