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Questions That Bring Contemporary Context to Past Personalities

Motivating Students Participation and Discussion

Questions That Bring Contemporary Context to Past Personalities

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Most students find it difficult to think of famous historical personalities as real people. They also read texts without realizing that there are tangible personalities behind them. I have found one of the most effective ways to give flesh and blood to the past is by designing questions which ask students to bring authors, historical characters, and texts into the classroom.

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Most students find it difficult to think of famous historical personalities as real people. They also read texts without realizing that there are tangible personalities behind them.  I have found one of the most effective ways to give flesh and blood to the past is by designing questions which ask students to bring authors, historical characters, and texts into the classroom.  There are a variety of formats that these questions might take. Following are some that I've used and other examples that might trigger queries you could adapt for your courses. The simplest format is simply to ask how a well-known person might have acted if he or she was in a comparable contemporary context:
  • If the apostle Paul came to New York City today, how do you think he would launch his ministry? On what basis do you make this assessment? How do the narratives of Acts and/or Paul's teaching in his other letters shape your response?
  • If Queen Victoria was a monarch today, how do you think she might respond to the rise of extremist Islamic groups such as al-Qaida and ISIS? On what basis do you make this assessment?
Questions like these can help teachers determine whether students have genuinely grasped the character and motivations of the person, and whether they have learned the principles at stake during the historical period. A second format of questions discusses how a classic text might have been written differently if it was composed today:
  • If the prophet Amos was to come to contemporary Australia, against whom do you think he would target his condemnation, and what do you think might be the substance of his censure? Justify your response.
  • If Emily Dickenson was writing poems today, what subjects do you think she might write about?  What do you think she would say now about single women and family responsibilities? On what basis do you make these suggestions?
Questions in this category provide insights into how well the student understands the historical context in which the writing occurred and how those influences shaped the writing. A third question format involves contemporizing a classic story.
  • If Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan in contemporary Dallas, who might be the key characters and how might a comparable plot be developed? Explain your rationale.
  • If Shakespeare was to deal with the themes of Macbeth in the 21st century, what sort of contemporary characters and location do you think he might choose? Why do you believe that these choices might be appropriate?
Through student responses to questions such as these teachers can assess whether students understand the foundational themes in the story. Still another question format brings the character from the past into the classroom or into a contemporary situation and asks what advice they might offer:
  • If Madame Curie was to visit our class, what are the three questions you would most like to ask her about being a female scientist in the male-dominated world of the late 1800s? How might her experiences differ from those of female scientists today?
  • If Dietrich Bonhoeffer was to meet with the leaders of the 21st century Church in the Middle East what might be his two or three most important words of advice regarding the nature of the church in an environment of discrimination and persecution? Give reasons for your suggestions.
These questions help to bring the historic character to life by giving the students an opportunity to “dialogue” personally with the character. Perhaps one of the most useful applications of personality in context questions is to “interview” the author of the text or reading being used in class.
  • If Paulo Freire was to visit our class, what are the two most important questions you would like to ask him about his Pedagogy of the Oppressed? Why are these questions important to you?
  • What questions would you like to ask Ernest Hemingway about The Old Man and the Sea?
It can be a challenge to get students to do the reading much less immerse themselves in it.  Interview questions will often reveal to teacher and student whether the reading has taken place and at what level. They also give students a chance to connect with the author and text in ways that are meaningful to them. I regularly use all four formats of these questions, and given my institutional affiliation you can likely tell which of the sample questions highlighted in this article I have used with my students. I have found the final readings-based questions work best when given as an out-of-class learning task, and the others I tend to use to generate in-class discussion. However they are used, the key is to promote dialogue between the past and the present and in that way bring the past to life for the students. When students connect with the past, they are better able to gain wisdom for the present and future.

Skillful Teaching:  Core Assumptions

Stephen Brookfield is out with a third edition of The Skillful Teacher.  Only a handful of books on teaching make it past the first edition so to be out with a third says something about the caliber of this publication.  He notes in the preface that the first edition appeared during year 20 of his teaching career.  With this edition he celebrates 45 years in the classroom. It seems more than appropriate to call the book a classic. There's lots of new material in this third edition, certainly enough to warrant a purchase even if the first edition has a convenient place on the book shelf.  But what hasn't changed are Brookfield's core assumptions about skillful teaching.  They've stood the tests of time in his experience and that of many other skillful teachers.  As Ruth Gotian notes on the endorsement page, “You are never too junior or too senior to apply these techniques,” and that's why they merit reviewing here. Skillful teaching is whatever helps students learn.  “At first glance this seems a self-evident, even trite truism—a kind of pedagogic Hallmark greeting card… The problem is that an activity that helps one student learn can, to other students in the same class, be confusing and inhibiting.  So taking this assumption seriously means our teaching becomes more, not less, complex.” (pp. 15-16)  This belief does add complexity to our teaching, but it can also free us from those instructional practices we think we should be doing.  For Brookfield the key question is whether what the teacher is doing is helping students learn?  If it is, then that's what the teacher should be doing.  Teaching is first, foremost, and fundamentally about learning.  It has no reason to exist otherwise. Skillful teachers adopt a critically reflective stance toward their practice.  Critical reflection is what keeps teaching awake and alert.  “It is mindful teaching practiced with the awareness that things are rarely what they seem.” (p. 22) Teachers make assumptions all the time—about students, their learning, how well the class went—and that's not the problem.  It's when we act on those assumptions without testing their accuracy.  We assume the activity went well because students were smiling and looked engaged.  Were they?  More importantly, did that engagement promote learning?  Did the activity deepen their understanding of the content?  Did it lead them to new questions?  Those questions are best answered, not by the teacher, but by students who participated in the activity, or by colleagues who observed it from a more objective position than the teacher who designed it, implemented it, and very much wants it to work.  The activity itself should have been selected because it's been used elsewhere with positive results, or because the activity rests on premises that have been tested empirically.  This kind of reflection is critical but not in the sense of endless fault-finding.  It's a stance that re-energizes teaching and keeps teachers learning, growing, and anything but bored. Teachers need a constant awareness of how students are experiencing their learning and perceiving teachers' actions.  “We may exhibit an admirable command of content and possess a dazzling variety of pedagogic skills, but without knowing what's going on in our students' heads that knowledge may be presented and that skill may be exercised in a vacuum of misunderstanding.” (p. 22) What Brookfield is describing here has nothing to do with student evaluations.  It's descriptive, diagnostic input that enables teachers to understand the impact of their chosen policies, practices, assignments, and instructional methods on students' efforts to learn.  It's not about what students want or what they like, but discovering what they need to help them learn.  It's about the importance of teachers keeping their fingers on the pulse of the class and responding when that heartbeat changes. College students of any age should be treated as adults.  That's what students want.  True enough, but often the typical 18-23 year olds don't act like adults or they act like very immature adults. Could that be a reflection of how they've been treated or are being treated? Brookfield writes that students of all ages “don't like to be talked down to or bossed around for no reason, although they may be happy for the teacher to give them direction.” (p. 24) Borrowing from Paulo Freire, they want teachers to be authoritative, not authoritarian.  “They also want to be sure that whatever it is they are being asked to know or do is important and necessary to their personal, intellectual, or occupational development.” (p. 24) College is about preparing people for life, and most of the time adults aren't treated like children in life. Brookfield is such a fine writer.  His books are warm, engaging, full of anecdotes, good ideas, and references to relevant research.  Despite the fact that most academics are readers, we don't read a lot of books on teaching.  We don't have time and we're hardly able to keep up with what's happening in our disciplines, but our teaching would be better if we did find time and used it to encounter explorations of skillful teaching like this one. Reference:  Brookfield, S. D.  The Skillful Teacher:  On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom.  3rd Ed.  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2015.   Perry Shaw, Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, Beirut, Lebanon.  PShaw@abtslebanon.org