Drawing from the Well

Chapter One - Digging the Well
Lesson 2 - Choosing an Essential Question - The Focus of Study

Setting the Stage:

Choosing the essential question is the key component that shapes the content, research, interviews and final projects. It is the reference point for the entire program. In our previous Drawing from the Well programs the following areas of focus have been addressed:

  1. How did life in our communities during the Great Depression compare to our lives today?
  2. How does water affect our lives?
  3. What is family?

In this lesson students will begin to understand the many facets of a given subject and apply their knowledge and interests toward a chosen area of study. Have students come to class with the surveys they have done on their own and with their families.


Through the Drawing from the Well project, students' engagement in and ownership of their learning is accelerated. This happens by giving students choices and allowing them to make educated decisions. Ultimately, through the combination of asking good questions, exploring topics and forming relationships with community members, students gain a broader understanding of issues. In addition, they can make connections with the larger world by researching current and past events.


  • Students will begin inquiry into a given topic.
  • The students will recognize the variety of aspects and range of influences involved in a given topic.
  • The students will make the connections between aspects and influences, as well as past and present in a given topic.
  • The student will contribute positively in a group.

NM State Standards: Language Arts II-A (7-4, 5) I-A (8-2)

Materials and Resources Needed:
Blackboards or large sheets of paper to record and display for sharing ideas Student and family surveys available to access ideas for the Webbing exercise

Duration: One or two class periods (more time needed if students create the question.) A homework assignment is optional.

Activities: In developing the essential question teachers may choose to determine the question, based upon the content area they are required to cover or a teacher may pose the area of inquiry to students for them to create the question. Either way, the decision will shape the entire focus of study and participation in the Drawing from the Well project.

  1. Option 1: Teacher determined question: Present the question to the students. Discuss the purpose and analyze it according to the characteristics listed below. (Write the underlined headings for all to see.) Consider encouraging your students to add their ideas for shaping the question.

    Option 2: Student created question: Present the topic from the content standards to be studied (i.e. traditions, migrations, geography, power, communities, transportation, resources). Have the students brainstorm the questions that arise when thinking about the topic. Remind students that there is NO censorship or wrong idea in brainstorming. List the underlined characteristics of a compelling essential question below. Discuss. Have students in groups develop their favorite question according to the characteristics, then present to the whole class for choice by consensus.
    Characteristics of a compelling essential question (Handout #2):

    1. Free of Bias: The answer to the question should not be able to be judged "right" or "wrong", nor should the question have a value judgment implied. For example, "How has the media hurt our community?" should be phrased "What impact does the media have on one's community?"
    2. Broad Concept: The question cannot be answered simply. It should be complex and provide rich ground for student exploration and paths for student interest and choice. For example, "What are the sources of water in our community?" can be broadened to "How does water affect our lives?"
    3. Connections: The question requires connections between the students and their community, their community and the rest of the world, and the past and the present.
    4. Exploration: The question cannot be answered from a single source, nor from within a single subject area.
    5. Requires Skills and Knowledge: The question requires students to process a variety of ideas, sources, and perspectives through: accessing, analyzing, evaluating and synthesizing new information for one's own ideas to communicate to others.

    Select the question: Have the students analyze the possible questions. With the whole class or in small groups have the students arrive at a consensus for the best essential question. If in small groups, have them pose their best question for selection through consensus with the whole class.

    Decision-making by Consensus (All Winners - No Losers) Making decisions in groups can be difficult in a classroom. If a teacher models a particular process in whole-class decisions, students will be able to use that same process in their small groups.

    With the diversity found in any classroom, the teacher needs to provide a safe environment for all opinions. A vote can often be detrimental to the "fringe" population (those unpopular with their peers, shy, different) as it shuts out their often creative and unique contributions. Learning to achieve consensus demands that all be heard and considered equally.

    Bringing the Group to Consensus:
    When a decision needs to be made, the proposed essential questions are written on the board.

    Step 1: Open discussion about the issue. What are the pros and cons of investigating a particular question?

    Step 2: Check in. Rate and give your stand on the proposed questions: Thumbs up/Thumbs down/Thumbs horizontal (Yes, No, Neutral)

    Step 3: If group is split, have more discussion. If a proposed essential question has a clear majority, let the minority give the reasons for their stand. Allow rebuttal to the arguments. (Disagree about ideas, not people.)

    Step 4: Repeat check in.

    Step 5: If 100% agreement is not achieved, ask for solutions to the impasse. Can an idea be incorporated? Can broader wording be applied to include the interests of others?

    Step 6: Repeat check-ins and integration of ideas until 100% agreement achieved.

    This takes time, but the students gain skills and insight. Also, they have increased ownership and interest when they are part of the choice for their learning.

    NM State Standards: Language Arts I-A (8-2) II-A (7-4)

    NOTE TO TEACHERS: If the students are just learning about brainstorming, group sharing, and consensus, it's best to have the teacher facilitate the discussion. If the students are familiar with these activities, working in small groups facilitated by peer leaders enlarges the input from students and therefore enriches the outcome. Sharing after each step by reporting out (both orally and in writing) increases interaction and understanding.

  2. Exploring the question: Brainstorm all the possible aspects, influences, ideas, and connections to the essential question with the webbing exercise. You may choose to do this as a whole class or in smaller groups:

    Start with a large theme or the essential question your students are addressing. Some large themes may include: Culture, Family, Water, Work, Health, Environment, Education, Freedom or Change. Put the one word in the middle of a piece of paper or on the blackboard, and ask students to volunteer associations with this central word. All suggestions are connected to the center of the web by a line, either to the original word or to a suggested word. (See Appendix/Samples and Activities)

    Examples: During our first year, students from Drawing from the Well used the word "Culture." From this one word four groups of focus evolved: Celebrations, Livelihood, Church and Education, and Folklore. In the second year, students came up with: Remedios, Tools and Technology, Arts, and Acequias. In the third year the students worked with the essential question, "How does water affect our lives?" Hence, the word "water" was put in the middle of the web. From "water," students freely associated ideas and came up with these groups of focus: Health and Recreation, Art and Culture, Acequias, and Bodies of Water. During the fourth year the essential question was, "What is family?" which placed the word "family" in the middle of the page with sub-headings of Religion, Culture, Language, and Values.

    Once a category of interest has been identified, it is useful to do the webbing exercise again to brainstorm sub-categories.

    We recommend posting the webbing ideas in the classroom for reference and further discussion.

  3. Choose the areas of exploration for the students to investigate.
    NOTE TO TEACHERS: Form groups according to student interest and teacher discretion concerning the working ability of students and the dynamics of their relationships.

  4. Student Writing Sample:
    Have the students write a quick narrative answering the essential question. (See Chapter One, Lesson 4, Free Write) Do not give any further explanation or instruction about writing. Inform them that this is a sample of their best writing and knowledge about the subject. Let them know this may be one way to measure their progress at the end of the project.

    NOTE TO TEACHERS: This is a great opportunity for diagnosis of student ability and for planning future instruction to address areas in which students need the most work and knowledge. These early writing samples can be compared at the end of the project to the student's final writing to measure learning.

Assessment: The teacher should monitor the participation and activities, through observation and anecdotal record. In addition, the teacher can use the Teamwork Rubric for each student to self-evaluate. (See Appendix/Methods of Evaluation) The teacher can analyze these quickly, make comments, or talk to students who evaluated themselves differently. The students can be asked to redo their rubric once they understand the expectations, or the teacher's point-of-view, based on observations.