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:
- Hand out the project description.
- Assign small groups of students to one of the New Deal programs. Here is a compilation of short readings on the New Deal Agencies.
- 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.
- Post advertisements around the room and have students capture information on a graphic organizer (contained in project description).
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