Go West! …and bring your Big Questions with you

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High school US history teacher Bry Roemer has found another creative way to use Big Questions:  as an exit slip to provoke intrigue at the beginning of a unit.

She starts by having students watch the Harold and the Purple Crayon children’s story by Crockett Johnson (video of story here) and then asks the students to think about what kind of world they JohnGastwould create if they found and claimed uncharted territory?  After a short discussion, students examine John Gast’s famous painting American Progress and complete this guide.  The guides asks them to think about how the symbols in the painting convey Manifest Destiny as understood and promoted by western settlers.  For the final step, students fill out an exit slip providing an initial response to the Big Question:

How did the United States create a new world when expanding the border westward– and what were the positive and negatives?
What’s interesting here is that Bry has decided to introduce a very elaborate, multi-dimensional question right at the beginning of the unit, knowing full well that students won’t have the requisite factual knowledge to shape a comprehensive response. The decision is deliberate, though, because the overall plan is to stoke student interest at the outset and then slowly draw out that interest as students learn more about the events of western expansion. Thus, she has set in motion a learning experience where one big idea is revisited multiple times in different settings, from different angles, with different events of US history, thus deepening student understanding over time.

Bry’s use of this exit slip reveals an important truth of Big Questions– they are very flexible in their application. We saw that flexibility earlier as they were used to frame an entire course and then also to frame specific lessons, as seen in these posts:

Success in teaching through Big Questions requires the development of a fresh routine of thinking, something that must be reinforced continually over time. Maybe the exit slip is a safe entry point to begin the journey!
LessonArtifacts

Government and Guns Part II:  The Simulation is Over and Here’s What Happened

Simulation

The Senate Judiciary Committee Simulation is over. All in all, students did a really stellar job debating the pros and cons of the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act from the perspective of members of the committee and special interest groups like the NRA, police chief associations and the United States Concealed Carry Association, all of which gave passionate testimony to the committee. I could have done a better job preparing the committee members to integrate knowledge of their states’ demographics into the questions they posed to the special interest groups.

Just for fun, I offered students in one class the option of taking on the role of a founding father who shows up at the hearing unannounced to provide some historical perspective. One student took me up on it and arrived as Thomas Jefferson.  Mr. Jefferson reminded the committee that he and James Madison, when drawing up a code of conduct for the University of Virginia, stipulated that “No student shall, within the precincts of the University… keep or use weapons or arms of any kind..”  So it seems Jefferson himself would have been deeply opposed to the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act. Good stuff!

I asked the students to consider all of what they learned in the simulation and generate one question which captured some aspect of the issue left unresolved. Here is a sampling of what they came up with:

What compromise can be created within the Reciprocity Act in order to resolve the resistance between the push for gun control in big cities, and the push for guns as a means of protection?

Can a measure that advocates for gun control ever really be enacted without infringing on people’s right to privacy and to bear arms?

How should the NRA and people that deal with mental illness work together to try to prevent people with these illnesses from obtaining guns?

What is more important? And individuals rights to bear arms and protect himself or the general safety of the population?  Why?

How can we ensure that backgrounds checks are going to be official considering all the failed ones that haven’t been able to report those who are mentally ill?

What compromise can be developed that would both restrict guns for the general safety of the public but also protect people’s right to the 2nd amendment?

Portrait

Next step is to have each student craft a letter to his/her senator or President Trump articulating a personal opinion on the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act or any other gun-related public policy issue. In the letter the student will offer research-based arguments- in favor or opposition to the bill- which were shaped during the simulation, and then move the government official to action in some way.  I will let students hand-write the letters if they want. Some of the students, on their own volition, will actually send the letter off to the elected official. ( Whether they send it off or not will have no bearing on their grade for the assignment.)

This final piece, writing a letter to a government official, promotes the idea that taking informed civic action must be a combination of passionate discussion and direct pressure on elected officials.

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This lesson was originally created and has been adapted over time with the help of colleagues Kelly Pecak and Tracy Parciak of Maine West High School’s social studies department.

Government and Guns Part I: Seize the Teaching Moment

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Sometimes Big Questions don’t direct learning; they emerge from it.

Lost in thought and feelings of despair over the latest tragedy in Florida, I decided to ditch my regularly scheduled government programming and opt instead to hold a congressional hearing simulation on gun control.  My classroom will become the Senate Judiciary Committee considering a bill called the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act.  This bill passed the House of Representatives in the fall and is slated for debate in the Senate this spring. In a nutshell, the bill says that any person from a state which has legalized concealed carry can travel into any state which has outlawed the practice. Essentially then, should this bill become law, a person’s right to concealed carry would have to be honored by all 50 states. Students assume the roles of actual Senate Judiciary Committee members who question other students who are playing the role of interest group representatives giving testimony on their positions for and against the bill.

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With this latest tragedy fresh in the minds of legislators, the chances of this bill passing the Senate are slim. Yet, this activity is a valuable chance to explore why it is so hard for our society to agree on gun issues. Also, this is a golden opportunity to dive deeper into how all aspects of our government work together to try to address problems.

Consider just some of the areas of government touched by this issue:

Civil liberties (2nd Amendment)

Supreme Court  ( U.S. v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago )

Congress (bicameral legislature, filibuster, hearing, committees, mark-up)

Political parties and ideology (liberal, conservative, polarization, single-issue voters, party discipline)

Interest groups (information, advocacy, upper-class bias)

Campaigns and Elections (Pacs and SuperPacs, Citizens United, FEC)

Federalism (full-faith and credit clause, 10th Amendment, 14th Amendment selective incorporation)

Presidency (informal/formal powers, executive orders)

What about the Big Questions?

After the simulation is over, each student will generate a Big Question about the gun issue which emerged as a result of what they learned during the simulation. It’s hard to predict exactly what the students will want to ask but I’m confident the questions will lend fresh perspectives on an issue whose resolution is long overdue.

In the next post I will share some of their Big Questions!

If you try this activity out, let me know how it goes!  @dmfouts

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Benjamin Franklin, Classroom Teachers and the Dangers of Perfection

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Perfection is a danger. Just ask Benjamin Franklin and social studies teacher Chelsea Alsberg.

Why is it at the end of the year we become possessed with feelings of inadequacy about not doing enough for students? It’s like there’s this voice in the sky reminding us of the lessons we never got to, standards we failed to meet, paperwork left incomplete and lives untouched. Things didn’t turn out as we planned. It wasn’t perfect.

Meanwhile…

…many of our students are suffering the same feelings of regret thinking about the homework they should have done and the adult expectations they failed to meet. Added to their stress is the pressure of test scores and for seniors the torture of college decisions. The pressure to be perfect comes from all angles.

The quest for perfection is a monster that debilitates us and diminishes our capacity to grow into the best version of ourselves.  Social studies teacher Chelsea Alsberg drew upon this psychology to construct a lesson featuring Benjamin Franklin, somebody who was able to overcome the alluring spell of perfectionism in the toughest of circumstances.

She begins, innocently enough, with a question:

What makes something perfect?

So simple yet so profound, and it meets all three of our criteria.

After gathering students’ responses, she shows the story “Ish” by Peter H. Reynolds

Students reflect:

Was there ever something you stopped doing because you were not doing it perfectly?

Can art be perfect?  Who decides this?

What does it mean that Ramon’s later paintings/art were “-ish”?

Having personalized a definition of perfection and considered their own personal experiences, students are poised to make the historical connection. They read Benjamin Franklin’s closing speech to the Constitutional Convention  and shape responses to a series of questions including this big one:   If Franklin knows that the Constitution is flawed, why does he still push for ratification?

After discussion, the lesson concludes with students articulating the key positions of the anti-federalists and federalists as they debate the pitfalls and possibilities of the new Constitution. Students then must decide whether or not they would ratify it given its imperfections.

What I love about this lesson is not only do students gain a comprehensive understanding of a seminal historical event but, more importantly, they are encouraged to consider on a personal level the idea that imperfection can be a virtue.  Using Benjamin Franklin and the formation of the Constitution as a model, students and teachers learn that it is okay to turn away from the prison of perfection sometimes in the service of smart, responsible and practical decision-making.

Consider other periods of US history where you could explore the value of compromise and living with imperfection:

Reconstruction

Manifest Destiny and westward expansion

New Deal

Cold War

Lessons like this unearth a great benefit of Big Questions:  it’s not just that these questions get us to think deeply; it’s that they can cause us to feel deeply, and to move us to act in ways that make us better people.

LessonArtifacts

A Blog on Big Questions

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David – The Death of Socrates

Why would people work hard if there were no rewards or consequences?

Can one ever truly be happy?

All my life I’ve been fascinated with questions. The fascination intensified in college as a political science and philosophy major when I read about Socrates who, as history tells us, made a living walking around asking people questions. His questions were penetrating, inspired multiple perspectives of understanding and often left his conversation partners scratching their heads in confusion. Rather than assume he knew the truth, Socrates humbly revealed the ignorance of others, and paid the ultimate penalty. Continue reading “A Blog on Big Questions”