In a freshman English unit, for example, teachers might want students to end a unit by writing a narrative. If this is the case, elements of narrative and narrative-type assessments should be the focal point all throughout the unit. The essential question, too, must drive students to consider how narrative works. Perhaps the question might be, “To what extent can narrative transport a reader?” Now, the question is designed to drive the unit all the way through whatever selected texts are used AND ensure that students are not blindly walking into an assessment disconnected from the rest of the unit. The question also naturally calls for students to develop an opinion about narrative that should evolve across the course of studying the unit. By the time students get to the end of the unit, they should be well versed in the components of narrative that make it transformational for a reader and then able to attempt one of their own.
Instead, we have “required assessments” put in place from district offices. Then, a year or two later, well meaning teachers are told to include essential questions. Instead of starting with the assessment, they start with the themes of the novel they’re studying or a major skill that they perceive to be important. And although now essential questions are on the curriculum map, they’re not driving students to understanding or teachers to instructing.
2. There are too many essential questions on the table
If you’re struggling with using and revisiting essential questions in your classroom, consider this: do you have too many? Wiggins generally suggests having an OAEQ (overarching essential question) and then one other essential question that is a bit more specific. In terms of a English school year, I like to think of one overarching question for the year (all of English 2) and then an essential question that drives each unit. I’ve seen so many curriculum maps with four or five essential questions for just a single unit and wonder to myself so...which one is ESSENTIAL?
For students to delve deeply into the question, there need only be one or two to consider. Make it juicy, make it cultivate curiosity, and make it open to a wide variety of lenses. Then, ask that question over and over and over again as students learn more and see more of the world that you expose to them through the unit.
3. Students never respond to the essential question
They’re on the map, they’re on the handouts, and sometimes they’re even on the school website, but if essential questions are not in front of students to respond to during the unit, then how are they meaningful?
Many teachers start with good intentions. It’s an easy gateway to explore students first thoughts on the question at the start of a unit. But, so often, the question fades into the background and the content takes over. The novel or play takes over. The world war takes over. Intentionally designing opportunities for students to respond to the essential question formally and informally throughout the unit allows them to track how their thinking has grown and shifted. It’s how we help students make sense of why they’re learning what they’re learning.