Category Archives: Big Questions Professional Development

New teaching routines are hard— except this one.

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Good questions and conversations don’t just happen. They come from deep thinking and careful planning. The hardest part is establishing a routine to make them happen, and then sticking to it.

My brother Steve– also a high school social studies teacher with a background in philosophy– developed a routine to foster better classroom conversations.  He’s had really good success in a very challenging urban teaching environment on the west side of Chicago.

Coming from a suburban environment, I thought it would be interesting to integrate my focus on essential questions into what he is doing.

Here’s the process broken up into three specific phases:  Quote, Counterclaim, Essential Question

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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

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Using Questions to Conquer Fear

question-mark-96285_1280For some students there is nothing that inspires more abject fear than participating in a class discussion.

You can almost predict the sequence of events…

The discussion starts. There is a mad rush for attention. Students obsessed with earning participation points shoot their hands up. Others wait back a little and contribute a few ideas here and there.  Some talk constantly just to be heard; others simply repeat what’s already been said.

And then there’s your quiet students… Continue reading

“The Soul Moves First” Inspire Students to Take Charge of their Own Learning

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My friend’s high school-aged daughter volunteers every week in Chicago at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab.  There she gains invaluable experience working with individuals who suffer from physical limitations brought upon by a spinal cord injury, stroke, amputation or some sort of traumatic brain injury. She will play card and board games, for instance, to help patients work on memory and fine motor skills. These tasks, once routine, now require intense mental effort and energy. 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

Fishing with Philosophy: Setting the Hook for Student Learning

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I love fishing. It’s a chance to relax, be in nature and enjoy a little peace and serenity. The best part, though, is the excitement of setting the hook on a really big fish. That’s the beginning of an enjoyable struggle whose outcome is always uncertain.

Usually the hardest part is setting the hook just right.

In teaching we often feel like we are fishing without a hook, trying every strategy we can to get kids excited, asking questions and taking learning seriously. Despite our noble efforts, we fall short many times.  It’s usually not that our lesson was poorly conceived as a whole; it’s that we never got started in the right direction and so things just sort of… fizzled out.

If we can’t set the hook, especially in a class driven by Big Questions, then students quickly lose interest and usually we can’t get them back.

So what is the best way to set that hook?

Bring in a little philosophy.

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“I think, therefore I’m right,” says the Student.

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“I think, therefore I’m right.” Whether it’s defending a position on gun control, angling for a better grade in class or arguing about musical tastes in the lunchroom, many students tend to think that thinking about and believing in something are sufficient grounds for the truth of that something. Often, adults are no better. The whole idea of actually having strong reasons behind beliefs is noble in the abstract but requires mountains of patience and work to actually put into action. Thus, when faced with the agonizing choice, many of us stick to our hard and fast opinions rather than embrace the grueling work to justify those opinions with careful reasoning. Continue reading