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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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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Answering Big Questions = Critical Thinking on Steroids

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Big Questions are great tools to organize courses and units. Regardless of how we end up using them, sooner or later reality demands that students find some answers!  And here’s where the real work begins.

Consider the challenge this way:  to answer a Big Question well students must not only remember what they have learned, but they must connect that learning with the question in a way that shows deep understanding and an ability to construct an argument to solve an intellectual problem. Sounds like critical thinking on steroids.

Here are a few example responses from a student in my AP government class. (Wait! Disclaimer!  “Yes” this is an exceptional example and “No” most of my students aren’t able to think this clearly and write this well!). But disclaimer aside, the responses here can help us get a clearer picture of what we are looking for.

Is popular sovereignty a reality or an illusion?

Connection to our Campaigns and Elections unit…

Student Response:  The Electoral College may be an effective argument for the fact that popular sovereignty may be an illusion. One may look to the 2016 election. In order to win the presidential election, one must win a certain number of electors, who cast their votePeoplePower in favor for that candidate depending on the popular vote of the state. Although Donald Trump may have won the Electoral Vote, Clinton won the popular vote by a few million, bolstered by the strong support in states such as California, Illinois, and New York. Since candidate Clinton lost the presidential election, despite winning the popular vote by a significant margin, one might consider that popular sovereignty might be more of an illusion, or at least convoluted, than what our people like to say. Or others might argue that the electoral college is a form of popular votes by the states, as the candidate needs to appeal to a wide range of voters in order to succeed.

Connection to our Judiciary unit…

Student Response:  The appointment of judges is somewhat contrary to popular sovereignty. A president must nominate a judge, and that nominee must pass a majority of the senate. WhileThe Roberts Court, 2017 the public might be able to mail their senators and try to sway their vote, the will of the people has a diminished effect on this process. In addition, only impeachment, death, or retirement can bring these judges out of office; the populace can’t vote them out. One might argue that popular sovereignty has no effect in this regard because of these listed reasons. Yet this appears to be intentional by the Framers. If judges could be elected, they would interpret the law according to the people’s will to stay in office, rather than what they would regard as the truth. Although it is an illusion, perhaps it is better that way in this instance.

Notice:

  1. The content of the course is still important but now it’s being used to serve a larger purpose (answering a provocative question).
  2. Valuable skills are in full force- analyzing, connecting and making arguments.
  3. Learning is expressed across units, instead of being confined within them.
  4. It’s actually more interesting to read because the teacher is getting an insight into what concepts stuck during instruction. This is valuable feedback.

This student has demonstrated a deep understanding of the popular sovereignty theme. For other students who may have missed these connections, it’s not the end of the game. There will be several other opportunities in subsequent units to revisit the theme in a new setting, and that provides a fresh opportunity to make a connection. Herein lies the beauty of Big Questions: they provide a recursive learning experience. If you don’t get it the first time, try, try again!

Government teachers: Can you think of any other areas of government content which could connect to this Big Question?  Or how about other government big questions from a previous post.?

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Attention Government Teachers! Is there a Big Question YOU would add to this list?

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Here’s what I have so far…

  1. Does our system of government succeed or fail in preventing the abuse of power?  

  2.  Do interest groups frustrate or promote democratic ideals?

  3. Is popular sovereignty a reality or an illusion?

  4. Are the media and political elites a corrupt or wholesome influence on our system of government?

  5.  Do political parties improve or impair the ability of Congress and the executive branch to function according to the Framers intent?

  6. Have the Court’s interpretation of the due process and equal protection clauses violated or honored the rule of law?

  7. Is federalism an impediment to or a pathway towards effective public policy?

 

Here’s how I am using these…

  • At the beginning of the year each student received a document with these seven questions
  • As we move through the different units, we stop to integrate the content we are learning with one or more of these questions. This unit we are examining federalism and the role of the 14 Amendment, and so we are looking through questions 1, 6 and 7.
  • At the end of the year students join together in small groups, select one of the questions,  develop a thesis and present a argument using all of what they have learned in the course.

This is the very similar to the approach I used in US history.

Is there a Big Question YOU would add to this list?  Reply on Twitter with your favorite question!   @dmfouts

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Can Big Questions motivate Students? Ask the Marines

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When I first came across this video from the online knowledge forum Big Think, I really didn’t know what to expect.  Looking at the subtitle “Start Breaking Some Rules” I was a little apprehensive since I’ve always thought encouraging adolescents to break rules is equivalent to a classroom death sentence. My intrigue overcame suspicion and I watched it anyway.

Wow, I’m glad I did.

In the video we learn of the ‘crucible’, a high-pressure 56-hour obstacle course given to marines during boot camp in which they are placed in physically and mentally grueling situations. In one situation recruits are in a sand pit having to move ropes and logs. They are told to wait for orders from their superiors before doing anything.  But because they and their superiors are wearing gas masks, recruits are rendered powerless to hear and follow the commands of their officers.  They quickly realize they must devise their own path of action relying only on their instinctive judgments. The goal of this training is to cultivate what the trainers call an “internal locus of control,” whereby the marine is motivated to act without direction from others.

This is counter-intuitive to me.

I had always assumed that marines are motivated by being told what to do and following orders.  But here recruits are taught to resist the impulse to follow orders.  The underlying psychology here is fascinating: when people are put in positions to break from traditional patterns of thinking, their engines of self-motivation kick into gear and they learn to act with independence and confidence, skills- which for a soldier are indispensable in the chaotic and unpredictable world of warfare.

It got me thinking. How could I translate this lesson on self-motivation into my own classroom with my students?

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Well, I don’t have obstacle courses.

But I can ask Big Questions.

Big Questions reveal different perspectives and welcome confusion over a topic. This confusion disrupts thinking and necessitates that students assume the responsibility of crafting their own path to find answers. In this way, like the marines, the students are inspired to cultivate an internal locus of control, which is the seed of self-motivation.

Here’s how this might play out in a government class with the Big Question:  “Is popular sovereignty a reality or an illusion?”  No clear answer here. The students must design their own thinking rules for how to answer it and each student has some important decisions to make:

Should I focus on interest groups or leave them out?

Should I focus my analysis on Congress, the presidency or the courts, or maybe a little bit of each?

Should I limit my analysis to the branches of government or expand the analysis to include how people participate through protest?

Now think back to the Big Questions from previous posts and consider how they might similarly encourage independent decision-making.
Can intolerance be a virtue?
How can you protect your freedoms without limiting someone else’s?
Is America the Land of Opportunity?

Ultimately, we know what the students will do with Big Questions, at least initially.  Ask the teacher!  But here is where as teachers we must resist giving them orders on how to think about the question. The more we do that, the more students become dependent on us and the less they rely on their own instincts. Yes, the students are in for a struggle to be sure, but like the marines they will emerge from these classroom crucibles with heightened capacities for self-motivation and renewed courage to think for themselves. These skills have inestimable value.

What Big Questions do you think would best inspire students to develop an “internal locus of control”?

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Big Question: How can you protect your freedoms without limiting someone else’s?

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What on earth does the Araboolies of Liberty Street children’s story by Sam Swope have to do with the Civil Rights Movement and the 1st Amendment?

Well, according to high school social studies teacher Julie Dickinson, a lot.

In the story we meet General Pinch and his wife who try to expel their crazy, freedom-loving neighbors– the Araboolies. In a bizarre twist of events, the Araboolies try to protect their own freedoms by persuading the army that it is the Pinch family who are the real outsiders. The Araboolies, then, become the oppressors and the Pinch family finds itself fighting for its freedoms.

What a mess!  But what an opportunity to teach students of all ages about the dangers of freedom and oppression.

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After listening to the story, students apply the concepts of freedom and oppression to the famous Little Rock Nine event using this chartSoon they begin to see just how challenging it is to celebrate and accept differences in a free, democratic society.


Julie meets the Big Question criteria:

  • The question sows confusion over the definition of freedom by drawing attention to its inherent dangers.
  • Using the characters of a children’s story as vehicles, students begin to see the characters of US history through different perspectives.

I see natural applications of this Big Question in government with Supreme Court cases in which a community is compelled to suppress the 1st Amendment rights of a controversial group and that group fights back in court, as in National Socialist Party v Skokie (1977) and Synder v. Phelps (2011).

How could you use this Big Question?

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