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.

So in preparation for the August return, here are two questions which I’m thinking about using in the context of government and US history, along with commentary on how and why I would use each question:

What is the most humane way of dealing with people seeking asylum in the United States?

The word ‘humane’ jumps out here. Any serious consideration of this question must include a careful, precise definition of what humane means. I bet that students will have vastly different opinions on its meaning, and therefore vastly different answers to the question.  What I would want students to see here is that our passionate political disagreement about how to deal with immigrants seeking asylum is actually a passionate philosophical disagreement on what humane means.

How can rules be made and enforced in a way that demonstrates compassion AND respect for the rule of law?

This one is loaded with words whose definitions need to be unpacked– respect, compassion and rule of law. Additionally, this question begs for some sort of opening activity whereby students must respond to a familiar situation in which somebody had to choose between compassion and strict enforcement of rules. How about when a teacher must decide whether or not to report a student who cheats?  Or when a district must decide how to enforce a zero-tolerance policy regarding student-athletes? I’m thinking at least one or two days of immersion with familiar situations before even making the connection with immigration. I’m telling myself to SLOW DOWN. Then, when the immigration connection is eventually made, students will be ready for it and can use the opening scenarios as a frame of comparison moving forward.

What questions are YOU thinking about?  What strategies do you have to sublimate the energy of this immigration debate towards productive ends?


DF_Socrates Battle ImageImmigration would be an awesome topic on which to make lessons in Socrates and the Battle for the Soul of America, an online course offered through NCSS.

Fall sessions will be scheduled soon!Sub-Images_BQIA (1)

“The Soul Moves First” Inspire Students to Take Charge of their Own Learning

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My friend’s high school-aged daughter volunteers every week in Chicago at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab.  There she gains invaluable experience working with individuals who suffer from physical limitations brought upon by a spinal cord injury, stroke, amputation or some sort of traumatic brain injury. She will play card and board games, for instance, to help patients work on memory and fine motor skills. These tasks, once routine, now require intense mental effort and energy.

This trademark phrase which appears to patients and visitors when they walk in the front door serves as a reminder that physical health is impossible without a mental commitment to be healthy. A positive mindset acts as the unstoppable force leading to recovery.

The Soul Moves First

What an empowering message for people struggling with debilitating physical conditions.

And what a beautifully gentle reminder to us as teachers that, ultimately, the road to student success begins in a student’s mind.classroom

It’s easy to miss this and to think that student success is wholly dependent on what we do. We stress ourselves out trying to figure out the best lesson plans and behavioral management strategies to help kids. We are judged on their responses (or lack thereof) to our interventions. Sometimes it’s exhausting to be held accountable for what other people should be doing for themselves. But we do it because we know the power of adult role modeling and love helping others. It’s our job.

At Shirley Ryan the expectation is that the patient commits to his/her own self improvement first. The trainers and volunteers then step in and clear a path for recovery. It’s a partnership guided by clear responsibilities and infused with love and support.

Maybe the teaching profession could mirror the Shirley Ryan philosophy of human development and expect a little more from the students at the outset.

But wait…

At Shirley Ryan patients have a more tangible idea of where they are headed:  physical recovery from an injury. With students working through a system of education, the endgame is fuzzier and therefore teachers must make a different sort of argument to them that their belief in themselves will pay off. And many students aren’t old enough or mature enough to shoulder the responsibility for their own self-improvement.

So, in light of these obstacles, is it even possible to get our students’ souls to move first?  Or is that our responsibility? It seems like that’s something very hard, if not impossible to do for another person.

For some students, the task for us seems painfully easy. They walk into class caring on day one. For others with troubled backgrounds, bad study habits and confrontational demeanors, they seem resistant to the bitter end regardless of our attempts to help them. For so many students, though, there are opportunities to effectuate a shift of mindset over time using just the right mixture of prodding, patience and understanding. I think there are boundless opportunities to get it done.Mindset Mindfulness Self-awareness Meditation Brain

I’m not thinking about direct self-esteem training here. I’m thinking about setting a different tone and message in the classroom and acting in ways that shift the responsibility for belief onto the students. Notice, I said “belief” and that’s because learning doesn’t happen without it. The challenge is to create environments which inspire students to make their own mental commitment to succeed– and then be there as a guide to help them flourish. Seen in this way, maybe it’s the teacher’s responsibility to make the subtle first move and then have the student quickly take over.

It’s really about being more intentional about getting students to care about their education– for themselves, not for us.

Encouraging kids to care is always a moving target which shifts from year to year, class to class, and is always a function of the mix of student personalities which land in our classrooms. There is no magical answer here, so I’m not going to pretend I know of one. The big questions approach works well for me because it motivates students to think critically and promotes a human-centered classroom where cultivation of virtue is the end goal. Through these questions I’m constantly trying to help students believe in the power of their own minds. My career gamble is that over time constant exposure to deep thinking will plants seeds of self motivation to last a lifetime.

But there are a myriad of different ways to achieve success on this front.

What strategies do you use to inspire students to take charge of their own learning?

We need some solutions. August is right around the corner!


(Social studies teachers– remember to check out Socrates and the Battle for the Soul of America , an online course on big questions offered through NCSS– next session begins on June 20th. )

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Want to ask BIGGER questions this summer? Check out these resources…

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Summer:  the perfect time to slow down and cultivate the skill of asking questions.

Here are some professional development resources and opportunities which can take your skill to the next level.

1. An online course:  Socrates and the Battle for the Soul of America

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America is deeply divided on so many levels. Now more than ever we need big questions to explore these divisions and encourage our students to take action to improve society.

Play the role of Socrates and…

  • Design four Big Questions
  • Apply disciplinary tools to analyze those questions;
  • Evaluate and select sources relevant to the questions;
  • Craft four lessons to engage students in open dialogue to understand and take informed action when differences may arise.
  • Reflect upon the value of teacher/student questions and the challenges and possibilities of students taking informed action to improve society.  Learn More

I am excited to work with NCSS and Quincy University to serve as one of the instructors for this course!both

 


QFT22. A conference:  Right Questions Institute summer events in the Question Formulation Technique (QFT).

This simple and powerful strategy shows teachers how to get students to ask their own questions.

Here is a great article from ASCD on the nuts and bolts of the QFT technique. Also consider joining RQI’s Educator Network

I will be one of the presenters at the Chicago conference on June 28th.

 


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3. A Workshop:   IllinoisCivics.org

Civic education workshops are being held all over Illinois to help teachers meet the new Illinois civics requirements and social studies standards. In these workshops teachers will receive a whole host of FREE resources including strategies for how to craft and use compelling questions in the context of lesson planning.

Here are a list of workshops from June to August.

 


4. Webinars and Workshops from NCSSNCSSworkshops

Southeast IDM Workshop

The Southeast IDM™ Summer Institute will be at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia, June 5-6, 2018.

Sponsored by C3 Teachers and National Council for the Social Studies, the Southeastern IDM Institute will feature hands-on opportunities for teachers to develop inquiry materials for use in their classrooms and to join a larger community of educators who share an interest in invigorating their classrooms through inquiry-based teaching and learning. ( Text from NCSS.org )

5. A few good books:MoreBeautifulQuestion

A More Beautiful Question, by Warren Berger

In this groundbreaking book, journalist and innovation expert Warren Berger shows that one of the most powerful forces for igniting change in business and in our daily lives is a simple, under-appreciated tool–one that has been available to us since childhood. Questioningdeeply, imaginatively, “beautifully”–can help us identify and solve problems, come up with game-changing ideas, and pursue fresh opportunities. So why are we often reluctant to ask “Why?” (From Amazon.com)

MakeJustOneChange

Make Just One Change– Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions, by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana

This book introduces the QFT strategy mentioned above and describes in detail how to use it successfully. It is a quick and meaningful read.

 

 

The 60-Second Philosopher, by Andrew Pessin

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Offered in 60 bite-sized chapters, this book provokes, cajoles and entices students into considering deep, philosophical questions.

I profiled the 60-Second Philosopher in a previous post.

 

 

 

 


 

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Fishing with Philosophy: Setting the Hook for Student Learning

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I love fishing. It’s a chance to relax, be in nature and enjoy a little peace and serenity. The best part, though, is the excitement of setting the hook on a really big fish. That’s the beginning of an enjoyable struggle whose outcome is always uncertain.

Usually the hardest part is setting the hook just right.

In teaching we often feel like we are fishing without a hook, trying every strategy we can to get kids excited, asking questions and taking learning seriously. Despite our noble efforts, we fall short many times.  It’s usually not that our lesson was poorly conceived as a whole; it’s that we never got started in the right direction and so things just sort of… fizzled out.

If we can’t set the hook, especially in a class driven by Big Questions, then students quickly lose interest and usually we can’t get them back.

So what is the best way to set that hook?

Bring in a little philosophy.

One of my most reliable (and fun) tools is Dr. Andrew Pessin’s 60-Second Philosopher, which I’ve been using for many years now as a textbook in my philosophy class and a supplemental resource in government classes. This gem of a book (which can literally fit in your pocket) provokes, cajoles and entices students into considering deep, philosophical ideas in 60 bite-sized chapters. Some of the chapters carry questions that have vexed humans for a long, long time:

What is the right thing to do?  How do I know it?

Who am I?

Is happiness the purpose of human life?

These questions are the province of philosophy but you can find a home for them in any of your classes. Philosophy is that perfect hook. Its questions rattle the soul of teenagers and stretch across all subject areas in a way that makes learning fun, unsettling and relevant at the same time.

Here are two chapters “Do the Right Thing” and “Santa and Scrooge”RightThingToDo

Do the Right Thing” prods us to consider why we make the moral judgments we do. We often assume we are doing the right thing but never question what grounds we have for making that claim. This chapter forces students to uncover this slip of reasoning. As you read it, imagine using it to set the hook in a US history class before exploring and evaluating the moral decisions Abraham Lincoln made during the Civil War.

In “Santa and Scrooge” we are asked to consider whether being naturally good by giving things away freely (Santa) is morally superior to becoming good after overcoming the badness of our character (Scrooge). Imagine using this one right at the beginning of a unit on the presidency to get students thinking about how doing the right thing sometimes means that you must choose to follow reason over what you feel.

Here is the procedure I use with the book:

  1. Pick a reader and have him/her read the chapter out loud to class. (by the way, it is astounding how reading out loud has become a lost art– be prepared to teach students how to read out loud as the chapters don’t work as well unless students are in tune with the pronunciations of certain words.)
  2. Pick two students to react to the reading. A reaction could be to ask a question, make a comment, state a confusion, or simple ‘pass’ to somebody else.
  3. Leave two full minutes of silence after the read-a-loud for the reactors to process their thoughts.
  4. Let the discussion ride!  Warning — it is very difficult to predict how discussions from this book will evolve. You must be ready to adapt on your feet.

Previous posts have showcased lessons which integrate a chapter from the 60-Second Philosopher. Check them out so you can see how the book is used in the context of a lesson:

Can Intolerance be a Virtue? Huh?

Is America the Land of Opportunity?

Just for fun, I dug up an old clip of a student of mine talking about the benefits of this book. (I was thinking that interviewing students about the textbook would be a good recruiting tool to get more students into the class. It worked! I asked them “What do you like about the 60-Second Philosopher?”)


We need innovative tools to create a class atmosphere conducive to wonder and curiosity. The ageless wisdom of philosophy hiding inside this little book can do just that.

Don’t forget some of the other philosophy resources shared in a previous post.

If you end up using the book, let me know. I’d love to organize a Twitter chat on it assuming there is enough interest.

What books do you use to inspire questions?

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“I think, therefore I’m right,” says the Student.

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“I think, therefore I’m right.” Whether it’s defending a position on gun control, angling for a better grade in class or arguing about musical tastes in the lunchroom, many students tend to think that thinking about and believing in something are sufficient grounds for the truth of that something. Often, adults are no better. The whole idea of actually having strong reasons behind beliefs is noble in the abstract but requires mountains of patience and work to actually put into action. Thus, when faced with the agonizing choice, many of us stick to our hard and fast opinions rather than embrace the grueling work to justify those opinions with careful reasoning.

But opinions without reasoning don’t get us very far when we are answering Big Questions, nor do they get us very far in life for that matter. So if we are going to be successful in both realms, we need some strategies.

There’s a strategy I’ve used for a few years now which forces students to think about (and hopefully appreciate) the wisdom of having reasons behind claims. It’s called, appropriately enough, “I think, therefore I’m right” (Unfortunately, I lost the article which outlines this strategy. When I find it, I’ll add the reference here.)

What you need:

  • Thirty or so unique knowledge statements ranging from the obvious to the nebulous. Put them on small slips of paper and laminate them if you can for continued use. Consider your subject area when you make your statements, although keep in mind that what the statements say is less important as to whether or not they provoke judgments from the students about whether the statements are reasonable or unreasonable.  (The picture above shows a sampling of statements I use in my philosophy class– Full List Here . )
  • Masking tape

Procedure:

  1. Make groups of 3
  2. Hand out 3-4  of the statements to each group. Tell group to discuss whether or not each statement is reasonable or unreasonable.REASONABLE
  3. On the board write “Reasonable” and “Unreasonable” and a line running underneath it with arrows in opposite directions.
  4. Tell each group to pick one statement and a student representative who, once the discussion is over, will come up to the front of the class and tape the statement onto the reasonable-unreasonable continuum in a position which best reflects his/her group’s opinion of the statement. The representative will have to provide a reason behind the opinion.

This is where it gets fun…

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After the student comes up and puts the statement on the board, play Socrates and ask “Why did you place it there?” Let the student report out on the reason. Keep pressing. Whatever reason he/she gives, demand that he/she share better and better justifications for the claim. Here is how it might play out with what seemed to be an obvious statement The Sky is Blue.

 

Teacher: why did you place it on the reasonable side?

Student: “because I’ve seen the sky on a clear day and it’s blue”

Teacher: “what about on a cloudy day?  Is it still blue?”

Student: “well, no, it’s gray.”

Teacher: ¨so then it isn’t really blue, is it?  Well what about somebody who is color blind. Is the sky blue to him?¨

Student: ¨I guess not¨

Teacher: ¨…so the color of the sky is subjective and depends on the person.¨

If  ¨The Sky is Blue¨ generates discussion, just imagine what will happen when students start discussing the statements like ¨Lying is always wrong,”  or ¨It is wrong to impose the death penalty.¨ It is so much fun!  Coax others to play Socrates and challenge other students’ beliefs too. This activity will probably spill into the next day.

Take a step back here and be careful what you are communicating…

You aren’t suggesting that there is no truth in the world.  You are affirming that strong beliefs are not enough to get to truth.  We need good reasons to support our thinking about all matters, big and small.

Strategies like this- combined with others like the 4-Sentence Paper— heighten student capacity to defend their claims, a skill which is essential to have when grappling with Big Questions.

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Sschat Debrief: Educators Speak Out On Big Questions- Part II

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This post extends last week’s debrief of ideas from the sschat “Teaching Teachers and Students to Ask Big Questions,” held on April 2, 2018.  Short commentary follows each comment with links to past blog posts relevant to the idea shared.

Thanks again to all who participated!  The next chat is  Creating Podcasts with Your Students #sschat  April 9, 2018 at 7:00 pm – 8:00 pm  Hosted by @listenwiselearn


Jason taps into a core truth of questions which is that the learning embedded inside question-asking is very hard to quantify. This fact causes anxiety for some teachers who work under systems which require quantifiable data of learning tasks. Data collection frustration is one of the inevitable costs of teaching with questions.


A seemingly impossible teaching challenge is to persuade students of the value of holding two opposing arguments in mind, while at the same time honoring each argument on its own terms– and then having patience and courage to choose the strongest one. This takes confidence and certitude. Big Questions force students and teachers to practice this task of argument-making in a meaningful way over time. One tool I’ve found that is really helpful here is the “4-Sentence Paper technique“. This simple technique expands student capacity to handle multiple perspectives and imbues them with confidence to take a stand.


I’ve been thinking about Andrew’s comment all week, actually. I didn’t want to believe what he said is right but it is. Some students just want to view social studies as a memorization game of disparate facts and dates. If that is true, then it is incumbent upon us as teachers to take great care to communicate early the importance of questions driving the learning process. The most dramatic way to communicate this value would be to organize an entire course by Big Questions. Short of that, though, we can be more intentional about using questions to guide our units and individual lessons. The brutal reality is that not all students will take to this questions approach. Despite our efforts, the psychological benefits of comfort and certainty which come with definitive answers are just too strong of a force for some students who turn away from critical thinking. At the very least, though, we will have strategically planted some seeds of doubt for future contemplation.


Katie’s response to the question “Can questions be assessed?” is insightful and comforting. We’ve come to assume that virtually everything in education must be measured and assessed somehow, yet as Katie suggests it really depends on what our purposes are. If students are asking questions to move a discussion along, then there’s no need to obsess over measuring their every move. In fact– as we’ve all experienced– sometimes fixating on assessment of learning causes us to miss present experiences because we’re too busy writing down what happened in the past!

Thanks again to all who contributed to this conversation. Check out the archives here.

The next chat is  Creating Podcasts with Your Students #sschat  April 9, 2018 at 7:00 pm – 8:00 pm  Hosted by @listenwiselearn


 

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Sschat Debrief (April 2, 2018): Educators Speak Out On Big Questions– Part I

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On Monday, April 2nd the sschat community discussed the importance of teachers and students asking questions to guide instruction and learning. Since so many great ideas were shared, it seemed fitting to slow down and debrief some of the ideas in more depth, and acknowledge people in the process. The list below is just a small sampling of tweets yet it paints an authentic portrait of the types of conversations which unfolded.

I’ve also provided some of my own commentary with links to previous blog posts which expand upon the idea in a meaningful way.

Thanks to all who participated!  More coming soon.

Michael reveals an important truth about an inquiry-based classroom:  it builds character in teachers and students while at the same time making content more meaningful. Big Questions classrooms cultivate virtue.


Chris is spot on here. Questions– presented in the right way at the right time– inspire students and teachers to appreciate complex thinking and turn away from associating learning with memorization. In an earlier post I wrote about how teachers and students could learn and appreciate the motivational value of questions from– of all people– the Marines.


Several of the posts on this blog profile lessons created by teachers who have found success with children’s books showcased on this website. Here are just a few of the posts and the children’s book to which each post relates.

1.  Swimmy by Leo Lionni:  How do you know the Abolitionists were brave?

2. Araboolies of Liberty Street by Sam Swope:  How can you protect your freedoms without limiting someone else’s?

3. If you give a mouse a cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff:  Is history guided by free will or determinism?

4. Flowers from Mariko by Rick Noguchi and Deneen Jenks: How does the government protect its people during war, yet still preserve civil liberties?

5. The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch:  How do gender roles define people?

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

7. Part II- The Giving Tree


Dwight and Mrs. Devlin tap into a subtle, yet extremely important truth about putting questions at the centerpiece of your instruction– and that is that they act as a filter for your content and work to bound disparate ideas into a coherent whole over time. Being ‘intentional’- as Mrs Devlin put it- is key to make it work. Imagine structuring an entire course on Big Questions and achieving these purposes creatively along the way.


Elyse provides a simple yet powerful metaphor for the indispensable role questions can play in instruction. Maybe we make teaching harder than it needs to be when we start students off with specific content details and then try to encourage students to make big-picture sense out of those details, as opposed to starting with a big picture understanding and then fitting in details inside that understanding (which is what starting with Big Questions allows you to do). Teaching is hard enough. Maybe we make it harder than we have to.


Mary Ellen Daneels shared this famous Einstein quote to remind us that much of the valuable work in our classrooms should be thinking about the right questions to ask, not rushing off to fashion answers before we’ve thought through what it is we want to learn. Reconfiguring our priorities in this way necessitates that we cultivate the virtue of patience and slow down our instruction.

Stay tuned for more next week!

Here is an archive of the chat.

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