What makes FDR’s presidency so hard to teach is there is so much relevant content to explore in such a short chunk of time. You have WWII to contend with on the foreign policy front. But then on the domestic front you’re confronted with the maze of alphabet soup programs of the New Deal. And to top it off, since it’s near the end of the year, you’re often rushed.
This is exactly the kind of situation where strategic use of a Big Question can help alleviate some of your pressure withoutsacrificing the most important content.
US history teacher Bry Roemer found an innovative way to do just that with a question that strikes at the heart of FDR’s New Deal: How much is the government responsible for helping its citizens?
She makes creative use of an advertisement project to get the question in front of students. Here is how she did it along with my commentary on some other ideas for how you could use the question: Continue reading →
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 would 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!
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. Continue reading →
Sometimes good teaching involves misdirection. You start with a topic that seems unrelated to the class, drift to another activity and then to another. If all goes well, (a big assumption!) your students are emotionally and intellectually invested in learning. High school history teacher Justin Riskus tries his hand at misdirection in a lesson on U.S. humanitarian interventions.
He starts by having the students read a provocative chapter from Dr. Andrew Pessin’s 60-Second Philosopher titled “You Choose, You Lose“. The chapter itself has nothing to do with history but everything to do with making excruciating choices on how to prioritize the saving of human lives. Picking up on this idea of making choices, Justin slowly introduces two humanitarian crises in which the U.S. had to make hard choices about whether or not to intervene to save lives: the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the 1998-99 Kosovo conflict. Continue reading →
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.
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.
What do you get when you combine a Pearl Harbor newspaper clipping , a WWII Dr. Suess cartoon , a rap about the internment camp experience and the heartrending children’s story Flowers from Mariko? Answer- A REALLY Big Question: How does the government protect its people during war, yet still preserve civil liberties?
High School history teacher Julie Dickinson designed this introductory lesson as a student in the summer 2017 online course Socrates in the Social Studies. What I like about her lesson is that she uses the clipping and the cartoon to look at World War II from the perspective of the United States. Then, using the rap and children’s story, she shows how the Japanese viewed the war through the harrowing experiences during and after internment. Juxtaposing these perspectives in this way creates fertile ground to sprout a Big Question at the end of the lesson.
It is interesting that Julie chose to end the lesson with the Big Question, as opposed to starting with it. By doing it this way, not only do I think she’s succeeded in creating a sense of anticipation for the students, but she also established a fixed anchor for future lessons. For example, the events of the McCarthy Era and Trump’s failed travel ban have deep within them the same tension between government power and individual liberty and therefore could be analyzed later using this same Big Question as a guide. Julie’s question would be a wonderful addition to the list of US history or government questions on which one could organize an entire course.
Do you use a similar question to explore the relationship between government power and civil liberties? If so, what is it?
Would I have turned out differently had I been born at a different time under different circumstances?
Underneath all of these big questions lurks an even bigger one: Is my life guided by free will or determinism? Open to interpretation and filled with murky definitions– this question has everything.
What makes the question so vexing is that it pits our common sense against our logic. It seems obvious that we have the freedom to act. But then, when we rewind our decisions and really think, it seems like every action we take is determined by the action taken just before it. Our logic tells us there is no way it could have happened any other way.
High school history teacher and Socrates in the Social Studies student Justin Riskus provokes this thousands-year-old Big Question to teach World War II. He begins in an unorthodox way by showing If you Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff.
The narrator intones “If you give a mouse a cookie, he’ll ask for a glass of milk.” Once that action occurs, the mouse must ask for a straw and then a napkin etc… Each action the mouse takes seems completely determined by the action taken just before. At the end, in a twist of irony, the mouse asks for a glass of milk and then a cookie to go with it, and we are back where we started.
Justin uses this story to stoke student interest in the Allies’ appeasement policy towards Hitler leading up to WWII. There too we see a seemingly endless string of determined events, piling up on each other leading to one of the most horrific wars the world has ever seen. A voice in our head asks “Was WorldWarII determined to happen?” Justin cleverly uses the behavior of a mouse to inspire students to call into question whether history itself is caught in the iron grip of determinism or whether leaders have the free will to break history’s chain of events.
Employing a Socratic Seminar, Justin then coaxes students to consider the moral responsibility of modern day presidents.
Justin has drawn out an age-old philosophical question and looked at it with fresh eyes. In doing so, his students are inspired to think about the choices humans must make in the service of preventing evil.