Tag Archives: US history

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting” Sun Tzu

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Was the Chinese philosopher and military strategist Sun Tzu onto something?  John Kennedy thought so.

A few weeks ago I shared a Three-Step routine used to design essential questions and create great conversations in class.

Here’s another example of how you might follow this process in a unit on the Cold War in US history.

Step One: Selectsuntzu

Pick a theme, primary source and a philosopher quote aligned to the theme.

You’re teaching the Cold War and you think your students would be interested in the theme of fighting— when to do it and how to do it to make sure you achieve maximum benefit. Kennedy’s Cuban Missile Crisis speech is your target primary source because it demonstrates the value of using words, not violence, to solve problems.

Ancient philosopher Sun Tzu has a provocative angle on this theme:  “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”

Step Two:  Dissect

Now pick apart Sun Tzu’s quote. Find the claim being made and then articulate the counterclaims which assert competing perspectives.

Claim:  The best way to deal with your enemies is by not fighting them.

Example Counterclaim:  Attacking your enemy– trying to overwhelm him– is the best path towards victory.

Have a silent conversation with yourself over the different ways you and your students may view this quote…It might sound like this:  It seems very counter-intuitive to claim that you can actually win over your enemies without fighting. Surely many students are under the impression that direct confrontation with others is the only way to win.  Sun Tzu is offering a different perspective here, one that must somehow incorporate other means of getting your way.

Step Three: Connect

After exploring the claims and counterclaims of the philosopher quote, slow down and think back to the primary source– Kennedy’s Cuban Missile Crisis speech.  Think of a Big Question that draws out the theme.

Here’s one:  Is fighting the best way to get what you want?

  1. Is it accessible?  Can students understand the question easily?  Does it make them want to share personal experiences?  √

  2. Is it provocative?  Does the question force students to take a stand on something and provide evidence to support their position?  √

  3. Is it complex?  Can the question be answered by multiple perspectives?  √

  4. Is it transferable? Can the question be re-purposed to apply to different contexts?  √

This question pulls students into an interesting conversation about the value of fighting and violence as a solution to problems.

To implement this lesson, post the quote on the board and engage the students’ ideas on fighting. What you are doing is preparing the soil for the introduction of your primary source.

Now, introduce the Big Question as you share Kennedy’s Cuban Missile Crisis speech. With the Big Question and Sun Tzu quote in hand, students have the tools to explore the historical importance of Kennedy’s decision and connect all of it to their own personal experiences.


Be on the lookout for an online course which teaches this Three-step process to design better questions and great classroom conversations.  It will be called Teach Different with Essential Questions– offered through Adams State University.  Coming in spring/summer 2019.  In the course you will follow this process with your own curriculum.

 

A new routine for 2019. Try it.

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Good questions and conversations don’t just happen. They come from deep thinking and careful planning. The hardest part is establishing a routine to make them happen, and then sticking to it.

My brother Steve– also a high school social studies teacher with a background in philosophy– developed a routine to foster better classroom conversations.  He’s had really good success in a very challenging urban teaching environment on the west side of Chicago.

Coming from a suburban environment, I thought it would be interesting to integrate my focus on essential questions into what he is doing.

Here’s the comprehensive process we’ve come up with so far, broken up into three specific phases:  Select, Dissect and Connect

Continue reading

What is Respect? Ask the students first… THEN bring in the history.

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http://www.thebluediamondgallery.com/typewriter/r/respect.html

Respect is something adolescents think a lot about.

After all, there are great rewards to being respected:  more friends, love from parents, favors from teachers and acceptance from society. That’s a pretty sweet deal.

American history is replete with leaders who also recognized the rewards of being respected and did everything possible to get it.  Nowhere is this pursuit better seen than in the years after the Civil War when African-Americans, freed from the bounds of slavery, had to pursue respect under the most difficult of conditions– Jim Crow. Continue reading

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

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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 IllinoisCivics.org

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… Continue reading

Big Questions and the Power of Storytelling

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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. Continue reading

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

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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: Continue reading

Go West! …and bring your Big Questions with you

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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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