Literature-focused Document Based Questions (for Othello!)
In the last week and a half before break I presented my students with our first Literature Document Based Question (DBQ). I knew about DBQ’s from seeing our history teachers use them, but the workshop I attended at a recent NEATE convention helped me understand how DBQ’s could be powerful tools for teaching literature. Essentially, based on the workshop, I learned that a DBQ and literature has these components:
- A question that requires students to state a claim and support it with evidence, analysis, and reasoning.
- Background information that helps students understand key concepts that are needed to adequately understand and address the prompt
- A collection of text (excerpts, poems, etc.) that they can use to address the prompt.
When I first saw these DBQ’s developed to teach students to analyze literature I was drawn to the idea for two main reasons:
- Focus on argument, not regurgitation: One of the aspects of teaching ELA that I struggle with is the “essay at the end of the book” model. I spent too many years running around the room for several days helping students find parts of the book that support their “thesis” because they either didn’t read the book well enough, didn’t read the book much at all, or didn’t know which parts of the book to focus on as we read. The DBQ model move student focus away from looking for “events” and instead on specific parts of the text that require them to do deeper analysis of the text and make a stronger argument.
- Alignment: The DBQ model is one that students use routinely in history class in my school, so students are familiar with the format, and gives me an opportunity to better align with our History teachers.
The DBQ Project has tons of products, and I searched for one about Othello. However, since one did not exist, and, frankly, since I prefer to make my own materials anyway, I made my own. The prompt that students had to answer was “Which emotion is most responsible for the tragedy in Othello: pride, love, or jealousy?”
Students who followed the directions I gave, and went through each section of text and looked for evidence related to each emotion (pride, love, and jealousy) had much more interesting thesis statements than students who simply picked a thesis and search for evidence that proved it. In fact, unlike previous years and previous essays, I had at least five students tell me the thought that there thesis was going to be one thing, but after a close reading of the passages, they decided something different. Essentially, a close reading of the evidence altered their thinking – imagine that! Using the DBQ model also allowed me to do far more teaching around using evidence and reasoning to make an argument than simply running around doing essay triage. When students make a claim, or shared their thinking with me, it was easier to ground them back in the text since reading and thinking about five passages was much less overwhelming than scanning the book. Essentially, student’s intellectual energy was focused on close reading and making an argument rather than trying to remember what happened when in the book. I consider that a win, especially that close to the holiday break!
Plans for next time:
1) More of a focus on how the three emotions (pride, love, and jealousy) are part of my student’s lives, and how they also see these emotions through the play as we read it. As often happens in English class, we got so caught up in understanding Shakespeare’s language (a worthwhile but time-consuming task) and also in our literary analysis of the text that I didn’t take the time for students to write and discuss the ways they see pride, love, and jealousy play out in the story – and how they actions of the characters mirror or do not mirror their own. The few students who did an extra-credit activity related to this wrote thoughtfully and introspectively, and I would very much like to make this kind of writing and thinking about pride love and jealousy a cornerstone of our work with Othello next year, rather than simply an add-on. In order to do that I will probably need to add a week or two to the unit, but I think it will be worth it.
2) While students started to do a close reading (well, really re-reading) of the DBQ passages when they got the assignment, they were supposed to finish their reading of this evidence on their own for homework. That did not go as planned, both in terms of students simply not doing homework, but also students who attempted to do this work but struggled and needed more guidance and support. Next year it would be worth adding a couple days to the unit, or simply cutting out some of our analysis work from earlier in order to give students more focused class time to work in small groups and with me to do more deductive reading of the evidence to develop their thesis, rather than simply “skimming” for lines they think will support their presupposed answer.
For anyone that is interested, here is the link to the Literature DBQ for Othello I developed. If you download it, all that I ask is that you please leave a comment below and let me know what you think!