Whoa! Stop Asking Questions!


Photo by Gil Epshtein

Picture the following: a group of high-school students engaged, curious and asking questions. What more could a teacher hope for?

Who in her right mind would tell the students to stop asking questions?

Er, um, I just did.

I’m teaching the short story “Mr. Know-All” by Somerset Maugham, as part of the requirements of the literature program. This is a story that requires quite a bit of background knowledge, in addition to having difficult vocabulary.

I knew that.

Before the students and I began the story itself they had to check when World War 1 ended and where was Yokohama. They had an online homework assignment to find pictures related to ships for vocabulary items in the story, such as “port-holes,” “trunk” and “cabin” (wanted to ensure they didn’t think it was a cabin in the woods!). I talked to them inL1 about British Colonialism and made sure they knew that India was once under British Rule (critical for understanding the story!) We talked briefly about prohibition too.

I planned to explain little things such as “some countries have names for their flags” (Union Jack is mentioned in the story) or why gentlemen used to need several brushes (not just for their hair!) as we encountered them. I was also prepared with an explanation about superstitions regarding the night air.

I thought that armed with that information we were ready to start the story itself and face the difficult vocabulary.

It is slow going, as I expected but I didn’t anticipate the immense volume of questions!

Here’s one example:

“King George has many strange subjects”. That’s a line from the first part of the story.

I stopped to explain what “subjects” means as hardly any of the students knew what the word meant in L1 either.

Then a boy asked if the King of England decides things such as laws in England. So I tried comparing the roles of the monarch to that of our president. Another student pointed out that our president had once been a prime minister, so he wanted to know if the prime minister can later become a King. Someone else asked if the royal person that got married recently will be the next king. And why isn’t the Queen’s husband called a King too? Then someone complained that he was confused regarding the different uses of “English” & “British” (not to mention Great Britain and United Kingdom) and are those places I mentioned before (Wales, North Ireland & Scotland) colonies too?


I LOVE to see my students taking an interest in general world knowledge but we have a complex story line to follow here! How does the proverb go – too many trees and you lose sight of the forest?

Part of my job is to keep the students focused and I  find myself stopping them and leaving some questions unanswered. At our slow pace we have to focus on the information needed to understand the story!

Still, I never thought I would be doing such a thing more than once in a blue moon!

8 thoughts on “Whoa! Stop Asking Questions!”

  1. Nice post Naomi,

    You are very lucky indeed to have such inquisitive students.
    Why not turn their questions into homework. If they have questions, ask them to write them down, check them at the end of the lesson, for editing and relevance if necessary and then get them to come back to you with the answers. What about taking the most interesting questions and creating lessons based around them. Just a couple of thoughts. Good luck with the book. I haven’t heard of it before, so I’m off to check it out now.


  2. Ho Naomi,
    What a great problem for you to be having! It seems a shame not to get something out of this, as I know you have struggled to engage the students in general knowledge type topics before.
    How about encouraging them to write down their questions at the end of every page or so? They could do it in Hebrew or English. By doing it after each page, they have time to get a chunk of the story, but not so much that they forget their questions. Then you could use the questions they right as the basis of some cultural inout, before returning to the story. They could also find out some of the answers for omework, and if you can get the computer access, they could even add what they find out to a blog or simlar, and teach the world the answers to their questions. I don’t know what your time constraints are for these lessons, but I hope you can fit in a way to work with their questions.
    It’s so great that they want to know more about the background behind the story, and maybe the questions they’re asking now will mean that they understand more or are more engaged later on in the story.
    Good luck!

  3. Lucky you – or were the kids simply asking as many questions as possible so as not to actually have to get down to reading (boring!) as so many teenagers over here do (gosh they’re wiley!). As Adam mentioned above, I would collect the questions and set them as topics for the students themselves to discover and present in some fashion (i.e. for literature in context and making the teacher less pivotal – teaches the kids some independence). Good luck with the lessons – sounds fun!

  4. Hi Naomi – what a great problem to have.

    I can’t add anything to the great suggestions above. But I can console you with the fact that loads of people, including many Brits, are pretty hazy on the differences between the UK, Great Britain, England/Wales/Ireland/Scotland/Ulster/Eire, the Empire/the Commonwealth, the British Isles, the… well you get the idea.

    And let’s not get started on constitutional monarchies, especially in the UK where there is no written constitution!

    Would that be of comfort for your curious students..

  5. Thank you all for the practical suggestions – I have certainly made note of them!
    homework seems the way to go. Prepared pre-reading tasks for this story as homework, will now work on their questions!
    It IS a novel problem for me – my students are not known for asking a lot of questions!
    Did I stress the fact that all those questions were about ONE line of the story?!! And that all these discussions take place in L1 (either Hebrew or sign language)?
    Can you imagine the trouble we had today with the line “he fished two flasks out of each of his hip pockets”?

    You all will be certainly be hearing more about my “adventures” teaching this story!
    Thank you Adam, Sandy, Tyson, Louise and Alan for taking the time to comment with such helfpful advice!

  6. Naomi! My most memorable literature lessons in high school were about one line in the story, often the opening line. Go with the questions! Encourage the kids to ask and … yes, to find the answers. Yea, how convenient to have you to answer them, but show them the way to find the answers themselves. Teach them how to fish! The plot of Mr. Know-All is quite simple. The moral issues provide food for thought, but what makes it a great story – especially for high school – are the details and the abundance of information (so exquisitely portrayed) about a world beyond what our kids are familiar with. Don’t feel guilty for letting your kids wander through it.

  7. Oh Judy, I can imagine you having a field day with this story!
    This is the one time I regret teaching in the format of a learning center. discussing the literature has advantages when being done with a large group but it is sooo complicated for me!

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