Harness the Immigration Debate with these Big Questions

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We’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.

So in preparation for the August return, here are two questions which I’m thinking about using in the context of government and US history, along with commentary on how and why I would use each question:

What is the most humane way of dealing with people seeking asylum in the United States?

The word ‘humane’ jumps out here. Any serious consideration of this question must include a careful, precise definition of what humane means. I bet that students will have vastly different opinions on its meaning, and therefore vastly different answers to the question.  What I would want students to see here is that our passionate political disagreement about how to deal with immigrants seeking asylum is actually a passionate philosophical disagreement on what humane means.

How can rules be made and enforced in a way that demonstrates compassion AND respect for the rule of law?

This one is loaded with words whose definitions need to be unpacked– respect, compassion and rule of law. Additionally, this question begs for some sort of opening activity whereby students must respond to a familiar situation in which somebody had to choose between compassion and strict enforcement of rules. How about when a teacher must decide whether or not to report a student who cheats?  Or when a district must decide how to enforce a zero-tolerance policy regarding student-athletes? I’m thinking at least one or two days of immersion with familiar situations before even making the connection with immigration. I’m telling myself to SLOW DOWN. Then, when the immigration connection is eventually made, students will be ready for it and can use the opening scenarios as a frame of comparison moving forward.

What questions are YOU thinking about?  What strategies do you have to sublimate the energy of this immigration debate towards productive ends?


DF_Socrates Battle ImageImmigration would be an awesome topic on which to make lessons in Socrates and the Battle for the Soul of America, an online course offered through NCSS.

Fall sessions will be scheduled soon!Sub-Images_BQIA (1)

Government and the Giving Tree– Part I: a Big Question is born

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The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

Rewind five years or so…

The setting:  I needed a Big Question in government to teach about liberal and conservative views on the role of government, a topic that often generates intense debate. On one side are students who think government’s role should be limited and people should fix their own problems. On the other side are students insistent that government has a moral obligation to help citizens directly. From health care to welfare, from tax policy to social security, this fundamental disagreement on the role of government lurks beneath so many issues and even fuels much of the party polarization within Congress.

I knew that a Big Question lived somewhere but I just hadn’t taken the time to slow down and think through it enough. Needing an inspiration, I visited one of my favorite websites to motivate Big Questions– the UW Center for Philosophy for Children. (We learned about this website in a previous post and also used it in conjunction with Big Questions to teach about bravery, freedom, free will and determinism, security v liberty in a time of war, and the Constitutional Convention.)

thought-2123970_1920I looked around a bit aimlessly at first and then stumbled upon one of my all-time favorite children stories: The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, which I remembered covered the theme of help and generosity. Seeing connection possibilities but not being able to articulate anything specific yet, I read it again, this time with a fresh set of eyes and a mission.

Half-way into the story, I saw something.

Here is a spirited attempt to recapture my jumbled thoughts at the time:

I thought about the interactions between the boy and the tree. The tree keeps giving things to the boy. The boy receives these gifts throughout his life. The tree seems to be so generous and the boy seems to like taking things.  Maybe the boy is giving a sense of purpose to the tree and the tree is happy as a result.  I thought about the whole idea of giving and receiving help, which then led me to start thinking about whether or not it is okay to rely on people or instead to rely on ourselves. What is the more honorable way to live? I wondered.

Then, slowly, connections to government surfaced…

…people rely on their government to give them lots of things too. Welfare, education, health care… and sometimes the more government gives, the more dependent people feel and the more they expect to be served.  Is this bad? Good? What about personal responsibility?  

After stewing on the story for a while and drafting questions, one revealed itself: Is the proper role of government to help citizens or to encourage citizens to help themselves?

Bingo!

Then, I just let the question sit in my mind for a few days– all the while evaluating whether or not it was compelling enough to use.  I thought about some of the criteria:

Big Questions embrace multiple perspectives:  The question asks for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response on its face but actually requires a very nuanced understanding of the issue and demands that students consider many different perspectives in their answers: from a wealthy or poor citizen point of view, for example, or from an urban or rural perspective, or an owner of a small business. Students learn very quickly that ‘yes’ or ‘no’ just won’t suffice and that the answer is way more complex than it appeared.

Big Questions beg for clear definitions: The word “help” needs to be unpacked. What exactly qualifies as help? Can two reasonable people disagree as to what constitutes help? What form must help take to be called ‘help’? In what way is encouraging somebody else to do something ‘help’ and how is that different from direct help?

I knew this was a good one because the more I thought of it, the more confusing it became. That is always a good sign!


This was a success story to be sure but there’s a brutal reality to Big Questions– unless we’re patient and truly slow down our instruction, we’ll struggle mightily to find space for them in our curriculum.

But it can be done.

The next challenge was to figure out how to use the question in creative ways. In the next post I’ll share how to integrate it and brainstorm some other possible applications.

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

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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?

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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.

Teaching with Big Questions is like learning in slow-motion

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Here’s something to think about after the Super Bowl.

We know why we like instant replay so much. We get to see reality in slow motion to catch what we missed the first time. With instant replay we have the power to paint a more in-depth, accurate picture of what happened. With a clearer picture in mind, we gain a deeper understanding.

As teachers, we are interested in understanding too, but unlike football, we don’t get the benefit of replay. We must catch our mistakes the first time and make on-the-fly adjustments based on intuition and incomplete information. Thus, we’re always chasing certainty and our picture of reality is always fuzzy.

Think of how fast a typical lesson moves.  We open with a bell-ringer activity, give an announcement of the daily learning target, sprinkle in a few lecture notes and explain the directions for the lesson. Then, we get students into cooperative learning groups and end with some sort of full-class discussion after which we hand out an exit slip.  Lessons often feel like an assembly line of tasks.  It’s stressful to complete all of them, and we’re often left with the sense that we aren’t getting at true student understanding along the way.

Wouldn’t it be great to have instant replay and stop at any moment to slow down and examine our practice, dissect its parts and make corrections before moving on?

We can’t do that.  BUT what we can do is teach in a different way by integrating more Big Questions.

When we ask a really Big Question– like Can War Be Glorious?— our classroom retires into slow motion. Teacher and student transition from frenetic task-oriented activities into methodical, deliberate thinking. Together, we thoughtfully consider definitions, entertain multiple ways of seeing an issue and construct precise, focused answers to challenging intellectual problems. We aren’t racing to complete many tasks; we are more mindful of the task at hand. This is what a human-centered classroom looks like.

Not only that, we can build recursive learning experiences in which the questions themselves reappear in multiple units of study (as we saw in this post). Repeated exposure to the questions acts like classroom instant replay, inspiring teacher AND student to see and seize opportunities for improvement. As students correct their errors of thinking and forge fresh connections between the content and the questions, teachers recognize new ways to nurture students along the journey.

Together, we achieve deeper understanding over time.

 

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