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.
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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

“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

Big Questions and the Power of Storytelling

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Two truths about teaching:

1. Questions don’t work too well unless students are in the mood for them.

2. Nothing sets a mood like a good story.

Two truths about stories: 

1. They captivate the imagination.

2. They create healthy soil on which to grow Big Questions. 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 uncertai

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