On their face some Big Questions seem simplistic. They don’t involve big words or big concepts– that is, until you really start thinking. High school teacher Justin Riskus constructed one of these Big Questions and used it during an exploration of the tragedy and triumph of war in his US history course.
First, he posts the question on the front board “Can war be glorious?” Students receive a document containing a dictionary definition of ‘glorious” and two primary sources:
1. The Wilfred Owen poem Dulce Et Decorum Est
2. Medal of Honor Speech, PFC Ross A. McGinnis
Students read the Owen poem or watch a recitation of it by Christopher Eccleston. (Another option is to watch an animation by Animative Media.) When exposed to the gut-wrenching descriptions of battle, students will undoubtedly be lured into seeing the vulgarity and evil of war, hardly a glorious undertaking it seems.
After a short discussion of the Owen poem, students then get a very different side of war in the Medal of Honor Speech. Here we have a soldier being honored for his sacrifices in battle. In a particularly charged section of the speech, the courage of fallen soldier Private McGinnis is on display.
Then, rather than leaping from the gunner’s hatch to safety, Private McGinnis made the courageous decision to protect his crew. In a selfless act of bravery, in which he was mortally wounded, Private McGinnis covered the live grenade, pinning it between his body and the vehicle and absorbing most of the explosion.
With the emotionally charged poem and speech fomenting tension in their minds, students quickly go back to the question “Can war be glorious?” Discussion ensues and students revisit the definition of ‘glorious’, apply it to the primary sources and shape fresh opinions about whether war itself is glorious.
Justin’s lesson has unleashed the power of Big Questions to inspire critical thinking:
- Students are seeing the world from multiple perspectives
- Students are grappling with the messy definition of a word
- Students are working through their confusion, not being paralyzed by it
Most exciting is that Justin has established an anchor learning experience to which he can return later. Consider the future opportunities: World War II, Korean War, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan— all of these wars present fresh opportunities to revisit the question.
What started as a simple inquiry has turned into a multi-dimensional, complex philosophical exploration into the unknown.
(P.S. “Can war be glorious?” is a great question on which to structure an entire US history course. )
Check out a few other lessons created by Justin Riskus: To Intervene or not to Intervene: THAT is the Big Question and Some Big Questions are 2,500 years old… and counting.