Go West! …and bring your Big Questions with you

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High school US history teacher Bry Roemer has found another creative way to use Big Questions:  as an exit slip to provoke intrigue at the beginning of a unit.

She starts by having students watch the Harold and the Purple Crayon children’s story by Crockett Johnson (video of story here) and then asks the students to think about what kind of world they JohnGastwould create if they found and claimed uncharted territory?  After a short discussion, students examine John Gast’s famous painting American Progress and complete this guide.  The guides asks them to think about how the symbols in the painting convey Manifest Destiny as understood and promoted by western settlers.  For the final step, students fill out an exit slip providing an initial response to the Big Question:

How did the United States create a new world when expanding the border westward– and what were the positive and negatives?
What’s interesting here is that Bry has decided to introduce a very elaborate, multi-dimensional question right at the beginning of the unit, knowing full well that students won’t have the requisite factual knowledge to shape a comprehensive response. The decision is deliberate, though, because the overall plan is to stoke student interest at the outset and then slowly draw out that interest as students learn more about the events of western expansion. Thus, she has set in motion a learning experience where one big idea is revisited multiple times in different settings, from different angles, with different events of US history, thus deepening student understanding over time.

Bry’s use of this exit slip reveals an important truth of Big Questions– they are very flexible in their application. We saw that flexibility earlier as they were used to frame an entire course and then also to frame specific lessons, as seen in these posts:

Success in teaching through Big Questions requires the development of a fresh routine of thinking, something that must be reinforced continually over time. Maybe the exit slip is a safe entry point to begin the journey!
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Government and Guns Part II:  The Simulation is Over and Here’s What Happened

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The Senate Judiciary Committee Simulation is over. All in all, students did a really stellar job debating the pros and cons of the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act from the perspective of members of the committee and special interest groups like the NRA, police chief associations and the United States Concealed Carry Association, all of which gave passionate testimony to the committee. I could have done a better job preparing the committee members to integrate knowledge of their states’ demographics into the questions they posed to the special interest groups.

Just for fun, I offered students in one class the option of taking on the role of a founding father who shows up at the hearing unannounced to provide some historical perspective. One student took me up on it and arrived as Thomas Jefferson.  Mr. Jefferson reminded the committee that he and James Madison, when drawing up a code of conduct for the University of Virginia, stipulated that “No student shall, within the precincts of the University… keep or use weapons or arms of any kind..”  So it seems Jefferson himself would have been deeply opposed to the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act. Good stuff!

I asked the students to consider all of what they learned in the simulation and generate one question which captured some aspect of the issue left unresolved. Here is a sampling of what they came up with:

What compromise can be created within the Reciprocity Act in order to resolve the resistance between the push for gun control in big cities, and the push for guns as a means of protection?

Can a measure that advocates for gun control ever really be enacted without infringing on people’s right to privacy and to bear arms?

How should the NRA and people that deal with mental illness work together to try to prevent people with these illnesses from obtaining guns?

What is more important? And individuals rights to bear arms and protect himself or the general safety of the population?  Why?

How can we ensure that backgrounds checks are going to be official considering all the failed ones that haven’t been able to report those who are mentally ill?

What compromise can be developed that would both restrict guns for the general safety of the public but also protect people’s right to the 2nd amendment?

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Next step is to have each student craft a letter to his/her senator or President Trump articulating a personal opinion on the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act or any other gun-related public policy issue. In the letter the student will offer research-based arguments- in favor or opposition to the bill- which were shaped during the simulation, and then move the government official to action in some way.  I will let students hand-write the letters if they want. Some of the students, on their own volition, will actually send the letter off to the elected official. ( Whether they send it off or not will have no bearing on their grade for the assignment.)

This final piece, writing a letter to a government official, promotes the idea that taking informed civic action must be a combination of passionate discussion and direct pressure on elected officials.

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This lesson was originally created and has been adapted over time with the help of colleagues Kelly Pecak and Tracy Parciak of Maine West High School’s social studies department.

Government and Guns Part I: Seize the Teaching Moment

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Sometimes Big Questions don’t direct learning; they emerge from it.

Lost in thought and feelings of despair over the latest tragedy in Florida, I decided to ditch my regularly scheduled government programming and opt instead to hold a congressional hearing simulation on gun control.  My classroom will become the Senate Judiciary Committee considering a bill called the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act.  This bill passed the House of Representatives in the fall and is slated for debate in the Senate this spring. In a nutshell, the bill says that any person from a state which has legalized concealed carry can travel into any state which has outlawed the practice. Essentially then, should this bill become law, a person’s right to concealed carry would have to be honored by all 50 states. Students assume the roles of actual Senate Judiciary Committee members who question other students who are playing the role of interest group representatives giving testimony on their positions for and against the bill.

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With this latest tragedy fresh in the minds of legislators, the chances of this bill passing the Senate are slim. Yet, this activity is a valuable chance to explore why it is so hard for our society to agree on gun issues. Also, this is a golden opportunity to dive deeper into how all aspects of our government work together to try to address problems.

Consider just some of the areas of government touched by this issue:

Civil liberties (2nd Amendment)

Supreme Court  ( U.S. v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago )

Congress (bicameral legislature, filibuster, hearing, committees, mark-up)

Political parties and ideology (liberal, conservative, polarization, single-issue voters, party discipline)

Interest groups (information, advocacy, upper-class bias)

Campaigns and Elections (Pacs and SuperPacs, Citizens United, FEC)

Federalism (full-faith and credit clause, 10th Amendment, 14th Amendment selective incorporation)

Presidency (informal/formal powers, executive orders)

What about the Big Questions?

After the simulation is over, each student will generate a Big Question about the gun issue which emerged as a result of what they learned during the simulation. It’s hard to predict exactly what the students will want to ask but I’m confident the questions will lend fresh perspectives on an issue whose resolution is long overdue.

In the next post I will share some of their Big Questions!

If you try this activity out, let me know how it goes!  @dmfouts

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To Intervene or not to Intervene– THAT is the Big Question

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Sometimes good teaching involves misdirection. You start with a topic that seems unrelated to the class, drift to another activity and then to another. If all goes well, (a big assumption!) your students are emotionally and intellectually invested in learning. High school history teacher Justin Riskus tries his hand at misdirection in a lesson on U.S. humanitarian interventions.

He starts by having the students read a provocative chapter from Dr. Andrew Pessin’s 60-Second Philosopher titled “You Choose, You Lose“. The chapter itself has nothing to do with history but everything to do with making excruciating choices on how to prioritize the saving of human lives. Picking up on this idea of making choices, Justin slowly introduces two humanitarian crises in which the U.S. had to make hard choices about whether or not to intervene to save lives: the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the 1998-99 Kosovo conflict.

Students are assigned to a crisis and put into groups to explore it. During their group work they fill out this chart.  Discussion ensues and the Big Question is rolled out:

Is the United States morally obligated to intervene in global humanitarian crises?

What started as a mysterious thinking activity on making choices ends in a profound moral discussion about the proper role the U.S. should play on the world stage. What I like about this Big Question is that it is written as if there is a yes or no response, yet once answered, immediately begs the irresistible follow-up question WHY?  It demands that the students think critically to generate criteria for when intervention might be justified. As an added bonus, Big Questions like this which center around morality are very portable in that you can carry them into other units of study and offer fresh opportunities for exploration.

Teaching through misdirection with Big Questions has another hidden benefit–  it slows down the learning process for teacher and students. This slowing down- as we saw in the last post– gives students and teachers valuable opportunities to deepen understanding over time.

Download Full Lesson

Check out a few other lessons created by Justin Riskus:   Can War Be Glorious? and Some Big Questions are 2,500 years old… and counting.

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“You Choose, You lose” chapter from 60-Second Philosopher used with permission

Teaching with Big Questions is like learning in slow-motion

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Here’s something to think about after the Super Bowl.

We know why we like instant replay so much. We get to see reality in slow motion to catch what we missed the first time. With instant replay we have the power to paint a more in-depth, accurate picture of what happened. With a clearer picture in mind, we gain a deeper understanding.

As teachers, we are interested in understanding too, but unlike football, we don’t get the benefit of replay. We must catch our mistakes the first time and make on-the-fly adjustments based on intuition and incomplete information. Thus, we’re always chasing certainty and our picture of reality is always fuzzy.

Think of how fast a typical lesson moves.  We open with a bell-ringer activity, give an announcement of the daily learning target, sprinkle in a few lecture notes and explain the directions for the lesson. Then, we get students into cooperative learning groups and end with some sort of full-class discussion after which we hand out an exit slip.  Lessons often feel like an assembly line of tasks.  It’s stressful to complete all of them, and we’re often left with the sense that we aren’t getting at true student understanding along the way.

Wouldn’t it be great to have instant replay and stop at any moment to slow down and examine our practice, dissect its parts and make corrections before moving on?

We can’t do that.  BUT what we can do is teach in a different way by integrating more Big Questions.

When we ask a really Big Question– like Can War Be Glorious?— our classroom retires into slow motion. Teacher and student transition from frenetic task-oriented activities into methodical, deliberate thinking. Together, we thoughtfully consider definitions, entertain multiple ways of seeing an issue and construct precise, focused answers to challenging intellectual problems. We aren’t racing to complete many tasks; we are more mindful of the task at hand. This is what a human-centered classroom looks like.

Not only that, we can build recursive learning experiences in which the questions themselves reappear in multiple units of study (as we saw in this post). Repeated exposure to the questions acts like classroom instant replay, inspiring teacher AND student to see and seize opportunities for improvement. As students correct their errors of thinking and forge fresh connections between the content and the questions, teachers recognize new ways to nurture students along the journey.

Together, we achieve deeper understanding over time.

 

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“Teacher! Help!! I can’t answer the Big Question!”

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In Monday’s (1/22) sschat we discussed ideas for Embedding Writing into the Social Studies Curriculum (archive here). I shared an innovative tool called The 4-Sentence Paperwhich was created by Dennis Earl, Department Chair and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Coastal Carolina University. Among other purposes, the tool is designed to reduce student fear of writing argumentative papers. Over the last three years, I’ve used it a different way– to empower students to tackle Big Questions.

Big Questions are scary for students because they are confusing, involve multiple perspectives and often contain ambiguous definitions.  They get even scarier when students actually have to sit down to answer them.

Embedded within this beautifully simple tool is a smart assumption about student motivation:  students are more inspired to write and think when they have a limited task at the outset. That allows them to gain quick success and build confidence over time.

To see how the 4-Sentence Paper technique works, let’s use a Big Question from a previous post:

Is popular sovereignty a reality or an illusion?

Let’s say that a student wanted to answer this question by playing around with the idea of the Supreme Court. Here’s how it might unfold:


They say the Supreme Court shows that popular sovereignty is an think-622689_1920illusion because judges serve for life terms and therefore can never be voted out of office. If they serve for life then there is no check on their opinions, thus taking power out of the hands of the people.

I say if judges abuse their power, they can be impeached by the House of Representatives and convicted by the Senate, and may lose their job. Because the House of Representatives is elected directly by the people, popular sovereignty is preserved as a check against judicial abuse of power.

They might object that impeachment/conviction is such a rare occurrence that it doesn’t really represent a strong argument that the people are in control.

I reply that just the threat of impeachment/conviction is enough of a check on judicial behavior so that the vast majority of judges must make decisions in the public interest for fear of losing their job.


This is just one line of argument. More angles could be pursued.

Over time students will see that the world is filled with multiples perspectives of understanding.  Just imagine if you applied the 4-Sentence Paper over the course of an entire school year with the US history questions we saw in this post.

Students are also honing the skill of argumentation. And as students take a step back, reflect and think deeply, they gain valuable practice demonstrating the core virtues of citizenship:  patience, perseverance, humility, confidence and curiosity. These are exactly the kinds of virtues so desperately needed to improve our public discussions.

Here are a few specific ways you could use this 4-Sentence paper strategy with your students in conjunction with Big Questions:

  1. Prepare arguments for a larger research paper
  2. Prepare arguments for a class discussion on a controversial topic
  3. Construct an exit or entrance slip to review a lesson which incorporated a Big Question

With tools like the 4-Sentence Paper, you can harness the power of Big Questions to transform student fear into courageous, philosophical thinking– and nurture great citizens in the process.

(Dennis Earl’s article describing the tool can be found here.)

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Let Big Questions Drive Your Human-Centered Classroom.

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How many times have you heard or felt that your classroom should be more “student-centered?”

I’ve lost count.

I know, I know. We are supposed to say “student-centered” and then we’re supposed to follow that up quickly and say that “teacher-centered” classrooms are a relic of the past and don’t meet the needs of the modern learner.

Here’s where we need to just stop, smile, step back and gain some perspective:

Teachers want students to feel a sense of agency over what they are learning; they want student interest to drive the curriculum. They want every student to feel that his/her needs are met at every point in the learning process. These are ideals to which all classrooms should aspire. Sometimes teachers fail; sometimes they succeed. It’s a work in progress.

But there are other things teachers want.

They want to bring their interests and passions into the classroom; they want to feel some sense of ownership over what is taught. They want these things not because they want to marginalize student interests but because they want to experience the joy of learning with their students– and the only way to do that is to feel as though they are meaningful contributors. After all, teachers really are just students too, only a little older, and therefore are uniquely situated to bring value to the classroom experience.

So since teachers and students want such similar and interconnected things, maybe we should stop making artificial distinctions and make a good faith attempt to promote Human-Centered Classrooms in which all people’s needs are met, all of the time.


The good news is that a Big Questions classroom already does this.

In a Big Questions classroom the teacher can contribute by offering questions to drive the classroom experience (as we saw in this post), and at the same time allow for student control in answering those questions. The questions themselves are constructed in such a way as to motivate students to join in to ask their own questions throughout the process, thereby giving them agency over what they are learning. And since we are dealing with Big Questions (not little ones), the answers are incredibly elusive and, as a result, the teacher must become a student again and model the virtues of curiosity and humility needed to find the answers. Everybody feels valued and everybody’s needs are being met, together.

Now THAT is a human-centered classroom.

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