April 25th, 2016

Questions That Bring Contemporary Context to Past Personalities

By:

MacBeth text

Most students find it difficult to think of famous historical personalities as real people. They also read texts without realizing that there are tangible personalities behind them.  I have found one of the most effective ways to give flesh and blood to the past is by designing questions that ask students to bring authors, historical characters, and texts into the classroom.  There are a variety of formats that these questions might take. Following are some that I’ve used and other examples that might trigger queries you could adapt for your courses.

The simplest format is simply to ask how a well-known person might have acted if he or she was in a comparable contemporary context.

  • If the apostle Paul came to New York City today, how do you think he would launch his ministry? On what basis do you make this assessment? How do the narratives of Acts and/or Paul’s teaching in his other letters shape your response?
  • If Queen Victoria was a monarch today, how do you think she might respond to the rise of extremist Islamic groups such as al-Qaida and ISIS? On what basis do you make this assessment?

Questions like these can help teachers determine whether students have genuinely grasped the character and motivations of the person, and whether they have learned the principles at stake during the historical period.

A second format of questions discusses how a classic text might have been written differently if it was composed today.

  • If the prophet Amos was to come to contemporary Australia, against whom do you think he would target his condemnation, and what do you think might be the substance of his censure? Justify your response.
  • If Emily Dickinson was writing poems today, what subjects do you think she might write about?  What do you think she would say now about single women and family responsibilities? On what basis do you make these suggestions?

Questions in this category provide insights into how well the student understands the historical context in which the writing occurred and how those influences shaped the writing.

A third question format involves contemporizing a classic story.

  • If Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan in contemporary Dallas, who might be the key characters and how might a comparable plot be developed? Explain your rationale.
  • If Shakespeare was to deal with the themes of Macbeth in the 21st century, what sort of contemporary characters and location do you think he might choose? Why do you believe that these choices might be appropriate?

Through student responses to questions such as these teachers can assess whether students understand the foundational themes in the story.

Still another question format brings the character from the past into the classroom or into a contemporary situation and asks what advice they might offer.

  • If Madame Curie was to visit our class, what are the three questions you would most like to ask her about being a female scientist in the male-dominated world of the late 1800s? How might her experiences differ from those of female scientists today?
  • If Dietrich Bonhoeffer was to meet with the leaders of the 21st century Church in the Middle East what might be his two or three most important words of advice regarding the nature of the church in an environment of discrimination and persecution? Give reasons for your suggestions.

These questions help to bring the historic character to life by giving the students an opportunity to “dialogue” personally with the character.

Perhaps one of the most useful applications of personality in context questions is to “interview” the author of the text or reading being used in class.

  • If Paulo Freire was to visit our class, what are the two most important questions you would like to ask him about his Pedagogy of the Oppressed? Why are these questions important to you?
  • What questions would you like to ask Ernest Hemingway about The Old Man and the Sea?

It can be a challenge to get students to do the reading much less immerse themselves in it.  Interview questions will often reveal to teacher and student whether the reading has taken place and at what level. They also give students a chance to connect with the author and text in ways that are meaningful to them.

I regularly use all four formats of these questions, and given my institutional affiliation you can likely tell which of the sample questions highlighted in this article I have used with my students. I have found the final readings-based questions work best when given as an out-of-class learning task, and the others I tend to use to generate in-class discussion. However they are used, the key is to promote dialogue between the past and the present and in that way bring the past to life for the students. When students connect with the past, they are better able to gain wisdom for the present and future.

Dr. Perry Shaw is a professor of education at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon. 

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 29.9 (2014): 1,6. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.


Teaching Professor


  • N Didicher

    I’ve done the interview an author (or a character) exercise in my English literature classes, I think quite successfully. Half the group decides what kind of interviewer they want to be (hard-nosed, sympathetic, etc.), comes up with a list of questions, and has a volunteer act as interviewer; the other half decides how the person would respond to being interviewed, tries to anticipate questions, and chooses a volunteer actor. When we do the interview, each volunteer can call on their team for back-up if they like. Once I had a group being Aphra Behn and they had her sick and whispering her responses to her maid–she died during the interview and completely flummoxed the interviewer!