The Art of the Query

Writing questions for the community is a long-standing Sidwell Friends tradition.

“There is that of God in everyone” is more than a school motto. It’s the tenet that guides everything at Sidwell Friends, from playtimes to Minimester to senior projects—and it goes much deeper than you might think. One way students look for the light within each other is through queries, or open-ended questions that members of the community spend time pondering. Queries are a fundamental part of Meeting for Worship, and everyone helps create them—even the School’s youngest students.
The query-writing process begins in 1st grade and continues throughout Lower School. PK and kindergarten students prepare for future query writing by thinking about and discussing them. “In PK and kindergarten, we look at the queries and try to consider their meaning,” says Denise Coffin, a kindergarten teacher, Sidwell Friends parent, and part of the team that trains the Lower School staff about queries. “Sometimes we just say, ‘What is the query asking us to do?’ It’s not hard to get them to do the kind of thinking that’s important. They take it seriously, and they respect it.”
Every school year begins with queries from a 3rd or 4th grade class, while the 1st graders take their turn just before summer vacation. But the query-writing process is similar for all the classes. “First, students look at the time of year that they’re assigned the query,” says Denise. “Then they’ll think about things that might be topical. For example, in spring, they might connect the query to new growth and new ideas. They will begin a class conversation about what kind of topics or big ideas they want the query to be about.”
Next, students come up with draft queries, which they share in class. “They’ll talk about important words that are used, making sure to use language that both PKers and 4th graders can understand—and teachers and parents, because we know that they’re also part of our audience. Teachers help students winnow their ideas down to the final query. Once the query is finished, the authoring class reads it in the Meeting House that month.”
Queries aren’t always easy to come up with, since they are complex by nature. “They’re questions that Quakers use to guide their lives,” says Denise. “A query is a deep, almost unanswerable question. It isn’t a yes-or-no question—it’s something that you can keep using. You should keep asking yourself the query and growing and learning from it.”
Fortunately, Denise has a helpful guide for classes working through this task: a record of past queries, going back many years. Students can reflect on queries from days gone by, incorporating aspects that strike chords with them and using previous students’ thought processes to catapult them into new ways of thinking. Some of the queries in Denise’s book are simple, asking questions such as, “What are some ways to say ‘thank you’ in both words and actions?” Others are more multifaceted, like “As the flowers bloom, how can we inspire others by showing them that kindness wins?”
Denise stresses how careful students are to make sure that the queries they decide on are meaningful to everyone. “The 4th graders were writing a really powerful query, but one of the words in it stopped them, because they thought PKers might not know what it meant,” she says. “Eventually, the 4th graders checked in with the PK teachers to see if their students would understand the word.”
As it turned out, the PK students did understand, and the 4th graders were able to use their query at that month’s Meeting for Worship. “It really illustrates the history and the process of query writing at Lower School that these students take it so seriously,” says Denise. “They make sure to think about their audience and how important it is that everyone can access it. It is really powerful to see each class read their query—they are so proud.”

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