Where can I find Big Questions? Ask a child.


It seems paradoxical but it’s not.

Children’s stories capture our imagination, make us wonder, and reveal the inherent mysteries of life in the simplest and most profound ways.

They can also motivate teachers and students of all grade levels and subjects to ask Big Questions.

You’ve already seen how the Araboolies of Liberty Street by Sam Swope can be used to teach the Civil Rights Movement and the 1st Amendment and how Swimmy by Leo Lionni can be used to teach the meaning of bravery in the Abolitionist Movement.

But there’s so much more.

The University of Washington Center for Philosophy of Children has a treasure trove of over 100 children’s stories along with innovative ideas on how to use these stories to introduce Big Questions in the classroom. Most of the stories can be adapted seamlessly to fit the middle and high school audience.

Consider these stories and the Big Questions they inspire:

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
Is the proper role of government to help citizens or to encourage citizens to help themselves?




The Big Box by Toni Morrison
Who gets to decide who is free? or What does it mean to have freedom?




If you Give a Mouse a Cookie  by Laura Numeroff
Are historical events determined to happen or can humans change the course of history through their choices?


You might think you can’t use children’s stories, especially in a high school class! It’s too basic and simplistic. The kids will think you are insulting their intelligence.

Dispense with this thinking! Each time I’ve introduced a children’s story, I have found most of my students alert, intrigued and ready to think. This is because I’m drawing upon something familiar and creating a safe space for them to think. It’s the perfect entry point for asking Big Questions.

The best part is that you can come back to the children’s story repeatedly as you work your way through different units, all the while reinforcing the importance of the original Big Questions the story inspired. This strategy would be particularly valuable in an English class with a novel.

What children’s story do YOU use (or could you use) in your classroom?

Next Post: Where can I find Big Questions? Ask a Philosopher

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Big Question: How do you know the Abolitionists were brave?


Hiding inside the iconic children’s story Swimmy by Leo Lionni, is the timeless theme of bravery and a great opportunity to teach students of all ages about the historical importance of  Abolitionist Movement.

Swimmy is a little black fish, born a different color than the rest of his school of small red fish. One day Swimmy’s school is eaten by a large tuna fish. Scared and sad, Swimmy travels alone and sees many beautiful things, meeting all kinds of sea creatures, until he finds a school of red fish like his own. The red fish are too afraid of being eaten to go exploring with Swimmy, until Swimmy suggests that they all swim close together to look like one big fish, with Swimmy as the eye.

Plot Summary from the Center for Philosophy of Children at the University of Washington

After reading or watching the story, students complete a Bravery Graphic Organizer  andFD discuss the qualities of bravery as shown by the actions of Swimmy. Possible student responses could include overcoming hardship, leading with a clear vision and taking risks.

Students then immerse themselves in research on the Abolitionist Movement using the American Experience website. They fill out this chart with information they find on famous leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Angelina Grimke, John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison. In the process, students cultivate a vibrant, real-world definition of bravery inspired by a children’s story and applied to a famous historical event.

What I love about this lesson is that it takes the word “bravery” and immediately calls its definition into question. Often, we use a word like bravery and assume we know what it means. Yet, when we isolate the word and look at it from different perspectives, all of a sudden a once familiar word becomes confusing and it becomes necessary to recapture its clarity through critical thinking. All three criteria of a Big Question are met.

Though the designer of this lesson, Melissa Kinsey, teaches middle school, I see this activity highly relevant to students in a high school government or history class, where there are many other opportunities to develop operational definitions of words– like “justice” or “fairness“– and then apply these definitions in different settings to build student critical thinking skills.

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