Author Archives: Dan Fouts

About Dan Fouts

Since 1993 I've taught AP government, philosophy and US history in the Chicagoland area. I have an undergraduate degree in political science and philosophy from Bradley University and a M.S. in education and social policy from Northwestern University. I served as a member of the committee on pre-collegiate instruction in philosophy through the American Philosophical Association from 2012-201. Additionally, I work with NCSS to create and instruct online courses designed to help middle/high school teachers integrate Big Questions into their classrooms.

Teaching the Letter From a Birmingham Jail… with an assist from Einstein

cellMLK’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail is a true classic, both for its historical significance and unapologetic endorsement of non-violent civil disobedience. It actually made the list of required readings for the AP government/politics course, a list that includes Federalist Paper #10, #51 and even the Constitution.

It’s not easy to teach, though. The letter has profound ideas about the relationship between the individual and the state which are hard for students to appreciate.

Here’s a different way of teaching the letter using a compelling quote by Albert Einstein to start things off:
albert-einstein-1167031_1280

“Never do anything against conscience, even if the state demands it.” 

Tell students to…

1. State the claim that Einstein is making by putting it in their own words

2. Establish a counterclaim which goes against Einstein’s thinking.

3. Share responses privately in groups of three

4. Share out with the entire class

The quote exposes the tension between an individual’s duty to follow moral conscience and the duty to follow government laws, duties which often conflict.  Einstein clearly provokes us to follow our conscience, not the law.

In the ensuing conversation encourage students to bring up situations where THEY must decide between obeying their morals or obeying the government. There’s always the refusal to go to war because of religious reasons, but there are others. This week I had a student describe how his father– who was religiously opposed to vaccinations for his children– was forced to obey the laws of the state of Illinois. He had a very difficult choice to make. This issue hits home emotionally in a very real way.question-mark-2525248_960_720

After the conversation, think about a really good essential question that puts everything together.  Here’s one I developed recently: Should you ever disobey a law if it offends your moral conscience?

With this question in hand, give out King’s Letter and tell the students to think and write about how MLK would answer the essential question using specific textual references from the document. You could give them this task as an in-class writing assignment, for homework or even as preparation for a Socratic seminar discussion. The possibilities are vast.

What has happened here?

Well, a lot.

You started the students off with a provocative quotation with a theme connected to a primary source.  You challenged students to think critically about the quotation by coming up with a claim and counterclaim and then had a thoughtful conversation about the meaning of Einstein’s quote as it relates to students’ lived experiences. Then you capitalized on their emotional investment in this conversation by creating an essential question designed to generate interest and excitement in the letter.

Yes, this process takes up a little class time and demands some careful thinking on your part. But think about what you are doing.  You’re ensuring that when students read this letter that it will be more interesting, more meaningful and connected to their lives in a real way. The upfront investment is worth it.

Here are some more examples of how to go through this 3-step process with other quotations. They come from another blog I’m managing for Teach Different, a professional development organization geared towards helping teachers design and implement essential-questions.

As you read these posts think about the primary sources you teach and how you might make them more interesting.


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


3-step-2-1024x579.jpg

Want to learn more about how to use this 3-Step process to build essential questions?

Click HERE

 

Don’t do this when a student interrupts you with a great question…

brown wooden gavel close up photography

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

I totally screwed up last week. We were studying the basic differences between judicial activism and judicial restraint.  We had just finished up making the point that a judicial restraint oriented court is typically more conservative in that it is less likely to overturn precedent and more likely to see the law as static. A student disrupts the chain of thinking with this question… Continue reading

“Freedom is secured not by the fulfilling of men’s desires, but by the removal of desire.” Epictetus

EpicSeems counter-intuitive to me.

But maybe I’m missing something.

Inspired by stoic philosopher Epictetus, I worked through the 3-Step process (introduced in a earlier post ) to create an essential question for a US history unit on imperialism.

 

Continue reading

Sample prompts for Supreme Court comparison FRQ– and a Big Question

Roscoe Pound, former dean of Harvard Law School, famously said “The law must be stable but must not stand still.”  Designers of the Supreme Court comparison FRQ for the AP government exam must have been listening.

Consistent with the expectations for this response, I’ve created a few sample prompts, each of which includes one the of the 15 required cases along with a precedent-setting case related to it.

I will add to this list leading up to the exam. Here is a chart with all of the cases– facts, holdings, precedents and significance.

(I’ve also posted samples for the argument essay FRQ here )

Continue reading

Part III–Sample Prompts for the Argument Essay FRQ- AP government

democracy

In  Part I  we had prompts on interest groups, term limits, gridlock, citizen participation and primaries and caucuses.  In Part II it was executive orders, photo ids, social media and the electoral college.

Here we go with part III…

Continue reading

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting” Sun Tzu

462px-john_f._kennedy,_white_house_photo_portrait,_looking_up

 

Was the Chinese philosopher and military strategist Sun Tzu onto something?  John Kennedy thought so.

A few weeks ago I shared a Three-Step routine used to design essential questions and create great memorable conversations in class.

Here’s another example of how you might follow this process in a unit on the Cold War in US history.

Step One: Quotesuntzu

Pick a theme, primary source and a quote aligned to the theme.

You’re teaching the Cold War and you think your students would be interested in the theme of fighting— when to do it and how to do it to make sure you achieve maximum benefit. Kennedy’s Cuban Missile Crisis speech is your target primary source because it demonstrates the value of using words, not violence, to solve problems.

Ancient philosopher Sun Tzu has a provocative angle on this theme:  “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”

Now pick apart Sun Tzu’s quote. Find the claim being made. 

Claim:  The best way to deal with your enemies is by not fighting them.

Step Two:  Counterclaim

Now articulate the counterclaims which assert competing perspectives.

Example Counterclaim:  Attacking your enemy– trying to overwhelm him– is the best path towards victory.

Have a silent conversation with yourself over the different ways you and your students may view this quote…It might sound like this:  It seems very counter-intuitive to claim that you can actually win over your enemies without fighting. Surely many students are under the impression that direct confrontation with others is the only way to win.  Sun Tzu is offering a different perspective here, one that must somehow incorporate other means of getting your way.

Step Three: Essential Question

After exploring the claims and counterclaims of the philosopher quote, slow down and think back to the primary source– Kennedy’s Cuban Missile Crisis speech.  Think of a Big Question that draws out the theme.

Here’s one:  Is fighting the best way to get what you want?

  1. Is it accessible?  Can students understand the question easily?  Does it make them want to share personal experiences?  √

  2. Is it provocative?  Does the question force students to take a stand on something and provide evidence to support their position?  √

  3. Is it complex?  Can the question be answered by multiple perspectives?  √

  4. Is it transferable? Can the question be re-purposed to apply to different contexts?  √

This question pulls students into an interesting conversation about the value of fighting and violence as a solution to problems.

To implement this lesson, post the quote on the board and engage the students’ ideas on fighting. What you are doing is preparing the soil for the introduction of your primary source.

Now, introduce the Big Question as you share Kennedy’s Cuban Missile Crisis speech. With the Big Question and Sun Tzu quote in hand, students have the tools to explore the historical importance of Kennedy’s decision and connect all of it to their own personal experiences.

———————————————————————————————————————————–

Here are some more examples of how to go through this 3-step process with other quotations. They come from another blog I’m managing for Teach Different, a professional development organization geared towards helping teachers with the essential-question creation process.

As you read these posts think about the primary sources you teach and how you might make them more interesting.

Mahatma Gandhi   Non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good

Asechylus Wisdom comes alone through suffering

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


 

Part II: Sample Prompts for the Argument Essay FRQ- AP government

Official Portrait of Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Official Portrait of Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Should judges serve life terms? This was a vexing question which consumed the Framers and survives today in the hearts and minds of people who follow the Supreme Court. I think the question lends itself very well to what we might see on the argument essay FRQ in AP government. Here is what this Prompt might look like.

And here are some others…

Presidency:  Do executive orders give the president too much power?  Prompt

Photo IDs and federalism:  Do states have the authority to pass photo identification laws which restrict people’s ability to vote?  Prompt

Social Media:  Is social media a healthy way for citizens to participate in our political system?  Promptvoter_id

Electoral College:  Should the electoral college be abolished?  Prompt

I have no clue at this point what might show up on this portion of the exam. At the very least, though, these can provide for good practice for students in making claims, defending them and responding to rebuttals.

Here are other sample prompts from a previous post I shared a few weeks back.