Next Level: Asking the Wrong Questions about Tom Sawyer

Nothing is more important when teaching literature than asking good questions. Well-crafted questions lead the students into the text, focus their attention on vital details and arguments, and model for them how to wonder, seek, and discover.

In the May issue of ToolKit, our monthly digital magazine, we have included a fun and useful exercise on how to improve questions for class discussion. The subject is Tom Sawyer and his antics on a glorious Sunday morning.

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This is one in a series of exercises on asking questions. The format is simple: we take a weak question on a great text and form better questions. The immediate impact is to improve how we the teachers lead a discussion. The ultimate benefit is for our students: improving our questions guides them into the text, directs their attention to details, arguments, passages, comparisons, puzzles, and any other element on which they should focus. The hard work required to probe deeper, ask further questions, discover insights, draw good conclusions, pull a variety of evidence together, argue for an alternative interpretation, compare passages or compare the text at hand with another, is still the students’ responsibility. These tasks, however, will be more fruitful if we ask better questions.

Let’s take a look at an example. Below are some weak questions about Mark Twain’s classic novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. What follows after is an explanation of why they are weak and some better questions to ask instead.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Chapter IV

  • Should Tom have misbehaved on Sunday?

  • Why did Twain craft a protagonist who is so clearly unheroic? Is it because he was irreligious himself?

  • What would you do if you were Tom? How would you try to win Becky’s eye? Would you do what he did?

What is wrong with these questions?

Possible answers: On one level, the first question is not very interesting. It is a fairly shallow expedition to evaluate Tom Sawyer’s moral character as he prepares for Sunday school and later as he shows off for Becky. On another level, the question takes us out of the story by having the students make the case for or against Tom’s disobedience.

The second question distracts us with a question about authorial intent that is, at the same time, a leading question. An authorial intent question almost always pulls the reader away from the text; we want questions that lead students into the text. Added to this problem is the attempt to add on a concern about Twain’s religiosity. That, too, leads the students away from the text. Twain is not Tom, and, by asking questions of this nature, we cause the students to identify the voice of a character with the author. This is poor training.

The third set of questions is simply not relevant to the discussion.

With this particular episode in the novel, we want the students to direct their attention to the picture of Tom that is evident in the details: what he does, what he thinks and says, where he is, with whom he relates, how others respond to him. Note the opening of the chapter with its language of “benediction.” It is a glorious Sunday, resplendent with sunshine. It is also marked by one funny event after another. Tom is full of boyish distraction, evidenced first by his struggle to memorize his Bible verses—this, in spite of the fact that he has selected the shortest ones he can find, the “Blessed are...” lines from the Sermon on the Mount. This is funny, and we want the students to appreciate it, not judge it. (The humor of the Sunday setting is carried all the way through to the last line of the chapter when Tom names David and Goliath as the first of Christ’s disciples.) Then, under the motivation his cousin supplies—a promise of some wonderful prize—he digs in and completes the Sunday memorization. His reward is a coveted “barlow” knife. That should be a delight to the students as well.

Washing is the next Sunday task. Again, Tom has a mind different from his superior’s. This is where he tries to pull a fast one (the first of several in this chapter): he tries to deceive his cousin. And again, Mary makes sure the work is completed. Yes, he attempts a false execution of the bath. Mary corrects him, and it is well-deserved but not harsh or cruel; she is maternal in her manner, resolved and attentive to detail. She then attends to his Sunday best, about which he is even more upset; in fact, he loses his temper, especially in the face of having to put shoes on. Again, Mary leads him forward: “Please Tom—that’s a good boy.”

Then there is Sunday school, whose leader is described in great detail. The description makes us laugh; it also makes us wonder how that man could lead that group of children in Bible study. Among the events that follow, guests arrive, including a pretty girl, whose name we learn two chapters later: Becky Thatcher. Tom is smitten at first sight and acts accordingly, expressing himself in buffoonish roughhousing, then scheming a Bible procurement as means to impress. This latter intrigue does not end well.

And so the funny chapter on Sunday ends, funny mainly because of Tom’s antics and shortcomings, which, though not very much in line with the formalities of the occasion, are not altogether unsympathetic. Two chapters later, having first rejected Tom’s overture in the form of a peach, Becky takes an interest in his artwork. To put that another way: Tom fails the first time but succeeds on the second try.

  • Better question: How does Mary respond to Tom’s resistance to his Sunday responsibilities?

  • Better question: What roles do Mary and Becky play in motivating Tom—at home, then later in Sunday school?

Andrew J. Zwerneman serves as president of Cana Academy.