Category Archives: Big Questions In Action

Brutus No. 1 showed up in government class to answer some questions…

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Anti-Federalist Robert Yates

 

I may have stumbled into a way to

1. inspire students to ask more questions

2. encourage close reading of a primary source

3. save time

The idea here is very raw. Read this and reply with your ideas.  And if you try this out, I’d love to know what happens.

Back story:

Around 10 years ago I watched my student teacher try a strategy in US history which she learned about in her methods class. She played a short video showing a wild party at a speakeasy during the 1920s. At the party were scantily dressed men and women dancing around. After two minutes or so– during which students were noticeably confused– she stopped the video to show one of the women close up. She stood in front of the projector screen and gave a simple command:1024px-Violet_Romer_in_flapper_dress,_LC-DIG-ggbain-12393_crop

“Hi!  I’m a flapper. Interview me”. 

Without delay the students started firing questions at her, ranging from “What is a flapper?”, “Why are you dressed like that?”, “How are you getting away with drinking alcohol?” to “Who was invited to the party?”   I remember thinking to myself– ‘what an innovative way to get students to start asking questions‘.

Yet I never tried the strategy myself…until this week.

I was in a time crunch teaching the founding period in AP government–feeling a little overwhelmed with all of the primary sources required from the College Board.  I’ve  already had classroom discussions on Federalist 10, 51 and 70. Students are a little burned out.  I needed a quick, imaginative idea for teaching Brutus 1— the seminal work which lays out the philosophy of the Anti-Federalists.

My mind raced back 10 years to that experience with my student teacher. What if I came up with a way to use the ‘Interview Me’ technique to inspire student questions on a primary source?  Why not give it a shot?   It’s not a Socratic seminar but who cares?  As long as the students did a close reading of the document, and developed some cogent questions, my objectives would be met.  And it might actually be fun.

So here’s what happened–Brutus-I-revised-font-300x300

1. Students read excerpts from Brutus No. 1 in groups of three (document courtesy of the Bill of Rights Institute).  I told them beforehand to formulate questions about the meaning of the reading

2. Before setting them off to read it, I said they would have a chance to interview Brutus I (played by me) with 15 minutes left in the period. He would clear up their misunderstandings.

3. With 15 minutes left I sat in front of the room and said

“Hi!  I’m Brutus I. Interview me”

I fielded their questions and students took notes based on my responses. We went right to the bell. (I screwed up here. I should have allowed at least 30 minutes for the interview.)

I haven’t assessed them yet but in terms of student interest in the activity and the quality of their questions, I was pleasantly surprised.  They were amused with my performance. I didn’t dress up at all. I just made sure that I assumed the character of somebody who was afraid of centralized political power, large republics and a national Congress which would abuse its authority through its power to tax. It actually wasn’t hard to pull off from my end.  It ended up being like a bizarre 15 minute co-presentation with my students as assistants.

There was something about the interview format which motivated students to ask questions. It brought a different energy to the room. Because they were interviewing me, they didn’t seem embarrassed at all about their confusions. They went along with it.

I see some adaptations for next time:

1. Tell a student to study the primary source beforehand and run the interview for the class.

2. Find two primary sources; divide the class; give one source to each section; have each section stage an interview.  Maybe they could plan out questions beforehand so the interviewee knew what was coming and they made sure to cover salient points. Sounds like a mini-class project waiting to happen.

Has anybody ever tried this technique before with primary sources?  If so, what did you do and were you successful?

Any ideas for improving this?   The input would be great!  Thanks.

Big Questions in Action

An AP government student asked a really Big Question and here’s what happened…

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Students come up with stunningly good questions.

Sometimes those questions take over the class.

I just experienced this first hand during a discussion on Plato’s Crito and Martin Luther King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail  (one of the required documents in the redesigned AP government course.) Continue reading

The Kavanaugh Hearings: Let Questions Turn Chaos into Opportunity

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The Kavanaugh hearings have rocked the country.  The Supreme Court, that one place where politics is supposed to be off limits, has succumbed to partisanship. We are a government flirting with chaos.

In these times it’s useful to take a step back and remember some age-old wisdom by the great Chinese philosopher and military strategist Sun Tzu:

“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.”  Sun Tzu

Continue reading

Ask more questions and put yourself out of work

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Organic farm serviced by students from local elementary and high schools.

Over the summer I learned about the power of questions in the most novel of places, Kenya.  I participated in an educational trip organized by Me to We, a path-breaking service organization based in Toronto, Ontario run by two social entrepreneurs, brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger.  Both have fascinating stories about how they seized on an idea for improving the world and wouldn’t stop until it became a reality. Their appreciation for questions is what I’ll remember most. Continue reading

Big Questions and the AP Government Redesign: A Match Made in Heaven

Last week I attended a fantastic AP government redesign workshop through Northwestern University led by Vanessa Lal ( @vlal ).  I was heartened to see that inquiry is a centerpiece of the new format.  In fact, the College Board has designed specific Big Questions to underpin each of the five broad content categories: Foundations, Interactions Among Branches of Government, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, American Political Ideologies and Beliefs and Political Participation.
Continue reading

Harness the Immigration Debate with these Big Questions

immigrationWe’ve all seen the images, heard the audio and read the tweets. The immigration debate has everybody busting at the seams on both sides.

And August is just around the corner.

And we know what that means.

Students will be walking into our classrooms confused, tired, angry and needing answers. And we will be trying to figure out ways to teach a historical, psychological, sociological or political understanding of the immigration issue while at the same time resisting the impulse to impose our own opinions– a delicate and seemingly impossible burden.

This is exactly the kind of environment in which Big Questions  thrive. Continue reading

Beverly Gage asks: When Does a Moment Turn into a Movement?

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This big question comes from a New York Times article by Beverly Gage, which was shared via Twitter by Mary Ellen Daneels ( ), lead teacher mentor for the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and contributor to IllinoisCivics.org

The article does a fantastic job giving historical perspective on the various movements which have taken root, which include contemporary ones like MeToo, Parkland and Black Lives Matter as well as those dating back to the 60s and before that the temperance and anti-Catholic movements of the early 19th century. There are so many intriguing lines of inquiry and observations but one that I found most compelling was this observation about how movements of today lack staying power. Gage writes… Continue reading