Photo of student listening to student-led teaching session
Activity

Staging the Compelling Question

Students are introduced to the themes of the compelling question by responding to a quote from James Baldwin that sparks their thinking about the complexities and contradictions within US history.

Published:

At a Glance

Activity

Language

English — US

Subject

  • History

Grade

9–12

Duration

One 50-min class period
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement
  • Human & Civil Rights
  • Racism

Overview

About this Activity

Students explore the ideas behind the compelling question for this inquiry: How do we reckon with a history full of complexities and contradictions? They engage with a quote from James Baldwin—”American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it” 1 —to generate curiosity about the inquiry and begin thinking about the complexities of US history.

  • 1Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers.”

How do we reckon with a history full of complexities and contradictions?

Save this resource for easy access later.

Save resources to create collections for your class or to review later. It's fast, easy, and free!
Have a Workspace already? Log In

Procedure

Activities

Explain to students that over the course of this inquiry, they will be exploring the contradictions and complexities within the history of the founding of the United States, including these:

  • The ideals reflected in our founding documents
  • How those ideals compared to the government established in the new nation 
  • The experiences of people denied rights and freedoms during the founding era

Project this quote from James Baldwin: 

American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.
—James Baldwin

Using the Big Paper teaching strategy, place the James Baldwin quote at the top of a sheet of poster paper (create multiple copies if needed for a larger class) and give students enough time to have a written discussion about the quote in complete silence. The following questions can help guide their discussion:

  1. What questions, thoughts, connections, or feelings does this quote raise for you? 
  2. What are some moments, events, or stories in US history that you consider to be beautiful or terrible?
  3. Why might people have chosen to tell an incomplete or one-sided story of US history?

How are you planning to use this resource?

Tell Us More

Materials and Downloads

Quick Downloads

Get a copy of these activities in PDF or Google Doc format.   

Was this resource useful?

Tell us More

You might also be interested in…

Unlimited Access to Learning. More Added Every Month.

Facing History & Ourselves is designed for educators who want to help students explore identity, think critically, grow emotionally, act ethically, and participate in civic life. It’s hard work, so we’ve developed some go-to professional learning opportunities to help you along the way.

The resources I’m getting from my colleagues through Facing History have been just invaluable.
— Claudia Bautista, Santa Monica, Calif