Questions Matter

EllisI had one of those special moments today in my first period class where a student’s question forced me to completely change gears.  We are reading sections of Joseph Ellis’s Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation and focusing specifically on a chapter called "The Silence" which covers the 1790 debate in the House of Representatives over slavery and the slave trade.  Even before we started one of my students asked why the book is called Founding Brothers instead of Founding Fathers.  I absolutely love these moments.  It was a wonderful question so I spent the next 20 minutes going around the class asking for their opinions on the matter.  I was pleasantly surprised as most of the students had something to say.  They tended to focus on the intention of the author to bridge the great divide that exists between the generations that followed and the awed reverence that we are taught to extend to these men.  One of Ellis’s goals in the book is to describe these men as every inch a part of this world; they lived during extraordinary times, but they were men with the same weaknesses and agendas that drive leaders regardless of time and place.  Students thought that describing them as brothers rather than fathers helped to make this point.  This doesn’t mean that we should not respect their accomplishments; in fact it is this acknowledgment that helps place their accomplishments in sharper relief.  Students pointed out that the idea of a father implies or demands respect and/or admiration.  I should have known to begin this book with that very question, but it is nice to know that I can count on my students every once in a while to point out what I miss. 

One of the things I’ve noticed this year in going textless is that more of my students are engaged in what they are reading.  This can be seen clearly in the sophistication of their questions and the one discussed above is just one example. 

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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4 comments… add one
  • Tim Lacy Oct 25, 2007 @ 12:47

    Kevin, you said: “I had one of those special moments today in my first period class where a student’s question forced me to completely change gears.”

    This sentence alone demonstrates why you’re doing good things in the classroom. The fact that you were willing to entertain the question, change your mind, and “digress” proves to me that you’re doing the right things.

    What I mean is this: Teachers are told to have lesson plans with the notion in mind that education is an easily traceable, specific-results-oriented endeavor. But worthy departures or digressions meet students where they are at (as long as you can tell that others are on board with the question). These “time wasters” engage the minds of the students: your post demonstrates this. The “digression” facilitated critical thinking.

    Education is a mysterious endeavor. All this NCLB testing just measures short-term memory. We can have the greatest short-term memory of any nation in the world but that won’t make our citizens the best or the smartest in the world.

    I’m sorry. I’ll stop. I’m getting preachy. – TL

  • John Maass Oct 25, 2007 @ 8:14

    I usually found that my students relied on the textbook for the information they thought was going to be on the test, which “allowed” them to skip class far more frequently!

  • Kevin Levin Oct 24, 2007 @ 20:44

    I would like to spend more time with it but unfortunately we are already a little behind. That’s o., because the next book we look at is Masur’s 1831 which is quite good. Thanks for checking in.

  • The History Enthusiast Oct 24, 2007 @ 19:22

    In previous semesters I’ve assigned “The Duel” or “The Dinner” from this book. My students have always responded positively too.

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