Harness the Immigration Debate with these Big Questions

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We’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 “Harness the Immigration Debate with these Big Questions”

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 “Big Questions and the Power of Storytelling”

Government and the Giving Tree– Part II: the Big Question comes of age

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Last week I wrote about how the famous story The Giving Tree inspired this Big Question.

Here’s how I used it in a regular level government class:

I started by playing a read-aloud of the story. Then the students– working in groups of two or three– came up with three takeaways from the story, which was then followed by an open-ended discussion. There was nothing I told them specifically to look for since at this point I just wanted them to be interested in the story. The read-along was around nine minutes and the group work plus discussion of the takeaways around 20 minutes.

From there as a class we considered the idea of help and generosity. We ruminated together:  “What qualifies as help? In what way is encouraging somebody else to do something ‘help’? If a person asks for help, does that mean they are needy and undeserving of it? When is too much help damaging to a person?” Students will ask other questions as well. The key here is to meander into topics beyond government, like the help students give to each other, or the help their parents provide them, or their coaches. Here is a wonderful opportunity to explore their personal lives in a safe way to enrich discussion.

These opening activities often fill an entire period. If you think this lesson is moving very slowly, you would be right! I’ve found that with this particular inquiry (and most Big Question inquiries for that matter), slowing down is precisely the right approach because it allows you and the students to make an intellectual and emotional investment into the theme in a meaningful way.  Rushing through Big Questions generates stress and leaves students disoriented.

On the the next day I hand out this:

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Students complete the survey and we then consider different example policies from the survey where government helped people in some way, whether it be providing welfare or protecting groups from discrimination, or making sure people have affordable health care. After each example, we ask “Is this an appropriate role of government? If so, why? If not, why not?”

Near the end of the period, the Big Question is rolled out:  Is the proper role of government to help citizens or to encourage citizens to help themselves?  Students sometimes fill out an exit slip with a preliminary answer; other times, students give a few responses and we just let the question sit, maybe write it up on the board as a reminder. For the rest of this unit on political ideology and political parties, the question becomes a fixture in our minds and is revisited multiple times. (We’ve seen this recursive function of questions at work in earlier posts: Can War Be Glorious? and To Intervene or not to Intervene. )

Consider what has happened. We have spent two full days thinking, questioning and discussing, together. Teacher and student are valued participants in the inquiry and the virtues of perseverance, patience and curiosity take center stage, all of which are signposts of a human-centered classroom. Very little static content has been learned which isn’t to say that content is not important. I’m preparing them to learn content inside the world of an interesting question.

Investments of time, though, don’t come without costs– especially inside an AP class where there is a more rigid schedule. Thus, a fair question to be asked is–What are the overriding benefits of using the Big Question approach that justify the costs?

One answer is this:  Now you have a clear vision for your teaching, a vision that you AND the students can rally around that provides enough structure to bind ideas together and enough flexibility to foster independent thought. Further, there’s a good chance that the investment you made discussing students’ personal experiences will engender more curiosity moving forward.

Okay, sounds great but are Big Questions really worth it?  In the next post we’ll explore this question in greater detail and get a better grip of the sacrifices needed to make it work.

 

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Government and the Giving Tree– Part I: a Big Question is born

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The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

Rewind five years or so…

The setting:  I needed a Big Question in government to teach about liberal and conservative views on the role of government, a topic that often generates intense debate. On one side are students who think government’s role should be limited and people should fix their own problems. On the other side are students insistent that government has a moral obligation to help citizens directly. From health care to welfare, from tax policy to social security, this fundamental disagreement on the role of government lurks beneath so many issues and even fuels much of the party polarization within Congress.

I knew that a Big Question lived somewhere but I just hadn’t taken the time to slow down and think through it enough. Needing an inspiration, I visited one of my favorite websites to motivate Big Questions– the UW Center for Philosophy for Children. (We learned about this website in a previous post and also used it in conjunction with Big Questions to teach about bravery, freedom, free will and determinism, security v liberty in a time of war, and the Constitutional Convention.)

thought-2123970_1920I looked around a bit aimlessly at first and then stumbled upon one of my all-time favorite children stories: The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, which I remembered covered the theme of help and generosity. Seeing connection possibilities but not being able to articulate anything specific yet, I read it again, this time with a fresh set of eyes and a mission.

Half-way into the story, I saw something.

Here is a spirited attempt to recapture my jumbled thoughts at the time:

I thought about the interactions between the boy and the tree. The tree keeps giving things to the boy. The boy receives these gifts throughout his life. The tree seems to be so generous and the boy seems to like taking things.  Maybe the boy is giving a sense of purpose to the tree and the tree is happy as a result.  I thought about the whole idea of giving and receiving help, which then led me to start thinking about whether or not it is okay to rely on people or instead to rely on ourselves. What is the more honorable way to live? I wondered.

Then, slowly, connections to government surfaced…

…people rely on their government to give them lots of things too. Welfare, education, health care… and sometimes the more government gives, the more dependent people feel and the more they expect to be served.  Is this bad? Good? What about personal responsibility?  

After stewing on the story for a while and drafting questions, one revealed itself: Is the proper role of government to help citizens or to encourage citizens to help themselves?

Bingo!

Then, I just let the question sit in my mind for a few days– all the while evaluating whether or not it was compelling enough to use.  I thought about some of the criteria:

Big Questions embrace multiple perspectives:  The question asks for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response on its face but actually requires a very nuanced understanding of the issue and demands that students consider many different perspectives in their answers: from a wealthy or poor citizen point of view, for example, or from an urban or rural perspective, or an owner of a small business. Students learn very quickly that ‘yes’ or ‘no’ just won’t suffice and that the answer is way more complex than it appeared.

Big Questions beg for clear definitions: The word “help” needs to be unpacked. What exactly qualifies as help? Can two reasonable people disagree as to what constitutes help? What form must help take to be called ‘help’? In what way is encouraging somebody else to do something ‘help’ and how is that different from direct help?

I knew this was a good one because the more I thought of it, the more confusing it became. That is always a good sign!


This was a success story to be sure but there’s a brutal reality to Big Questions– unless we’re patient and truly slow down our instruction, we’ll struggle mightily to find space for them in our curriculum.

But it can be done.

The next challenge was to figure out how to use the question in creative ways. In the next post I’ll share how to integrate it and brainstorm some other possible applications.

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FDR’s New Deal– A Big Question Comes to the Rescue

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What makes FDR’s presidency so hard to teach is there is so much relevant content to explore in such a short chunk of time.  You have WWII to contend with on the foreign policy front. But then on the domestic front you’re confronted with the maze of alphabet soup programs of the New Deal. And to top it off, since it’s near the end of the year, you’re often rushed.

This is exactly the kind of situation where strategic use of a Big Question can help alleviate some of your pressure without sacrificing the most important content.

US history teacher Bry Roemer found an innovative way to do just that with a question that strikes at the heart of FDR’s New Deal: How much is the government responsible for helping its citizens?

She makes creative use of an advertisement project to get the question in front of students. Here is how she did it along with my commentary on some other ideas for how you could use the question:

  1.  Hand out the project description.
  2. Assign small groups of students to one of the New Deal programs. Here is a compilation of short readings on the New Deal Agencies.
  3. Students read up on the New Deal program to which they’re assigned and design an advertisement to promote the program’s virtues to class. Advertisements must include an image to catch the attention of the audience and lay out the vision of the program along with descriptions of how it provides relief, recovery, or reform for Americans.
  4. Post advertisements around the room and have students capture information on a graphic organizer (contained in project description).SlowDown

To this point learning has moved at a brisk pace– getting into groups, finding pictures, reading passages, talking about history, creating an advertisement.

It would be so easy to wrap up the lesson and chalk it up as a success.

But no. Bry’s not done yet…

Now, with content in hand, student learning slows down and in comes the Big Question which rises above the content into consideration of a larger theme:

How much is the government responsible for helping its citizens?

With the introduction of this question, philosophical reasoning– and the resulting confusion flowing from having to consider different perspectives— has joined content acquisition as the focus of learning.

Now that this question has entered the fray, we have all sorts of intriguing options.  We could

  • pose the question as something to consider during the unit and discuss with students informally as the unit moves forward (this is what Bry did).

or

  • have a full class discussion where students use content from their graphic organizer to shape and defend arguments aligned to the Big Question.

or

  •  give out an exit slip with the question on it and discuss a few the next day.

or

  • find a current event video/audio clip explaining how one of the New Deal programs has evolved over time.  Have students answer the question in light of what they learn.

or

  • challenge students to compare government responsibility during the New Deal with government responsibility during and after the Civil War. Of the two, which time period justified more government help to citizens? Why?  Oops, another Big Question!

Questions liberate students from the shackles of curriculum content and provide space for analysis, application and synthesis. When we give students opportunities to do this, we set in motion a process that results in deeper, more meaningful learning.

And we just might eliminate some stress in the process.


For more thoughts on government responsibility to citizens, see previous posts

Government and the Giving Tree– Part I: a Big Question is born

Government and the Giving Tree– Part II: the Big Question comes of age

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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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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