Good questions and conversations don’t just happen. They come from deep thinking and careful planning. The hardest part is establishing a routine to make them happen, and then sticking to it.
My brother Steve– also a high school social studies teacher with a background in philosophy– developed a routine to foster better classroom conversations. He’s had really good success in a very challenging urban teaching environment on the west side of Chicago.
Coming from a suburban environment, I thought it would be interesting to integrate my focus on essential questions into what he is doing.
Here’s the comprehensive process we’ve come up with so far, broken up into three specific phases: Select, Dissect and Connect
Step One: Select
Pick a theme, primary source and a philosopher quote aligned to the theme.
Let’s say you’ve just finished a Civil War unit and want students to look at John Wilkes Booth diaries— to show the extent to which people will commit pure acts of evil in the quest for honor and fame.
A theme that jumps out is HATE…which is exactly what Booth had for Lincoln. (Ideally, this theme would be something applicable to other primary sources taught in your curriculum.)
Then you find an interesting quote from a philosopher which explores the theme, like this one from Niccolò Machiavelli: “Hatred is gained as much by good works as by evil”
Step Two: Dissect
Now pick apart the philosopher quote. Find the claim being made and then articulate the counterclaims which assert competing perspectives.
Claim: People will hate you even if you do good things.
Counterclaim: Doing bad things is the surest way to be hated by other people.
Have a silent conversation with yourself over the different ways to view this quote…It might sound like this: It seems like everybody is going to agree that treating people unjustly will get you enemies. But Machiavelli was onto something in that doing good things and being successful can also cause hatred of a different kind. This hatred can take the form of envy and jealously, which is sometimes even more intense.
Step Three: Connect
After exploring the claims and counterclaims of the philosopher quote, slow down and think back to the primary source. Think of a Big Question that could be used to draw out the theme of the quote and connect with the primary source. Take your time here.
You could think about Lincoln and how he was trying to be good by ending the war and saving the union, yet in the process of trying to be good was hated by people like Booth.
Big question: Should you do the right thing even though it might make somebody hate you?
This question puts students in a position of having to make an ethical judgment. It acknowledges that Machiavelli may have been right, but doesn’t force students to agree with him. Instead it asks students to decide whether doing the right thing is worth it in the face of the enemies you might gain. This is surely the dilemma Lincoln must have faced while trying to do what he deemed right. Reasonable people will have reasonable disagreements over how to answer this question, which is a sure sign it’s a good one!
Now to implement this lesson, you could start off by having students discuss the Machiavelli quote and then introduce the question before handing out the primary source. As students read the Booth’s diaries and think about Lincoln’s decisions, they can try their hand at answering the Big Question. In this way, the students have become actors and actresses inside the theatre of history who must confront the very same moral dilemmas.
Imagine the discussion you could have about hate, morality and the inherent risks and rewards of doing the right thing.
That’s the process.
Fun? Even more so.
Meaningful? You bet.
If you try this out, let me know how it goes!
Speaking of routines…
1. My hope is to do one blog post/month on this 3-step process using a different theme, primary source and philosopher quote.
2. I’m excited to teach this 3-Step process in an online graduate course titled “Teach Different with Essential Questions.” Teachers follow the process and make three original lessons aligned to what they already teach. It’s a great way to bring a little philosophy into your teaching life!