Sunday, August 24, 2008

Discussion Questions that Engage Students

Three Big Questions

& The Dilemma

Sometimes teaching an Advanced Placement curriculum such as Hippocampus AP Government and Politics can drive us nuts! We get so caught up in the minute details that seem so critical that we forget to look at the Big Picture. The result is we have unloaded tons of great facts on the kids, but we really haven’t connected dots. And if we haven’t connected dots, we can be darn sure the kids haven’t. It’s a tough act. We need to push the details (after all, the multiple choice section of THE TEST is pretty detailed), but what AP really demands is for the kids to understand the Big Picture. It all becomes a matter of focus.


So how do we focus? Is the balancing act of teaching details while keeping our eye on the entire scope of government possible? Over the years as I have led various in-services with new AP teachers their number one question is, “What are the main things I need to focus on?”

Let me throw out an idea to you. I like to initiate each new unit with a couple of Big Picture Questions. These questions need to meet the criteria of being a) real world, b) relevant, and c) somewhat controversial. Let’s face it, the opening curriculum for AP Government and Politics can be a bit dry (but totally necessary) stuff. Documents and Underpinnings make up about 15% of the AP Exam, so the kids better get it. On the other hand, some of the issues that underline this Unit are the issues that are dividing government and parties today. We all need to get it.

The Questions

Here are the three questions I am opening Unit One with this year. These questions will drive this unit and engage students as I attempt to tie all assignments, discussions, and essays to them.

  1. Do checks and balances and separation of power work as planned by our Founders, or has the current Executive Branch usurped too much power?
  2. Is our government today a government of the people, by the people, and for the people as Abraham Lincoln speculated, or is it a government controlled by special interests such as oil and big (Wall Street) money?
  3. Has federalism fulfilled the promises of the Founders, or has fiscal federalism perverted the balance of power leaving states impotent?

Perfect questions? Probably not (give me some feed back on these), however, these become my focus for the unit. Question #1 gets the kids thinking about who should run the nation in times of crisis and the time of peace. When does leadership cross the line and impose the policies of one person on the entire nation? These were subjects of concern addressed in 1973 in Arthur Schlesinger’s’ “Imperial Presidency” and are recycled today as hot issues! I have the kid’s watch a short segment from the film “V for Vendetta” and base a discussion from this.

Question #2 delves into the controversy of theories of democracy pitting traditional democracy against elitism (government by big business). A couple of quotes from Greg Palast’s “The Best Democracy Money can Buy” can get the kids fired up. No one likes to think of themselves as irrelevant in a democracy, especially kids getting ready to vote and join the political fray for the first time. I like to have the kids ponder whether hyper-pluralism opens the door for elitism.

Question #3 can drift into issues such as education, national energy policies, and even full faith and privileges. Federalism is a pretty dry issue, but I have found that current topics such as gay marriage and No Child Left Behind get the kids looking at state’s rights and the 10th Amendment in a new light. Mention a return to a national 55 mph speed limit based on federal highway funding and suddenly federalism can spawn fairly hot debates.

I post these questions at the beginning of the unit. They become points of bulletin board discussions and debates, and they eventually become essays to be answered. These questions drive the Unit and more importantly, keep our focus on the Big Picture while encouraging fact mastery. With a little prodding and playing the devil’s advocate, these can become questions that evoke a little passion in the discussions…yes, even documents and underpinnings can be fun.

What Do You Think?

What questions do you use to drive your instruction? How can we utilize these questions? Give us the benefit of your wisdom this week. As most of us are gearing up for the new 2008-2009 year it is a great time to start collaborating and sharing our wisdom. I can’t wait to hear from you. RV

Next Week: The Election…Rat Race or Horse Race?

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