cultural studies

Beautiful Questions

By David D’Altorio, 8th grade cultural studies teacher

What if questions are more important than answers?

As any parent or early childhood educator knows, young children are natural and incessant questioners. It makes sense – for much of our early lives, every day holds previously unknown objects, sensations, and experiences. We must ask questions simply to understand what’s happening around us.

But as we become more ontologically secure, we become less curious; according to a 2009 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, only about 50% of middle school students ask questions about their knowledge and experiences on any given day.

As a middle school teacher, that statistic is troubling to me. Some of the most powerful moments in my classroom have been when students were able to ask a question that opened the door to a body of knowledge or a line of thinking that they never knew existed before. It was perhaps even more troubling as a citizen of the 21st century. These days, our ability to sift through mountains of irrelevant, inaccurate, or intentionally deceptive information is being tested like never before. In all this informational static, I know that great questions serve as antennae that help us find the signals in the noise.

For these reasons, I decided to try a new tool in my cultural studies classroom this fall. I learned about it through our faculty and staff summer reading book, Warren Berger’s A More Beautiful Question. Berger explores how entrepreneurs, artists, activists, and educators have improved their businesses, schools, and lives by consciously asking more – and more novel – questions. It’s called the Question Formulation Technique (QFT), and it’s deceptively simple. In essence, the teacher presents the students with a claim about which they must then develop as many questions as they can. Afterwards, the class examines and discusses their questions, chooses which ones are most interesting or important, and uses them to focus further reading and inquiry.

So, to kick off our study of the American Revolution, I presented to my eighth graders the following claim: If people are unhappy with their government, they should be allowed to get rid of that government. After five minutes of furious question generation, every one of my students had developed deep, complex, and fundamental questions about the nature of political revolutions generally. For example:

  • “Would the government be replaced with a new one? What kind?”

  • “Is everyone unhappy, or just some of them?”

  • “What would happen to people who liked the government?”

  • “Would the place just become chaos?”

  • “Would there be violence?”

Such questions provide students an opportunity to think through the momentous challenges and decisions facing such revolutionaries as Britain’s North American colonists in the 1770s. They also enable students to focus their efforts during our class readings and discussions on questions they have framed for themselves, giving them additional incentive and investment in finding an answer.

We’ve just started experimenting with this tool, but I’m already encouraged and excited to see how far it can take us. I know that teaching students to ask better, “more beautiful” questions will help them succeed in school. I hope it will also help them succeed as thoughtful citizens.

Monthly Constitutional: On Race & the Justice System

by Lois West, Director of Communications

This past Tuesday's 8th grade Monthly Constitutional was an especially rewarding experience for me. TPS alum Ben West '93 – my son – was a featured guest, along with his colleague Natasha Taylor-Smith. Ben and Natasha, assistant federal defenders in Philadelphia, spoke about what drew them to public service, particularly to the defense of indigent clients in a justice system that treats individuals differently on the basis of race and class.

Natasha spoke of her first appearance in court as a law student defending a mother who had lost custody of her daughter. She was proud of her client, who had overcome homelessness and unemployment and found a home for herself and her daughter. She argued passionately in front of the judge – who, she realized in mid-argument, was asleep on the bench.  Burned into Natasha's soul, that experience led to a personal and professional commitment to serve with integrity, passion, and respect and to an eventual run for a judgeship herself.

A different kind of judge inspired Ben to go into public defense. As a high school student, he interned in the courtroom of Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge C. Darnell Jones II. (The judge is now a federal judge, before whom Ben is scheduled soon to appear with a client.) Judge Jones, who is African American, was troubled by what he perceived to be racial inequities of the criminal justice system. Ben recounted the day when the judge wept openly in court as he sentenced a young African American man to a lengthy prison term. The judge asked, “What will it take so that I never will have to send another young brother to prison?”  Ben told the students that he feels he has a responsibility to help reverse the disparate racial effects of our criminal justice system.   

Natasha and Ben's 50-minute presentation to our 8th grade constitutional scholars somehow also managed to include a discussion of merit selection versus election of judges in Pennsylvania, federal versus state jurisdiction, and the 4th and 13th Amendments.

The final question directed to Natasha and Ben was, "When you were in middle school, was there anything you were studying that you weren't particularly passionate about but has had a big impact on your life or career?" Natasha mentioned reading nonfiction, which she now realizes opened new places and new perspectives to her. Ben mentioned Spanish, in which he is fluent. He explained, "My Latino clients appreciate this, and I can establish a better and more trusting relationship by speaking with them in the language in which they can best communicate."  

As an alumni parent, I will be forever grateful to my children's teachers at The Philadelphia School for reinforcing the values of respect, equity, and social justice. (A special thanks to Marco Velis for the Spanish!)

Dovie Thomason Shares Her Story

Dovie Thomason, Lakota/Kiowa Apache storyteller and cultural educator, came to share her story with the 7th grade today as part of our cultural studies unit. Thomason's father attended the Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, PA, one of dozens of boarding schools in the 20th century that worked to "civilize" indigenous children. The school's motto? "Kill the Indian. Save the Man." Questions about membership, identity, race, and what it means to be American are hot topics this spring in 7th grade!

Race, Assimilation, and Repercussions of Colonization

Several guest speakers will be presenting in the 7th grade in the next few weeks as part of our studies on race, assimilation, and the repercussions of colonization today.

Monday, May 19; 9:15 and 10:45: Dorothy Roberts, George A. Weiss University Professor of Law and Sociology and the Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professor of Civil Rights at the University of Pennsylvania; recent author of Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-Create Race in the Twenty-first Century.

Tuesday, May 20, 10:30-12:00: Dovie Thomason, Lakota/Kiowa Apache storyteller and cultural educator. Most recently, Thomason is preparing to begin her time as the University of Manitoba Centre for Oral Culture and Creative Writing’s writer/storyteller-in-residence for January – March 2015.

Wednesday, May 28, 9:55-10:35: Witold Henisz, Deloitte & Touche Professor of Management in Honor of Russell E. Palmer, former Managing Director at The Wharton School of The University of Pennsylvania; recent author of Corporate Diplomacy: Building Reputations and Relationships with External Stakeholders.



Sixth graders learned the of story of Mteto Maphoyi, a native African whose father left him a single keepsake – a Pavarotti CD – when he abandoned his young family. The CD guided Mteto's childhood and adolescence, inspiring him ultimately to become an opera singer. Mteto is currently studying at the illustrious Black Tie Ensemble in South Africa. Watch his TEDxTeen.