Early in the school year, I pull up next to Tomás for a quick conference. He is reading Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried. I start my conference in the usual way. “How’s your reading going?” I ask.
With eyes down at his desk he says, “OK.”
“So what have you figured out?”
Abruptly, Tomás raises his head and says, “Miss, I’m not
so good at answering questions. I don’t know a lot.”
“What do you mean you don’t know a lot?” I ask.
Quietly, he replies, “Whenever teachers ask me ques-
tions, I can’t answer them.”
“Well,” I said, “let’s switch things around. Why don’t you
ask the questions?”
“Me,” he says incredulously. “What do you mean?”
“Yes, you,” I say. “What questions do you have about
Almost immediately, Tomás starts firing off things he’s
wondering about. “I’m confused,” he says. “Sometimes
the book is about the narrator being at war, and then it
switches to when he is old. It’s like a flashback. Are all these
chapters connected, or are they like short stories?”
I smile at Tomás and say, “I think you know a lot. Maybe
you’ve been so busy answering other people’s questions that
you haven’t had time to work on your own.” Tomás smiles
and together we start to figure out how O’Brien uses time to
structure The Things They Carried.
Thinking about my conference with Tomás, I have to
wonder how his belief that he doesn’t know very much
affects him as a reader. Does it prevent him from asking
his own questions? Does it make him more passive and
encourage him to wait for the teacher to tell him what
the book is about? Does it discourage him from thinking
To promote deep learning, remember
that students’ questions matter most.