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 process broken up into three specific phases: Quote, Counterclaim, Essential Question
Step One: Quote
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”
Now pick apart the philosopher quote. Find the claim being made.
Claim: People will hate you even if you do good things.
Step Two: Counterclaim
Then articulate the counterclaims which assert competing perspectives.
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: Essential Question
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.
Here are other examples taken from another blog I’m managing for Teach Different.
Mahatma Gandhi Non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good
Leo Tolstoy Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.
Benjamin Franklin Energy and persistence conquer all things.
Asechylus Wisdom comes alone through suffering.
Henry Ford Failure is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently
That’s the process.
Meaningful? You bet.
If you try this out and like it, visit Teach Different and get more.
If you want to learn how to make and use essential questions, check out this cartoon and sign up to get Think Alouds showing you how to do it.