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?

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LessonArtifacts

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

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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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LessonArtifacts

 

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.

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LessonArtifacts

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?

 

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A Blog on Big Questions

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David – The Death of Socrates

Why would people work hard if there were no rewards or consequences?

Can one ever truly be happy?

All my life I’ve been fascinated with questions. The fascination intensified in college as a political science and philosophy major when I read about Socrates who, as history tells us, made a living walking around asking people questions. His questions were penetrating, inspired multiple perspectives of understanding and often left his conversation partners scratching their heads in confusion. Rather than assume he knew the truth, Socrates humbly revealed the ignorance of others, and paid the ultimate penalty. Continue reading “A Blog on Big Questions”