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. Continue reading

Government and Guns Part I: Seize the Teaching Moment

indexSometimes 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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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

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In Monday’s (1/22/18) sschat we discussed ideas for Embedding Writing into the Social Studies Curriculum. 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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Big Question: Can War Be Glorious?

WarandGloryOn their face some Big Questions seem simplistic. They don’t involve big words or big concepts– that is, until you really start thinking.  High school teacher Justin Riskus constructed one of these Big Questions and used it during an exploration of the tragedy and triumph of war in his US history course.

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First, he posts the question on the front board “Can war be glorious?” Students receive a document containing a dictionary definition of ‘glorious” and two primary sources:

1. The Wilfred Owen poem Dulce Et Decorum Est

2. Medal of Honor Speech, PFC Ross A. McGinnis

Students read the Owen poem or watch a recitation of it by Christopher Eccleston. (Another option is to watch an animation  by Animative Media.) When exposed to the gut-wrenching descriptions of battle,  students will undoubtedly be lured into seeing the vulgarity and evil of war, hardly a glorious undertaking it seems.

After a short discussion of the Owen poem, students then get a very different side of war in the Medal of Honor Speech. Here we have a soldier being honored for his sacrifices in battle. In a particularly charged section of the speech, the courage of fallen soldier Private McGinnis is on display.

Then, rather than leaping from the gunner’s hatch to safety, Private McGinnis made the courageous decision to protect his crew. In a selfless act of bravery, in which he was mortally wounded, Private McGinnis covered the live grenade, pinning it between his body and the vehicle and absorbing most of the explosion.

With the emotionally charged poem and speech fomenting tension in their minds, students quickly go back to the question “Can war be glorious?”  Discussion ensues and students revisit the definition of ‘glorious’, apply it to the primary sources and shape fresh opinions about whether war itself is glorious.

Justin’s lesson has unleashed the power of Big Questions to inspire critical thinking:

  • Students are seeing the world from multiple perspectives
  • Students are grappling with the messy definition of a word
  • Students are working through their confusion, not being paralyzed by it

Most exciting is that Justin has established an anchor learning experience to which he can return later. Consider the future opportunities: World War II, Korean War, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan— all of these wars present fresh opportunities to revisit the question.

What started as a simple inquiry has turned into a multi-dimensional, complex philosophical exploration into the unknown.

(P.S.  “Can war be glorious?” is a great question on which to structure an entire US history course. )

Download Lesson

Check out a few other lessons created by Justin Riskus:   To Intervene or not to Intervene: THAT is the Big Question and Some Big Questions are 2,500 years old… and counting.

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