I love designing units around essential questions, so when I began planning my The Hate U Give unit plan, that’s where I started. I’ve talked before about why I love teaching The Hate U Give, but in this post, I want to share exactly how I use essential questions to connect the novel with real life.
(Want to teach The Hate U Give using essential questions but don’t want to plan? Skip the tips and grab my done-for-you The Hate U Give Complete Unit.)
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Why use Essential Questions When Teaching The Hate U Give
It’s really easy for a novel study to feel pointless for our students. Often novel studies follow the same patter: students read, they answer some questions, and we test them on how much they listened in class.
This pattern isn’t bad if your a relatively new teacher. It’s a great place to start. But I think we can do better.
Literature should do more than help us become better readers and writers. Literature should help us understand the world around us and our place in it. And I want my students to experience that.
So we need to ask some big questions that will connect what we read to how we live. Essential questions, you might call them.
An essential question should help readers transcend the novel. Essential questions should help students take the lessons from a book and apply those lessons to their own lives.
So, how do know a question is essential?
What Makes a Question Essential?
A really great essential question is one that can be answered by many novels.
How do we deal with loss?
Is revenge ever worth it?
What does it mean to love?
If your question can only be answered by one book, the question is not essential.
So, for example, a bad essential question for The Hate U Give would be one like, “What does Starr learn in The Hate U Give?”
While this might be a great essay question, it’s certainly not an essential question. Twenty years from now, who really cares what Starr learned? We want to know what our students learned.
So, you might be tempted instead to ask, “What can you learn from The Hate U Give?” But this still isn’t great because it’s dependent on the book. Maybe students learned some facts about Malcolm X or The Black Panthers from The Hate U Give. That answers the question but certainly isn’t essential information.
Essential questions should be able to be answered by reading many books. It should be applicable to anyone’s life.
In fact, I re-use some of the same essential questions that I ask with The Hate U Give in my novel studies for Dear Martin and All American Boys. Because these three novels share similar themes, you can ask similar essential questions while studying any of them.
In fact, I do this in my Black Lives Matter Literature Circle if you’re interested in expanding your unit.
Planning Around Essential Questions
Once you have your essential question(s), how do you actually use them?
I’m a fan of incorporating essential questions into final assessments. For some units, it might be asking students to answer an essential question in an essay.
For The Hate U Give, I had my students answer all five of the essential questions I gave them to discuss in a small group, high-stakes discussion. (You can grab my The Hate U Give Discussion Activity here.)
However you use essential questions in a final assessment, you should then work backward to make a plan for your unit. Incorporate these questions in as many places as you can.
Essential questions shouldn’t be a surprise. You should share them with students even before beginning a novel.
If students have questions to think about, they’ll read with my purpose. They’re looking for something.
How I Incorporated Essential Questions Throughout my The Hate U Give Unit
It might help to offer them graphic organizers or encourage them to take notes as they read. I had my students close read and highlight their novels as we read (you can read about my process for close reading The Hate U Give here).
I didn’t want my students to wait until the end of the unit, however, to start writing about their thoughts and making connections. So, I regularly had them write about specific situations that related to these larger essential questions.
I included these writing prompts in The Hate U Give Reading Journal I created for the unit. Students could choose which question they wanted to respond to. Most of the writing prompts reflected back to the bigger, essential questions in some way.
I also provided a graphic organizer before their final discussion to help them organize their thoughts.
Students had to consider our The Hate U Give essential questions throughout the unit.
Regardless of the essential questions you use in your unit, try to engage with them consistently. Make sure students are thinking about them regularly from day one.
The Hate U Give Essential Question #1
The first question I asked my students was this:
How is a cycle of hate created and perpetuated? How can it be stopped?
To me, this is the central question of the novel. I mean, “hate” is right there in the title.
But more importantly, hate is a big emotion that we all have to deal with in our lives. And dealing with it inappropriately can have big consequences.
Many of my students were trapped in cycles like those portrayed in the novel. My hope was that by asking students this question as we read The Hate U Give, they could start to see patterns in their lives and decide if these are healthy patterns that they want to continue or negative ones that they’d like to end.
The Hate U Give Essential Question #2:
The second question I asked my students was harder to find in the novel. Some might argue that it’s not really central to the novel. But, as an educator, I found enough in the book–and the message was important enough–to talk about.
How does education help not only an individual, but a society? How can it be used as a tool to fight oppression?
There is one scene between Starr and her father that blows my mind every time I read it. Maverick asks Starr to think of examples of when someone used their education to fight oppression, and the two characters discuss these examples.
I think our students often lose sight of why they’re forced into our public education buildings in the first place. Heck, I think we often lose sight of the importance of real education.
But asking this question and reading this book refocuses us and our students on how powerful education really is. It reminds us that knowledge truly is power–and in school, the power is ours to seize.
The Hate U Give Essential Question #3:
I love this question because I think it helps our students feel seen and always creates a ton of conversation:
What defines a family?
Many of my students come from families outside of the standard nuclear family model. They live with multiple generations. Or they’re raised by their grandparents. Or they’re in foster care.
A lot of my students when discussing this question even talk about the difference between birth family and chosen family.
The variety of families and the spectrum of what it means to be family in The Hate U Give both affirms our students’ family situations and asks them to consider what they want family to mean to them as they grow older.
The Hate U Give Essential Question #4
Because we’re teaching teenagers, we have to ask this one:
How do individuals define their own identities?
This is another question that might not seem obvious in the context of The Hate U Give, but a lot of characters make conscious choices about how others see them: their nicknames, their tattoos, their priorities, etc.
While our students are at an age in which they are beginning to define themselves, The Hate U Give can help them by providing some positive and negative examples of how people shape their identities.
The Hate U Give Essential Question #5
This essential question is central to The Hate U Give:
How and when should an individual speak out against injustice? How does silence allow social injustices to occur?
Angie Thomas demonstrates multiple ways that people can speak out against injustice in her novel–and also shows that there might be times when speaking out could be risky.
This sets the stage for having an honest conversation with teenagers about their power and place in society.
I believe that readers, especially teen readers, should put The Hate U Give down feeling empowered. But it’s nice to have an honest conversation about how simply speaking out is sometimes not enough. Or too much. Or has unintended consequences.
I really believe that these essential questions for The Hate U Give will provide endless and engaging conversation for you and your students. More importantly, asking students these questions will help them integrate Angie Thomas’s lessons into their lives.
You can always come up with your own essential questions. But if you’d rather not or don’t have the time to create a whole unit from scratch, you can grab my done-for-you The Hate U Give Unit right here built around these essential questions.