Category Archives: Essential Questions

Day Zero: Hamlet meets Cape Town?

I stumbled upon this video today and wondered how reading William Shakespeare’s Hamlet might connect to a very real calamity in Cape Town, South Africa, where, after a three-year drought, water levels are almost at zero.

Day Zero: how Cape Town stopped the taps running dry

I had a chance to work with some wonderful teachers a few days and I wondered out loud whether students need the teacher to play the role of the ‘bridger’: Image result for hamletthat is to say, the teacher needs to show students how any lesson bridges or connects to ‘real life’  — or anything for that matter.

So, with that in mind, I wondered how might we connect Hamlet to the water emergency in Cape Town?

(The reason, for this exercise, I have chosen Hamlet is that it is used widely, usually in senior grade levels, and I wanted to explore how a ‘core’ text such as Hamlet might be used to connect to other issues and topics.)

  • Problem-solving:
    • What makes for effective problem solving? What are the criteria to effective problem solving?
    • What do effective problem solvers do when faced with a very difficult problem?

Apollo 13: Work the Problem

    • How does a person have to think, behave, interact with others, speak in order to effectively solve a problem?
    • Is Hamlet an effective problem addresser / solver? Why or why not?
    • How did the people and the government of Cape Town, South Africa handle their problem? According to our criteria, did they effectively address their problem?
    • Compare the crisis of Cape Town to Hamlet.
    • Is it possible to place both of these crises on the same scale of urgency? That is to say, is Hamlet’s personal problem as urgent or critical as Cape Town’s water problem? If we use a form of meter to ‘measure’ the intensity of a crisis, where would Hamlet’s problem fall on that meter according to a) him? b) his friends and family? c) his country? Why do you say that?


  • What if I started off my entire unit with that essential question: What makes for effective problem solving? Or the other question: What do effective problem solvers do when faced with a major, seemingly unsolvable crisis-level problem? And then what if we used Hamlet as case-study or a base-line or a comparison in amongst other texts, such as Apollo 13 or The Martian or the Cape Town water crisis?
  • And then what if we tap into the work of Garfield Gini-Newman and The Critical Thinking Consortium who promote ‘criterial thinking’, which is making a sound decision based on criteria and evidence?
  • And once we have that thinking framework, what if students were invited to engage in free reading and they were to look for other ‘case studies’ of how people solve problems?
  • And what if I asked these students to write about how they have solved problems in their own lives?
  • Last question: Is Hamlet the best ‘vehicle’ for exploring this topic?



  • The Cape Town water crisis video explores the impact the Day Zero water initiative had on citizens in the city, particularly those below or at the poverty line, who tend to be people of colour. An area to explore could be the potential Image result for lessons pngimpact a solution might have upon another person, a group, society in general. For example, how do Hamlet’s choices impact others? Is this solution still effective then?
  • What wisdom might we take — both positive and negative — from Hamlet’s story and the Cape Town initiative that we could use as lessons for our own lives both now and in the future?



Oobleck: A Lesson in Leadership?

While From amazon.caexploring Dr. Seuss’ Bartholomew and the Oobleck as a text for my children, I was struck with an idea:another lens through which I could look at this book. My Learning Coordinator colleague, A. Gilbert, and I have put forth the idea to secondary teachers of reading picture books in high school English classrooms, and this book might work.

Specifically, it might be interesting to explore the nature of leadership. Jeffrey Wilhelm promotes the idea of re-framing our lessons through an essential question, as explained in his book Engaging Readers & Writers with Inquiry.

Perhaps this book could be used to set up an exploration into the nature of leadership and the essential question: What is the nature of good leadership? What, then, is bad leadership?

Another essential question could be: What is the role of the ‘common person’ when faced wiboss-vs-leader-800x800th ‘bad’ leadership? What is my responsibility when faced with injustice?

Wouldn’t it be interesting to use this question and then Bartholomew and the Oobleck for Grade 12 students who then studied George Orwell’s 1984 to find out those answers? And then possibly studied Hamlet with the same essential questions?

Bartholomew, for example, confronts King Derwin of Didd,

“You may be a mighty king,” he said. “But you’re sitting in oobleck up to your chin. And so is everyone King-Derwinelse in your land.  And if you won’t even say you’re sorry, you’re no sort of king at all!”

It might be interesting to ask students: is this what good leadership looks like? Is this confrontation the responsibility of Bartholomew?

And we could explore the nature of leadership by way of sites such as Leadership Freak or Modern Servant Leader.

IMG_1727Indeed, the more I think about this book, the more I sense it was written as a commentary on leadership. (And this is also supported by the fact that some of Dr. Seuss’ books are meant to be commentaries on certain topics, such as fascism in Yertle the Tertle or destroying the environment in The Lorax.)

I think the commentary on leadership was driven home to me when I happened to look at the back cover of IMG_1710Bartholomew and the Oobleck, which depicts a person having the Oobleck land on their head, to their obvious dismay under the words “Beware the Oobleck!”

If the Oobleck is a metaphor for a ill-conceived idea from a detached and capricious leader, then what might be the lesson for teachers and leaders in the education system?

Is this a commentary by Seuss about how the common person must pick up the tab, so to speak, and bear the brunt of the short-sighted, common-sense-defying ideas of a power-wielding leader?

I wonder if this book should be required reading for leadership and teacher candidates…