Beverly Gage asks: When Does a Moment Turn into a Movement?


This big question comes from a New York Times article by Beverly Gage, which was shared via Twitter by Mary Ellen Daneels ( ), lead teacher mentor for the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and contributor to

The article does a fantastic job giving historical perspective on the various movements which have taken root, which include contemporary ones like MeToo, Parkland and Black Lives Matter as well as those dating back to the 60s and before that the temperance and anti-Catholic movements of the early 19th century. There are so many intriguing lines of inquiry and observations but one that I found most compelling was this observation about how movements of today lack staying power. Gage writes…

But even showing up in the street, in great numbers, does not necessarily earn much credit in the current environment. Making “your movement” has become easier; making it stick, gaining public respect and effecting concrete change, has arguably become harder than ever.

This observation leads to a question…

If turning out thousands, or even millions, of outraged citizens merely indicates potential, how and when do we decide that a movement actually exists?


This is fascinating.  I think Gage is onto something. Just showing up, which may have been necessary and sufficient to define a ‘movement’ and effect change in earlier times, just doesn’t cut it in the current environment. In fact, a protest, parade and demonstration today are often seen as just more blips in an endless series of news cycles.

Just when does a moment turn into a movement?  Hmm…  800px-Emma_Gonzalez_imagery_at_Minnesota_March_for_Our_Lives

I needed a different angle on this…

And I got one, courtesy of Bill Chapman ( @classroomtools ) who responded to the original tweet by sharing a Ted Radio Hour. In that piece there is an incredible segment from behavioral researcher Simon Sinek titled How do great leaders inspire us to action?  11:58.

Here’s an excerpt:

Well, first of all, they have deep undying belief in something bigger than themselves. And the best leaders are actually the best followers because they don’t see themselves as the thing to be followed. They actually see themselves as following a cause bigger than themselves. They actually see themselves in service to something else. It’s the rest of us who choose to follow them.


So, what makes leaders great is their capacity to follow and to encourage so many other people to see and believe the same thing, for themselves. If a leader can do that over time, a movement is born.

Maybe that is part of the answer to the big question. For a moment to turn into a movement there must be great leaders who offer sustained self-sacrifice to a higher cause over time and who encourage us to make the choice to follow their beliefs.   In the current media-frenzied environment, it is much harder for these leaders to flourish because they are in competition with so many other news events and because the movements themselves are still so young.  I wonder– who will be the leaders who rise up and galvanize the public’s energy towards positive social ends?

When does a moment turn into a movement?

The applications of this big question for teaching are vast. Imagine asking it in a US history, government, or sociology class as an opening to explore the power of leadership to shape society. Have students pick a modern day movement, a leader of that movement and evaluate the progress of the movement based on insights from Gage’s article and Ted Radio Hour segment.

That is just one idea. I could even imagine adding it to a list of big questions which guide an entire US course.

Read the article. Listen to the Ted Radio show.  What opportunities do you see to design learning activities?  Write your ideas in the comments!

These would also be great resources to use to create big question lessons in the online course  Socrates and the Battle for the Soul of America , offered this summer by NCSS with sessions beginning June 3rd and the 20th.  Check it out!

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Big Questions and the Power of Storytelling


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.

Here is what the dynamic between stories and questions looks like coming out of a unit on the Civil War and into a unit on Reconstruction.

We begin with this fictitious story I created about the break-up of a family. The story doubles as metaphorical commentary on the events leading up to the Civil War.

There once was a house and in this house lived a father and two sons. The mother, a strong and controlling woman, died a long time ago. The two sons, separated by just a few years, have never really gotten along. Arguments arise because the younger son always wants independence from the household. He never comes in on time, doesn’t listen to his father, hates his brother and is always threatening to run away.  The older son has always tried to keep his brother in line with the rules.  In the past, when the two sons argued, a compromise was always worked out. But recently, the arguments have increased to a dangerous point and the younger son is now very serious about leaving the family. Father is worried because, above all else, he wants to keep the family together. He asks his older son to find a solution. He makes it clear to his older son that if a little force is necessary to control the younger son, then it is okay to use it.

Then, a vicious fight breaks out between the two sons. The father hears his sons fighting from his room upstairs but does nothing to stop it, for he realizes that maybe dead-confederate-soldiers-at-hagerstown-pike-battle-of-antietam-civil-war_a-l-7118103-4990176the fight is necessary to end the conflict. If they don’t get out their anger now, father thinks, the arguing will just continue.

The fight last a long time and both sons hurt each other very badly.  The father hates to see his sons hurt, but refuses to stop the fight. Eventually the older brother overcomes his younger brother. The older son stands over his brother with a look of anger and victory.

The father comes downstairs and approaches his two sons, happy that the fight is over but realizing that serious work must be done to keep the family together. He loves his younger son dearly and doesn’t want him to be bitter about losing. He is relieved his older son won but is afraid that he will become too cocky and rub his victory in.

The father knows that he must show both sons that what is important is not who won the fight but that the family stays together. He decides to wait a week before he decides what to do.

A week later, the father hands out a piece of paper detailing his plans for punishing the younger son in a way that will accomplish a seemingly impossible task: keeping the family together.

Together we consider:  What should the father write on the piece of paper? Students get 5 minutes to brainstorm individually, then share responses in groups of three, then discuss as a class.

The discussion is always fascinating on so many levels. You’ll hear student insights on how punishment works in their own families (insights which can be terrifying actually!)  You’ll tap into deeply philosophical issues of the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways to treat others and explore the negative and positive consequences that flow from treating people certain ways.  You’ll talk about blame and personal responsibility. Students really get emotionally and intellectually invested in this discussion. I set aside an entire period at least.

To this point the lesson hasn’t been about US history at all.

It’s been about adolescent theories of punishment.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the Big Question arrives: What is a fair punishment for the South after the Civil War?


Ambiguity, unclear definitions and multiple perspectives. This question meets the criteria beautifully.

We make the historical connection by exploring the events of Reconstruction with a specific focus on the plans offered by seminal figures of the time–Lincoln, Johnson and the Radical Republicans. Students revisit the question repeatedly to assess the fairness of each of the plans and see if their recommendations for the South were in any way consistent with their recommendations for the younger son profiled in the story.

So think about what has happened here. Students read a story, which lured them into a personal discussion on punishment, which in turn gave birth to a question about how to treat the South after the Civil War. The story set the mood; the question anchored their understanding of the history of Reconstruction; and their passion and curiosity took over from there.

I know. It sounds like learning is moving so slowly and there’s so much work to get to a good question!  Yes, but the investment of time will pay huge dividends in the form of the enriching discussion and deep, meaningful learning.

Do you use stories in your classroom to introduce questions?  If so, how do you use them?  Share a comment!

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If you’re looking to do some Big Questions lesson planning this summer, consider this online course offered by the National Council for the Social Studies in collaboration Quincy University titled Socrates and the Battle for the Soul of America.

In the course you design your own Big Questions and construct lessons which use the questions to teach about content relevant to your subject area (US history, government, sociology, psychology and world history).

I am excited to be one of the instructors for this course.

Share with others!




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


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).


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


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


  • 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.


  • 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


Go West! …and bring your Big Questions with you


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!

To Intervene or not to Intervene– THAT is the Big Question


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.

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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.


“You Choose, You lose” chapter from 60-Second Philosopher used with permission

Women’s history Big Question: How do gender roles define people?


Last week we saw how Big Questions can organize an entire US history course.

This week we see how one can begin a unit on the Women’s Movement and inspire  students to become more thoughtful about how gender roles affect human identity and relationships. In light of the recent revelations of sexual harassment and gender bias in the workplace, there is perhaps no more important theme to explore.

US history teacher and Socrates in the Social Studies student Melissa Kinsey poses the question:

How do gender roles define people?

Susan B. Anthony

In the lead up, Melissa organizes her class in gender groups and plays The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch. After the video students complete a   Stereotype-t-chart on which they identify stereotypes introduced in the book and stereotypes which exist today.  Students add to the chart after watching  I’m Glad I’m a Boy! I’m Glad I’m a Girl! and  Labels Against Women.

After class discussion, she shows a graphic  of how her unit will be organized with the Big Question placed right in the middle for emphasis.  On an exit slip students write out an initial response to the Big Question using what they have learned in this opening lesson.  Then, as the unit progresses, students revisit the very same Big Question (and the supporting ones) to build even more sophisticated understandings of how gender roles have come to define women and men throughout American history.

Most impressive here is the fact that Melissa has set up a recursive learning experience where students will gain deep understanding through repeated exposure to the same Big Question.

Can you think of a Big Question that could be used to teach Women’s history?



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Let’s imagine what a course with Big Questions might look like


Rewind back to August.

Imagine it’s the second day of school. You’re finished with the rules and procedures, seating charts and get-to-know-you activities. Standing in front of your students, you’re ready to set the tone and framework for the next nine months of instruction.

You pass out this note


The purpose of this course is to struggle with the The Big Questions of US history.

At first these questions will confuse you. They are filled with unclear definitions and open to many different interpretations and seem to have no clear answer.

Your job is to monitor these questions throughout the year and slowly craft sophisticated responses to them as we move through the different units of the course.

In June, your final exam will be to choose one of the Big Questions (which could be one that YOU created independently), develop a thesis statement, and answer it convincingly using the content learned in the course as your evidence.

There are a few exciting things going on here:

  1. You’ve established Big Questions to be the most important component of the curriculum. This tells students that asking them is valuable.
  2. You’ve set struggle as the expectation of the course. This is a subtle message that learning will be difficult but still worth pursuing. This is the growth mindset.
  3. You’ve honored the importance of skills while at the same time preserved the integrity of content.  And now you can discriminate your content based on whether or not it fits under one or more of the Big Questions.
  4. You’ve taught students that learning spans across units, instead of being confined within them.
  5. Students get ownership. They decide what content fits where; they determine how the content fits; they can even develop their own Big Question and track it throughout the year. In this way you have provided the context for student self-motivation.
  6. You’ve given students their final exam   on the second day of class! For the next nine months there is no confusion as to where the class is headed. This focuses you and the students like a laser on what is to be learned and why.

Admittedly,  it would be much more of a challenge to do this in an AP course with a rigid curriculum and content expectations. But even then you could have Big Questions in the backdrop and use them for enriching discussions.

Could YOU organize your course using Big Questions?  If so, what might it look like?  Share some examples of Big Questions you would use for your subject area.

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