Go West! …and bring your Big Questions with you

ManifestDes

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

Riskus

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

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

Stereotypes_and_Gender_Roles

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_G.E._Perine
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?

 

PaperBagPrincess

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

classroom

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

Welcome!

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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Some Big Questions are 2,500 years old (and counting…)

appeasementFrom Socrates forward, we’ve asked:

Does everything happen for a reason?

Am I really in control of my actions?

Would I have turned out differently had I been born at a different time under different circumstances?

Underneath all of these big questions lurks an even bigger one:  Is my life guided by free will or determinism?  Open to interpretation and filled with murky definitions– this question has everything.

What makes the question so vexing is that it pits our common sense against our logic. It seems obvious that we have the freedom to act. But then, when we rewind our decisions and really think, it seems like every action we take is determined by the action taken just before it. Our logic tells us there is no way it could have happened any other way.

High school history teacher and Socrates in the Social Studies student Justin Riskus provokes this thousands-year-old Big Question to teach World War II. He begins in an unorthodox way by showing If you Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff.

Cookie

The narrator intones “If you give a mouse a cookie, he’ll ask for a glass of milk.” Once that action occurs, the mouse must ask for a straw and then a napkin etc… Each action the mouse takes seems completely determined by the action taken just before. At the end, in a twist of irony, the mouse asks for a glass of milk and then a cookie to go with it, and we are back where we started.

Justin uses this story to stoke student interest in the Allies’ appeasement policy towards Hitler leadingBad Godesberg, Münchener Abkommen, Vorbereitung up to WWII.  There too we see a seemingly endless string of determined events, piling up on each other leading to one of the most horrific wars the world has ever seen.  A voice in our head asks “Was World War II determined to happen?” Justin cleverly uses the behavior of a mouse to inspire students to call into question whether history itself is caught in the iron grip of determinism or whether leaders have the free will to break history’s chain of events.

Employing a Socratic Seminar, Justin then coaxes students to consider the moral responsibility of modern day presidents.

“Should American presidents take the lesson of  If You Give a Mouse a Cookie to heart?”

Justin has drawn out an age-old philosophical question and looked at it with fresh eyes. In doing so, his students  are inspired to think about the choices humans must make in the service of preventing evil.

Download Full Lesson Here

Check out a few other lessons created by Justin Riskus:   Can War Be Glorious? and To Intervene or not to Intervene– THAT is the Big Question.

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