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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