Article for Teachers

Questions We Didn’t Know We Wanted to Ask

Using the poetry of Pablo Neruda in the classroom.

The teachers who early in my life stood out—who made a difference in how I felt about school, about learning, about myself—have at least one thing in common: they were questioners. They asked questions of us—as individuals, as a class, as a part of a greater world beyond the classroom walls. In the margins of the papers and reports they returned to us were not just checkmarks or terse comments, but more questions asking us to go deeper, consider another angle or viewpoint—prodding at, through questions, our laziness or inattentiveness. Standing at the blackboard or lectern, the best teachers not only offered us precise facts, they dangled before us speculation, even wonder. And, as if the question marks had been sharp and inverted, I was hooked.

But questions, it seems to me, now have fallen out of favor. At all levels, there is an absence of essential, meaningful questioning. For our politicians in debate, questions are scripted from preconceived answers. In literature classes, we learn to ask questions for which there is only one correct answer: “What does Hawthorne’s Minister Hooper wear over his face?” rather than “How could such a veil change him into ‘something awful, only by hiding his face’?” Today, the question from a child’s mouth is too frequently something like “How did he do that?” referring to a special effect in yet another action film.

In my work with young writers, I try to give back some of the kind of questioning that continues to be crucial to my own growth, as a writer and as a person. I introduce (or, in some cases, re-introduce) this notion of questioning and speculation through one of the finest literary models, Pablo Neruda’s Book of Questions (El libro de preguntas), translated by William O’Daly. Here, each poem is a series of questions. The poet asks and, without waiting for or providing answers, moves on to another question, then another, at times sounding like a precocious child who, in the torrent of asking, cares not for responses. As with all Neruda’s writing, the world—at its most trivial and its most essential—is his subject, and his language is invested with color and vivid imagery, forming a unique way of looking and asking.

                          Why didn’t both of us die 
                          when my infancy died?

                          Do you hear yellow detonations 
                          in mid-autumn?

                          From what does the hummingbird dangle 
                          its glittering symmetry?

                          Is 4 always 4 for everybody? 
                          Are all 7s equal?

                          What’s the name of the flower 
                          that flies from bird to bird?

I have used Pablo Neruda’s question poems in grades 5 through 12, in ESL, bilingual, and all-English-speaking classrooms. Recently, I used them as an introductory first session with a fifth grade class. It was a Monday and I related how I’d been to a weekend family gathering where a lot of small children were present. I’d forgotten, I told them, how at a certain age children ask so many questions. How many of them, I asked, had younger brothers and sisters? And did they ever notice how their siblings asked a lot of questions? In response, eyes rolled, heads nodded enthusiastically. (Students, I’ve learned, are very interested in knowing about our lives outside the classroom, who we are “unofficially.”) Why do you think, I asked my students, that small children ask so many questions? “To find out stuff.” “They don’t know anything.” From across the classroom: “They don’t know any better.” Yes, I admitted, it is a way of learning, of finding out about the world. But as we get older, I proposed, do you think we tend to ask fewer questions? Silence, then some nods of heads, some “yeahs.” Why? “We know everything,” someone threw out, getting the laughs. “We’re supposed to know.” What? You’re supposed to know everything? “No, but lots of stuff.” “We’re afraid to ask,” from the back of the room. In the corner, “We don’t want to look dumb.” Oh, so if we’re going to ask questions, it’s better to keep them to ourselves. Is it dumb then to wonder aloud in the cafeteria line what you’re going to have for lunch—nachos or burgers? “Yeah.” Is it dumb to wonder aloud what you’re doing on this planet? What you might do with your life that’s different than the person sitting next to you? Different than anything anyone’s ever done before?

Prompted by my suggestions and observations, posed in almost all cases as questions, a lively discussion followed. (I attempt to divide most of my classroom time as one third presentation/discussion, one third writing, one third reading/sharing. For this lesson, I’ve learned that sometimes the discussion takes longer.) Some of the points explored during our discussion included:
                          What’s more important: the answer or the question?
                          What’s more powerful?
                          Do all questions have answers?
                          Do all questions have only one right answer?
                          How do we make discoveries about the world?
                          How do we find out about one another? (I ask students, don’t they want to fall in love with someone some day, maybe have a relationship? Needless to say, the difference in response between a fifth grade class and high school is vast!)
                          Do we all ask the same questions?
                          Do we all ask questions in the same way?

By way of these last two points, I attempt to direct students’ attention to how each of us has a perspective, a particular point of view, wholly our own. The questions we ask and the way in which we ask them say much about who we are. As writers, we call it, in addition to our point of view, our stance on life.

Next, I introduce Neruda’s book. I read excerpts aloud, choosing questions I think the students will find most interesting and engaging. (As with all the literary models I use, I try not to let vocabulary stand in my way. If necessary, I’ll list a few words on the board, providing brief definitions.) In ESL or bilingual classes, I read the excerpts in both Spanish and English, as we sometimes do in all-English-speaking high school classrooms where students have studied Spanish. In either language, it is impossible to miss Neruda’s distinctive use and love of language, his arresting images, his way of asking the questions. Some lines I use include:

                          Why do the leaves kill themselves 
                          as soon as they feel yellow?

                          What did the tree learn of the earth 
                          to confide to the sky?

                          At whom is the rice grinning 
                          with its infinite white teeth?

                          When prisoners think of the light
                          is it the same that lights up your world?

                          Have you wondered what color 
                          April is to the sick?

                          Who’s the magnolia kidding 
                          with its lemon’s aroma?

                          In the sky over Colombia 
                          is there a collector of clouds?

                          Why does the rain weep with joy, 
                          with or without cause?

                          How do the seasons discover 
                          it’s time to change shirts?

Though I inevitably get in response at least one “weird” and some giggles, Neruda almost always captures the class’ attention. I ask the students to notice the questions’ vast subject matter and the interesting and surprising ways Neruda has of asking the questions—for example, his playful tone and vivid imagery, his variety of sentence structure, his use of contrast, of personification, and of metaphor (for those classes where this has already been introduced).

Then I go to a student model. What other young writers have written in response to the same literary model can be extremely useful. While there may be some copying or close imitating, hearing exemplary work of their peers can encourage and inspire students. With this fifth grade group, I read some lines from a list poem called “Questions,” a class collaboration by eighth graders at the Awty International School in Houston, Texas:

                          Why is sadness always pushing like a runner to overtake happiness?
                          Who decided “opposites attract”?
                          Why does crying help you smile?
                          Why do clouds move away from me?
                          Do I see the same moon that people in China see?
                          Why do people judge each other by their actions when their thoughts might
                          be more harmful?
                          Does anger make everyone feel like they’re on fire?
                          Why is depression made out of salt water?
                          Why can’t Monday be Wednesday or Sunday?
                          Why is ignorance so embarrassing?
                          Is pine-scented insecticide a good idea?
                          If our arm falls off during life, is it waiting for us in heaven?
                          Who decided to call this Earth?
                          Who came up with figurative speech?
                          Why are certain things inappropriate, and who decided?
                          How is it that there are more questions than there are answers?

Then students write their own lists of questions. I encourage them to be playful with language and subject matter, like Neruda. Nothing, I tell them, is exempt from wonder. Think back to the cafeteria line, the nachos versus burgers. What question might Neruda find in this? I urge students to free themselves from premature editing (the list format is good for avoiding this). Let your mind roam, I tell them. Consider the world with different, wondering eyes. Ask the questions you always or never knew you wanted to ask.

One virtue of this assignment is that no one can fail. Everyone has questions. Naturally, there will be the class clown, going not for the playful but the silly or the bizarre in order to win the laughs. And there will be those students who only come up with the obvious questions, ones that can be answered with a simple (and obvious) yes or no. But, with most students, I’ve seen how after an initial warm up, there is a loosening as they become more emboldened, how they fall into an almost rhythmic letting go.

During writing time, I walk around the classroom, encouraging, commenting, suggesting, helping to unstick the stuck. When appropriate, and with the authors’ permission, I read aloud good examples. The best results come from hearing a fellow student’s writing. The effect is often energizing. For the students who, after four or five queries, think they have exhausted their reservoir of unasked questions, I suggest they go back and look at what they have. Is there another way they might ask their questions, a more vivid word or image they might add?

Then, if time permits, I go around the room and ask for volunteers to read their work aloud. In this fifth grade class, because so many students wanted to read and our time was limited, I asked them to pick their two favorite questions and read them. This is my favorite part, where a certain magic, a wondering, takes over the classroom. In a climate where no question is deemed stupid or too trivial, where all questions are honored, so are our students’ ideas, thoughts, hopes and fears. As they admire the work of their fellow writers, they may also learn that someone else’s thoughts and anxieties mirror their own and a certain trust and empathy is established.

With this fifth grade class, I collected the students’ papers and, at home, put together a class poem. (Depending on the number of students and the quality of the work, I try whenever I assemble a class poem to take at least one line or image from each student.) Then I typed it up. (Seeing their work typed up enables students to get a truer sense of being a writer, particularly in schools were computers are scarce. For some of my students, it’s the first time they’ve ever seen their work “in print.”)

I brought the class poem to my next session. To enthusiastic response, I read it then posted it on the board. I also made certain that the school principal received a copy. Here then, from the Greenbriar School in Northbrook, Illinois, is the class collaborative poem:

                          We Were Wondering …
                          Why are rainy days called gloomy?
                          Does rain fall because God cries when a young person dies for no reason at all?
                          Why do flowers always bloom out and not in?
                          Does winter always have to come before spring?
                          How come people say the moon is made of cheese and not waffles, for example?
                          When someone tickles you, why do you laugh?
                          Why does anger feel like you are under a heavy weight?
                          Why do things we don’t know about scare us?
                          Why do we make mistakes?
                          Why did it take so long to discover the light bulb?
                          Why are there choices that are complicated to some people and not hard to others?
                          How come girls have long hair and boys don’t?
                          How come there are more girls than boys in the world?
                          Why do you see the word “men” in writing every day and not “women?”
                          Why do people have eyebrows?
                          Why do we get taller when we get older?
                          Why do dogs chase cats?
                          Does every living thing have a way of communicating?
                          Where does Jimmy Buffet get his songs?
                          Why is a piece of paper not as valuable as a dollar bill which is also a piece of paper?
                          Why do cookies disappear fastest when you’re not the one eating them?
                          How come cake is served at parties?
                          Why does everything have a name?
                          Where does time come from?
                          Are you in complete control of your life or does fate just give you paths?
                          Is there a limit to everything?
                          Is anything perfect? Anyone?
                          What happens if heaven gets too full? Will people get longer lives or will heaven be expanded?
                          How old is God?
                          When God created the earth, did he want it to have so many problems?
                          Do you have to eat and sleep in heaven?
                          I am what I am, am I anything more?
                          Is life a play and the ending already made up?

By our asking questions, we keep the curious, eager child alive in all of us. Neruda asks:

                          Where is the child that I was— 
                          inside of me still—or gone?

For that question, we have the answer.

Deborah Cummins, "Questions We Didn’t Know We Wanted to Ask: Using Neruda" from Luna, Luna: Creative Writing Ideas from Spanish, Latin American, & Latino Literature. Copyright © 1996 by Deborah Cummins. Reprinted by permission of Teachers & Writers Collaborative.
Originally Published: August 15th, 2016

Born and raised in Chicago, poet and essayist Deborah Cummins earned a BA at Northern Illinois University and an MFA at the University of Houston. In her musical, spare poems, Cummins engages natural and human cycles. She is author of the essay collection Here and Away: Discovering Home on an Island...