Great Books selections support Shared Inquiry™ discussion because they have multiple interpretations. Yet even stories with multiple interpretations fall flat in discussion if teachers ask the wrong kind of questions. Easily answered factual questions & questions with only one answer don’t help students learn to read for meaning. Let’s examine interpretive questions for The Fire on the Mountain, an Ethiopian folktale, to understand how they make the tale truly discussable.
In The Fire on the Mountain Haptom Hasei wonders if a person could survive a night on top of a mountain alone without fire or provisions. His servant Arha offers to try in exchange for his own land. A helpful man builds a fire on a distant hill for Arha to watch during the long, cold night and he survives the challenge. Hasei refuses to honor the agreement because Arha spent the night watching the faraway fire, claiming “it was only the fire that saved you.” A man sympathetic to Arha’s plight invites the town to a banquet where he torments guests with the scent of delicious food, but doesn’t serve the meal. Hasei eventually honors his word when the man says, “If Arha was warmed by the fire he watched while standing on Mount Sululta, then you have been fed by the smells coming from my kitchen.”
Here are genuine interpretive questions that lead to thoughtful responses:
- How does watching the distant fire keep Haptom alive?
- Why does Haptom wonder about “how much cold” a man can stand?
- Why is Arha sure that a courageous man could survive a might on Mount Sululta, while Haptom is doubtful?
- Why does Arha say that he survived the night by “simply” watching the fire?
- According to the story, is Haptom Hasei a man of his word?
These questions get to the themes in the story—integrity, justice, taking risks, and friendship—and engage young readers. They’re questions with two or more answers that can be supported with textual evidence, and they enable students to form ideas about the story’s characters and events. They focus not only on details of what a character does or says, but also work together to grasp the significance of these details and to understand why things happen in the story the way they do. Asking the right questions not only results in meaningful and engaging discussions, it also deepens students’ critical thinking and comprehension.
The Fire on the Mountain, an Ethiopian folktale as told by Harold Courlander and Wolf Leslau, is in Junior Great Books® Series 4, Book Two.