Where can I find Big Questions? Ask a child.

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

 

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

 

 

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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

 

Where can I find Big Questions? Ask a philosopher.

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Ahh… Philosophy- that class you may have taken- or avoided- way back when. It seemed so abstract, out-of-touch and inaccessible. That’s probably because many of philosophy’s questions seemed so big that just thinking about answering them was intimidating. Questions like:

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What is good and what is evil?  And how do I know it?

Is my life guided by my free choices or is it determined by my past?

What is the meaning of life?

Complexity aside, since philosophy is all about Big Questions, maybe we can enlist it as the perfect ally in our quest to bring more inquiry into our classrooms.

Below are some resources in philosophy I’ve found to be imminently valuable to motivate Big Questions. You don’t need much experience in the subject to appreciate them as they are geared towards the general audience.

Resource #1: Children’s books– We’ve already seen how philosophical questions inside children’s stories can inspire Big Questions.

Resource #2:  The 60-Second Philosopher by Andrew Pessin contains mini-thought exercises organized by chapter which engage students in philosophical themes relevant to a myriad of disciplines- social studies, science and English to name a few. We’ve already seen this book used in previous posts within the lessons Can  intolerance be a Virtue? and Is America the Land of Opportunity?

Resource #3: School of Life.   This YouTube channel creates animated videos connected to philosophy, psychology, history and other humanities-based subjects. Some promote more adult themes but many, especially the ones connected to philosophy and psychology, are creative, entertaining and tied to many Big Questions like Who am I?   I have found these videos to be wonderful tools to stoke student curiosity.

Resource #4: The Pig that Wants to be Eaten. Baggini, Julian.  Here is a collection of 100 philosophical thought experiments including many of the best known, such as “The Ship of Theseus”. The thought experiments are presented in an accessible way and Baggini offers a one to two page analysis after each scenario, in addition to listing citations to explore original sources.

Resource #5: PLATO-Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization:  The Philosopher’s Toolkit has a collection of lesson plans to inspire philosophical discussions within a myriad of subject areas including math, literature, social studies and science. Each lesson indicates the audience for which it is best suited.

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Warning! Once your students start thinking philosophically, there is no turning back!

Do you use philosophy in any way to inspire Big Questions?  If so, how?

Big Question: How can you protect your freedoms without limiting someone else’s?

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What on earth does the Araboolies of Liberty Street children’s story by Sam Swope have to do with the Civil Rights Movement and the 1st Amendment?

Well, according to high school social studies teacher Julie Dickinson, a lot.

In the story we meet General Pinch and his wife who try to expel their crazy, freedom-loving neighbors– the Araboolies. In a bizarre twist of events, the Araboolies try to protect their own freedoms by persuading the army that it is the Pinch family who are the real outsiders. The Araboolies, then, become the oppressors and the Pinch family finds itself fighting for its freedoms.

What a mess!  But what an opportunity to teach students of all ages about the dangers of freedom and oppression.

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After listening to the story, students apply the concepts of freedom and oppression to the famous Little Rock Nine event using this chartSoon they begin to see just how challenging it is to celebrate and accept differences in a free, democratic society.


Julie meets the Big Question criteria:

  • The question sows confusion over the definition of freedom by drawing attention to its inherent dangers.
  • Using the characters of a children’s story as vehicles, students begin to see the characters of US history through different perspectives.

I see natural applications of this Big Question in government with Supreme Court cases in which a community is compelled to suppress the 1st Amendment rights of a controversial group and that group fights back in court, as in National Socialist Party v Skokie (1977) and Synder v. Phelps (2011).

How could you use this Big Question?

Download Full Lesson

Next Post– Big Question: Can intolerance be a virtue?  Huh?

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

Swimmy

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.

Download Full Lesson

Next Post: Where can my students find inspiration to ask Big Questions?

 

 

US History Big Question: Is America the Land of Opportunity?

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Well of course it is!

But is it?

This lesson, designed by history teacher Melissa Kinsey from Washington, Illinois, explores the interplay between American history and human perception. As she describes, sometimes what we perceive to be true depends on who is perceiving it.

Melissa starts with a provocative chapter from Dr. Andrew Pessin’s 60-Second Philosopher titled the Eyeball of the Beholder, and then directs students to this intriguing website on face illusions. With unique perceptions in mind, students explore how different groups (Native Americans and English colonists) viewed a common historical event– the settlement of America. They document their findings on this chart.

What I really like about Melissa’s Big Question is that it addresses three important criteria.


  • It confuses.  Many students probably walk into this lesson assuming that America is the Land of Opportunity. That assumption is now shaken by a Big Question.  
  • It reveals multiple perspectives. The question reveals that a static one-sided answer does not exist. Truth, then, must be seen through the eyes of different historical actors.  
  • It begs for clearer definitions. Opportunity for whom? Opportunity to do what? What does opportunity actually mean? The word ‘opportunity’ demands a clear definition.

As Melissa suggests, teachers can revisit this very same Big Question in subsequent units – the American Revolution, Civil War, Manifest Destiny for instance- to explore further the relationship between history and human perception.

Download full lesson

Next Post– Big Question: How can you protect your freedoms without limiting someone else’s?

 

What does a Big Question look like?

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Some say “Essential
Some say “Compelling
Others say “Open-Ended

I say “Big Questions” recaptures the spirit of the Socrates way. Though Socrates made asking questions seem deceptively simple, it’s actually a complex process. Here are three essential criteria to creating Big Questions.

Criteria #1- Big Questions confuse   

Big Questions cause confusion, throwing off comfortable ways of thinking. This is the critical first step in learning. Lack of clarity, though, becomes an asset that sets in motion the process of thinking through a complex problem. The inherent confusion of Big Questions motivates us to find an answer.

Criteria #2– Big Questions reveal multiple perspectives.

There is typically more than one way to answer Big Questions. Lack of certainty is again an asset, positioning us intellectually to develop logical arguments to convince others towards our perspective. Seeing multiple perspectives cultivates a spirit of empathy and tolerance for difference.

Criteria #3– Big Questions beg for clear definitions

Hiding inside many Big Questions are words with messy definitions that are often neglected. For example, “Does American history reflect the achievement or failure of the American Dream?” Notice the phrase “American Dream” requires immediate and extensive investigation. The American Dream for a union worker, business owner or farmer will be very different. Socrates demonstrated that the starting point for critical thinking is a precise definition of words.

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In the next blog post I’ll showcase a creative Big Questions lesson from middle school history teacher Melissa Kinsey to demonstrate how all of these criteria work together.

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Is America the Land of Opportunity?