Big Questions and the AP Government Redesign: A Match Made in Heaven


Last week I attended a fantastic AP government redesign workshop through Northwestern University led by Vanessa Lal ( @vlal ).  I was heartened to see that inquiry is a centerpiece of the new format.  In fact, the College Board has designed specific Big Questions to underpin each of the five broad content categories: Foundations, Interactions Among Branches of Government, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, American Political Ideologies and Beliefs and Political Participation.

Here they are:

Category:  Foundations of American Democracy

How did the founders of the U.S. Constitution attempt to protect individual liberty, while also promoting public order and safety?

How have theory, debate, and compromise influenced the U.S. Constitutional system?

How does the development and interpretation of the Constitution influence policies that impact citizens and residents of the U.S.?

Category: Interaction Among Branches of Government

How do the branches of the national government compete and cooperate in order to govern?

To what extent have changes in the powers of each branch affected how responsive and accountable the national government is in the 21st century?

Category: Civil Rights and Civil Liberties

To what extent do the U.S. Constitution and its amendments protect against undue government infringement on essential liberties and from invidious discrimination?

How have U.S. Supreme Court rulings defined civil liberties and civil rights?

Category:  American Political Ideologies and Beliefs

How are American political beliefs formed and how do they evolve over time?

How do political ideology and core values influence government policy making?

Category:  Political Participation

How have changes in technology influence political communication and behavior?

Why do levels of participation and influence in politics vary?

How effective are the various methods of political participation in sharing public policies?

These questions serve as anchors to bind students to the content in a meaningful way.  I love the changes.

So here’s what I plan to do…

Keeping with my strategy outlined in my previous post, I will switch out my old questions for the new ones rolled out by the College Board.

All of these questions meet the criteria very well and inspire students to apply and synthesize content, two skills with diminished importance in the old format.

I’m following the very same methodology I outlined before. Students track these questions habitually throughout the course on a Google doc. Then, working in groups of two or three, they will select one, design a thesis statement (another new skill emphasized in the redesign) and present answers based on what they learned.

I am inspired that this redesign will give students fresh confidence to build important skills without sacrificing content and, in the process, give them a deeper appreciation for the power of Big Questions.

Sub-Images_BQIA (1)

Harness the Immigration Debate with these Big Questions


We’ve all seen the images, heard the audio and read the tweets. The immigration debate has everybody busting at the seams on both sides.

And August is just around the corner.

And we know what that means.

Students will be walking into our classrooms confused, tired, angry and needing answers. And we will be trying to figure out ways to teach a historical, psychological, sociological or political understanding of the immigration issue while at the same time resisting the impulse to impose our own opinions– a delicate and seemingly impossible burden.

This is exactly the kind of environment in which Big Questions  thrive.

So in preparation for the August return, here are two questions which I’m thinking about using in the context of government and US history, along with commentary on how and why I would use each question:

What is the most humane way of dealing with people seeking asylum in the United States?

The word ‘humane’ jumps out here. Any serious consideration of this question must include a careful, precise definition of what humane means. I bet that students will have vastly different opinions on its meaning, and therefore vastly different answers to the question.  What I would want students to see here is that our passionate political disagreement about how to deal with immigrants seeking asylum is actually a passionate philosophical disagreement on what humane means.

How can rules be made and enforced in a way that demonstrates compassion AND respect for the rule of law?

This one is loaded with words whose definitions need to be unpacked– respect, compassion and rule of law. Additionally, this question begs for some sort of opening activity whereby students must respond to a familiar situation in which somebody had to choose between compassion and strict enforcement of rules. How about when a teacher must decide whether or not to report a student who cheats?  Or when a district must decide how to enforce a zero-tolerance policy regarding student-athletes? I’m thinking at least one or two days of immersion with familiar situations before even making the connection with immigration. I’m telling myself to SLOW DOWN. Then, when the immigration connection is eventually made, students will be ready for it and can use the opening scenarios as a frame of comparison moving forward.

What questions are YOU thinking about?  What strategies do you have to sublimate the energy of this immigration debate towards productive ends?

DF_Socrates Battle ImageImmigration would be an awesome topic on which to make lessons in Socrates and the Battle for the Soul of America, an online course offered through NCSS.

Fall sessions will be scheduled soon!Sub-Images_BQIA (1)

“The Soul Moves First” Inspire Students to Take Charge of their Own Learning


My friend’s high school-aged daughter volunteers every week in Chicago at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab.  There she gains invaluable experience working with individuals who suffer from physical limitations brought upon by a spinal cord injury, stroke, amputation or some sort of traumatic brain injury. She will play card and board games, for instance, to help patients work on memory and fine motor skills. These tasks, once routine, now require intense mental effort and energy.

This trademark phrase which appears to patients and visitors when they walk in the front door serves as a reminder that physical health is impossible without a mental commitment to be healthy. A positive mindset acts as the unstoppable force leading to recovery.

The Soul Moves First

What an empowering message for people struggling with debilitating physical conditions.

And what a beautifully gentle reminder to us as teachers that, ultimately, the road to student success begins in a student’s mind.classroom

It’s easy to miss this and to think that student success is wholly dependent on what we do. We stress ourselves out trying to figure out the best lesson plans and behavioral management strategies to help kids. We are judged on their responses (or lack thereof) to our interventions. Sometimes it’s exhausting to be held accountable for what other people should be doing for themselves. But we do it because we know the power of adult role modeling and love helping others. It’s our job.

At Shirley Ryan the expectation is that the patient commits to his/her own self improvement first. The trainers and volunteers then step in and clear a path for recovery. It’s a partnership guided by clear responsibilities and infused with love and support.

Maybe the teaching profession could mirror the Shirley Ryan philosophy of human development and expect a little more from the students at the outset.

But wait…

At Shirley Ryan patients have a more tangible idea of where they are headed:  physical recovery from an injury. With students working through a system of education, the endgame is fuzzier and therefore teachers must make a different sort of argument to them that their belief in themselves will pay off. And many students aren’t old enough or mature enough to shoulder the responsibility for their own self-improvement.

So, in light of these obstacles, is it even possible to get our students’ souls to move first?  Or is that our responsibility? It seems like that’s something very hard, if not impossible to do for another person.

For some students, the task for us seems painfully easy. They walk into class caring on day one. For others with troubled backgrounds, bad study habits and confrontational demeanors, they seem resistant to the bitter end regardless of our attempts to help them. For so many students, though, there are opportunities to effectuate a shift of mindset over time using just the right mixture of prodding, patience and understanding. I think there are boundless opportunities to get it done.Mindset Mindfulness Self-awareness Meditation Brain

I’m not thinking about direct self-esteem training here. I’m thinking about setting a different tone and message in the classroom and acting in ways that shift the responsibility for belief onto the students. Notice, I said “belief” and that’s because learning doesn’t happen without it. The challenge is to create environments which inspire students to make their own mental commitment to succeed– and then be there as a guide to help them flourish. Seen in this way, maybe it’s the teacher’s responsibility to make the subtle first move and then have the student quickly take over.

It’s really about being more intentional about getting students to care about their education– for themselves, not for us.

Encouraging kids to care is always a moving target which shifts from year to year, class to class, and is always a function of the mix of student personalities which land in our classrooms. There is no magical answer here, so I’m not going to pretend I know of one. The big questions approach works well for me because it motivates students to think critically and promotes a human-centered classroom where cultivation of virtue is the end goal. Through these questions I’m constantly trying to help students believe in the power of their own minds. My career gamble is that over time constant exposure to deep thinking will plants seeds of self motivation to last a lifetime.

But there are a myriad of different ways to achieve success on this front.

What strategies do you use to inspire students to take charge of their own learning?

We need some solutions. August is right around the corner!

(Social studies teachers– remember to check out Socrates and the Battle for the Soul of America , an online course on big questions offered through NCSS )

Sub-Images_BQPD (1)

Beverly Gage asks: When Does a Moment Turn into a Movement?


This big question comes from a New York Times article by Beverly Gage, which was shared via Twitter by Mary Ellen Daneels ( ), lead teacher mentor for the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and contributor to

The article does a fantastic job giving historical perspective on the various movements which have taken root, which include contemporary ones like MeToo, Parkland and Black Lives Matter as well as those dating back to the 60s and before that the temperance and anti-Catholic movements of the early 19th century. There are so many intriguing lines of inquiry and observations but one that I found most compelling was this observation about how movements of today lack staying power. Gage writes…

But even showing up in the street, in great numbers, does not necessarily earn much credit in the current environment. Making “your movement” has become easier; making it stick, gaining public respect and effecting concrete change, has arguably become harder than ever.

This observation leads to a question…

If turning out thousands, or even millions, of outraged citizens merely indicates potential, how and when do we decide that a movement actually exists?


This is fascinating.  I think Gage is onto something. Just showing up, which may have been necessary and sufficient to define a ‘movement’ and effect change in earlier times, just doesn’t cut it in the current environment. In fact, a protest, parade and demonstration today are often seen as just more blips in an endless series of news cycles.

Just when does a moment turn into a movement?  Hmm…  800px-Emma_Gonzalez_imagery_at_Minnesota_March_for_Our_Lives

I needed a different angle on this…

And I got one, courtesy of Bill Chapman ( @classroomtools ) who responded to the original tweet by sharing a Ted Radio Hour. In that piece there is an incredible segment from behavioral researcher Simon Sinek titled How do great leaders inspire us to action?  11:58.

Here’s an excerpt:

Well, first of all, they have deep undying belief in something bigger than themselves. And the best leaders are actually the best followers because they don’t see themselves as the thing to be followed. They actually see themselves as following a cause bigger than themselves. They actually see themselves in service to something else. It’s the rest of us who choose to follow them.


So, what makes leaders great is their capacity to follow and to encourage so many other people to see and believe the same thing, for themselves. If a leader can do that over time, a movement is born.

Maybe that is part of the answer to the big question. For a moment to turn into a movement there must be great leaders who offer sustained self-sacrifice to a higher cause over time and who encourage us to make the choice to follow their beliefs.   In the current media-frenzied environment, it is much harder for these leaders to flourish because they are in competition with so many other news events and because the movements themselves are still so young.  I wonder– who will be the leaders who rise up and galvanize the public’s energy towards positive social ends?

When does a moment turn into a movement?

The applications of this big question for teaching are vast. Imagine asking it in a US history, government, or sociology class as an opening to explore the power of leadership to shape society. Have students pick a modern day movement, a leader of that movement and evaluate the progress of the movement based on insights from Gage’s article and Ted Radio Hour segment.

That is just one idea. I could even imagine adding it to a list of big questions which guide an entire US course.

Read the article. Listen to the Ted Radio show.  What opportunities do you see to design learning activities?  Write your ideas in the comments!

These would also be great resources to use to create big question lessons in the online course  Socrates and the Battle for the Soul of America , offered this summer by NCSS with sessions beginning June 3rd and the 20th.  Check it out!

Sub-Images_BQIA (1)

Big Questions and the Power of Storytelling


Two truths about teaching:

1. Questions don’t work too well unless students are in the mood for them.

2. Nothing sets a mood like a good story.

Two truths about stories: 

1. They captivate the imagination.

2. They create healthy soil on which to grow Big Questions.

Here is what the dynamic between stories and questions looks like coming out of a unit on the Civil War and into a unit on Reconstruction.

We begin with this fictitious story I created about the break-up of a family. The story doubles as metaphorical commentary on the events leading up to the Civil War.

There once was a house and in this house lived a father and two sons. The mother, a strong and controlling woman, died a long time ago. The two sons, separated by just a few years, have never really gotten along. Arguments arise because the younger son always wants independence from the household. He never comes in on time, doesn’t listen to his father, hates his brother and is always threatening to run away.  The older son has always tried to keep his brother in line with the rules.  In the past, when the two sons argued, a compromise was always worked out. But recently, the arguments have increased to a dangerous point and the younger son is now very serious about leaving the family. Father is worried because, above all else, he wants to keep the family together. He asks his older son to find a solution. He makes it clear to his older son that if a little force is necessary to control the younger son, then it is okay to use it.

Then, a vicious fight breaks out between the two sons. The father hears his sons fighting from his room upstairs but does nothing to stop it, for he realizes that maybe dead-confederate-soldiers-at-hagerstown-pike-battle-of-antietam-civil-war_a-l-7118103-4990176the fight is necessary to end the conflict. If they don’t get out their anger now, father thinks, the arguing will just continue.

The fight last a long time and both sons hurt each other very badly.  The father hates to see his sons hurt, but refuses to stop the fight. Eventually the older brother overcomes his younger brother. The older son stands over his brother with a look of anger and victory.

The father comes downstairs and approaches his two sons, happy that the fight is over but realizing that serious work must be done to keep the family together. He loves his younger son dearly and doesn’t want him to be bitter about losing. He is relieved his older son won but is afraid that he will become too cocky and rub his victory in.

The father knows that he must show both sons that what is important is not who won the fight but that the family stays together. He decides to wait a week before he decides what to do.

A week later, the father hands out a piece of paper detailing his plans for punishing the younger son in a way that will accomplish a seemingly impossible task: keeping the family together.

Together we consider:  What should the father write on the piece of paper? Students get 5 minutes to brainstorm individually, then share responses in groups of three, then discuss as a class.

The discussion is always fascinating on so many levels. You’ll hear student insights on how punishment works in their own families (insights which can be terrifying actually!)  You’ll tap into deeply philosophical issues of the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways to treat others and explore the negative and positive consequences that flow from treating people certain ways.  You’ll talk about blame and personal responsibility. Students really get emotionally and intellectually invested in this discussion. I set aside an entire period at least.

To this point the lesson hasn’t been about US history at all.

It’s been about adolescent theories of punishment.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the Big Question arrives: What is a fair punishment for the South after the Civil War?


Ambiguity, unclear definitions and multiple perspectives. This question meets the criteria beautifully.

We make the historical connection by exploring the events of Reconstruction with a specific focus on the plans offered by seminal figures of the time–Lincoln, Johnson and the Radical Republicans. Students revisit the question repeatedly to assess the fairness of each of the plans and see if their recommendations for the South were in any way consistent with their recommendations for the younger son profiled in the story.

So think about what has happened here. Students read a story, which lured them into a personal discussion on punishment, which in turn gave birth to a question about how to treat the South after the Civil War. The story set the mood; the question anchored their understanding of the history of Reconstruction; and their passion and curiosity took over from there.

I know. It sounds like learning is moving so slowly and there’s so much work to get to a good question!  Yes, but the investment of time will pay huge dividends in the form of the enriching discussion and deep, meaningful learning.

Do you use stories in your classroom to introduce questions?  If so, how do you use them?  Share a comment!

DF_Socrates Battle Image

If you’re looking to do some Big Questions lesson planning this summer, consider this online course offered by the National Council for the Social Studies in collaboration Quincy University titled Socrates and the Battle for the Soul of America.

In the course you design your own Big Questions and construct lessons which use the questions to teach about content relevant to your subject area (US history, government, sociology, psychology and world history).

I am excited to be one of the instructors for this course.

Share with others!




Want to ask BIGGER questions this summer? Check out these resources…



Summer:  the perfect time to slow down and cultivate the skill of asking questions.

Here are some professional development resources and opportunities which can take your skill to the next level.

1. An online course:  Socrates and the Battle for the Soul of America

DF_Socrates Battle Image

America is deeply divided on so many levels. Now more than ever we need big questions to explore these divisions and encourage our students to take action to improve society.

Play the role of Socrates and…

  • Design four Big Questions
  • Apply disciplinary tools to analyze those questions;
  • Evaluate and select sources relevant to the questions;
  • Craft four lessons to engage students in open dialogue to understand and take informed action when differences may arise.
  • Reflect upon the value of teacher/student questions and the challenges and possibilities of students taking informed action to improve society.  Learn More

I am excited to work with NCSS and Quincy University to serve as one of the instructors for this course!both


QFT22. A conference:  Right Questions Institute summer events in the Question Formulation Technique (QFT).

This simple and powerful strategy shows teachers how to get students to ask their own questions.

Here is a great article from ASCD on the nuts and bolts of the QFT technique. Also consider joining RQI’s Educator Network

I will be one of the presenters at the Chicago conference on June 28th.



3. A Workshop:

Civic education workshops are being held all over Illinois to help teachers meet the new Illinois civics requirements and social studies standards. In these workshops teachers will receive a whole host of FREE resources including strategies for how to craft and use compelling questions in the context of lesson planning.

Here are a list of workshops from June to August.


4. Webinars and Workshops from NCSSNCSSworkshops

Southeast IDM Workshop

The Southeast IDM™ Summer Institute will be at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia, June 5-6, 2018.

Sponsored by C3 Teachers and National Council for the Social Studies, the Southeastern IDM Institute will feature hands-on opportunities for teachers to develop inquiry materials for use in their classrooms and to join a larger community of educators who share an interest in invigorating their classrooms through inquiry-based teaching and learning. ( Text from )

5. A few good books:MoreBeautifulQuestion

A More Beautiful Question, by Warren Berger

In this groundbreaking book, journalist and innovation expert Warren Berger shows that one of the most powerful forces for igniting change in business and in our daily lives is a simple, under-appreciated tool–one that has been available to us since childhood. Questioningdeeply, imaginatively, “beautifully”–can help us identify and solve problems, come up with game-changing ideas, and pursue fresh opportunities. So why are we often reluctant to ask “Why?” (From


Make Just One Change– Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions, by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana

This book introduces the QFT strategy mentioned above and describes in detail how to use it successfully. It is a quick and meaningful read.



The 60-Second Philosopher, by Andrew Pessin


Offered in 60 bite-sized chapters, this book provokes, cajoles and entices students into considering deep, philosophical questions.

I profiled the 60-Second Philosopher in a previous post.






Sub-Images_BQPD (1)

Fishing with Philosophy: Setting the Hook for Student Learning


I love fishing. It’s a chance to relax, be in nature and enjoy a little peace and serenity. The best part, though, is the excitement of setting the hook on a really big fish. That’s the beginning of an enjoyable struggle whose outcome is always uncertain.

Usually the hardest part is setting the hook just right.

In teaching we often feel like we are fishing without a hook, trying every strategy we can to get kids excited, asking questions and taking learning seriously. Despite our noble efforts, we fall short many times.  It’s usually not that our lesson was poorly conceived as a whole; it’s that we never got started in the right direction and so things just sort of… fizzled out.

If we can’t set the hook, especially in a class driven by Big Questions, then students quickly lose interest and usually we can’t get them back.

So what is the best way to set that hook?

Bring in a little philosophy.

One of my most reliable (and fun) tools is Dr. Andrew Pessin’s 60-Second Philosopher, which I’ve been using for many years now as a textbook in my philosophy class and a supplemental resource in government classes. This gem of a book (which can literally fit in your pocket) provokes, cajoles and entices students into considering deep, philosophical ideas in 60 bite-sized chapters. Some of the chapters carry questions that have vexed humans for a long, long time:

What is the right thing to do?  How do I know it?

Who am I?

Is happiness the purpose of human life?

These questions are the province of philosophy but you can find a home for them in any of your classes. Philosophy is that perfect hook. Its questions rattle the soul of teenagers and stretch across all subject areas in a way that makes learning fun, unsettling and relevant at the same time.

Here are two chapters “Do the Right Thing” and “Santa and Scrooge”RightThingToDo

Do the Right Thing” prods us to consider why we make the moral judgments we do. We often assume we are doing the right thing but never question what grounds we have for making that claim. This chapter forces students to uncover this slip of reasoning. As you read it, imagine using it to set the hook in a US history class before exploring and evaluating the moral decisions Abraham Lincoln made during the Civil War.

In “Santa and Scrooge” we are asked to consider whether being naturally good by giving things away freely (Santa) is morally superior to becoming good after overcoming the badness of our character (Scrooge). Imagine using this one right at the beginning of a unit on the presidency to get students thinking about how doing the right thing sometimes means that you must choose to follow reason over what you feel.

Here is the procedure I use with the book:

  1. Pick a reader and have him/her read the chapter out loud to class. (by the way, it is astounding how reading out loud has become a lost art– be prepared to teach students how to read out loud as the chapters don’t work as well unless students are in tune with the pronunciations of certain words.)
  2. Pick two students to react to the reading. A reaction could be to ask a question, make a comment, state a confusion, or simple ‘pass’ to somebody else.
  3. Leave two full minutes of silence after the read-a-loud for the reactors to process their thoughts.
  4. Let the discussion ride!  Warning — it is very difficult to predict how discussions from this book will evolve. You must be ready to adapt on your feet.

Previous posts have showcased lessons which integrate a chapter from the 60-Second Philosopher. Check them out so you can see how the book is used in the context of a lesson:

Can Intolerance be a Virtue? Huh?

Is America the Land of Opportunity?

Just for fun, I dug up an old clip of a student of mine talking about the benefits of this book. (I was thinking that interviewing students about the textbook would be a good recruiting tool to get more students into the class. It worked! I asked them “What do you like about the 60-Second Philosopher?”)

We need innovative tools to create a class atmosphere conducive to wonder and curiosity. The ageless wisdom of philosophy hiding inside this little book can do just that.

Don’t forget some of the other philosophy resources shared in a previous post.

If you end up using the book, let me know. I’d love to organize a Twitter chat on it assuming there is enough interest.

What books do you use to inspire questions?

Sub-Images_BQPD (1)