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

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 “Big Questions and the Power of Storytelling”

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:

  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).

or

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

or

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

or

  • 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.

or

  • 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

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

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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?

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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?

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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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Download Full Lesson

 

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

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It’s August and school starts soon.

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.

Or imagine doing this in AP government with the Big Questions showcased in the new curriculum redesign.

Here is what’s happening:

  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.

Can you see yourself organizing your course using Big Questions?  If so, what might it look like?

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DF_Socrates Battle ImageNote: You can gain great practice designing your questions in Socrates and the Battle for the Soul of America, an online course offered through NCSS throughout the year. Check it out!

(Be on the lookout for future blog posts in which I feature the work of teachers who have completed the course.)

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