Manifest Destiny Inquiry Activity

I’ve been thinking so much about inquiry and how to get kids asking good questions that I literally work up this morning thinking about this lesson.  Not the ideal way to spend a lazy summer morning, but not the worst way either!

American Progress

American Progress

Step 1:  I ALWAYS begin my Manifest Destiny unit by showing the classic painting American Progress by John Gast.  We use the “magic board” approach I learned in a TCI History Alive! curriculum training a few years ago, an activity my students always enjoy.  Essentially, you tape a white piece of paper to a clipboard and invite students to come up the projector screen to use the “magic board” to point out features of the picture to their classmates.  It’s hard to explain, but if you try it, you’ll understand the appeal.  You can use it to zoom in and out and tilt parts of the picture so that everyone can see it.

I’m always amazed by the wonderful observations students make about this painting.  I’ve done this activity for five years in a row and every year someone notices something new. Last year one student pointed out the contrast in brightness between the left and the right side of the painting, something I had never really considered.  We had a really good discussion about why John Gast chose to do this and what the implications were.

Step 2:  The old me would follow up this wonderful activity by saying, “Now, let’s open our book to chapter 15 and LEARN!” followed by moans and groans and knocking of heads against desks.

The new plan?  Inquiry.  I’ve always loved the great questions students ask about the painting, but I never thought to use that as a bridge to the actual content.  DUH!!  This year, I’m going to have students brainstorm questions they have about Manifest Destiny/American expansion while we are still looking at the painting.  I think I’ll have 1-2 students record questions on the board (about 5 minutes), then I’ll break students up into small groups to identify one compelling question and supporting questions. (A compelling question is the anchor question for an inquiry – similar to an essential question but requires a little more thought.  Supporting questions are questions you ask to help you flesh out the answer to the compelling question.) Both are elements of the new C3 Framework for Social Studies issued by the NCSS.

I’ve created a little graphic organizer for students to use to organize their thoughts, but you could just as easily have them do this in their journal and save some trees!

Questioning Worksheet

Step 3:  Now it’s time to get those questions answered.  Since, I don’t know what their questions will be, this is easier said than done!  This is where that classic trait “flexibility” comes into play.  I’ve pulled three manifest destiny primary sources in advance that I think could address questions students might have.  I pulled a excerpt from John O’Sullivans article “Manifest Destiny,”  an excerpt from a letter written by Hezekiah Packingham about his move to Oregon and an excerpt from Chief Seattle about the influence of westward expansion on Native Americans.  I love to use the internet as much as possible for this type of activity, but I always try to have hard copies available for students who don’t have the internet and can’t get to the lab.

Here are some different ways to get those questions answered, listed in order from most “teacher-oriented” and boring to most “student-oriented” and engaging.
1.  Create a packet of primary sources, put students in groups and have them use the primary sources and their textbooks to answer their own supporting questions.
2.  Students must scour the internet and send you digital copies of primary and/or secondary sources that answer their supporting questions.  You post these sources on your webpage for all students to use.
3.  Use GoogleDocs (something I haven’t figured out yet) or a discussion forum to have students discuss questions and post links to sources.

Step 4:  It’s time to get that compelling question answered!  Hopefully, the students asked a question that they didn’t already know the answer to and that would require more than just a yes or no answer.  The “test-prep” part of my brain is screaming, “TIMED WRITING ASSIGNMENT” here, but the “fun and fluffy” part of my brain is screaming “POSTER/POWERPOINT/PREZI/CLAYMATION”.  I guess it depends on the students your dealing with and your time constraints.  I like the idea of using this information for a writing assignment (or collaborating with your ELA teacher and letting them do the writing assignment), but I also think there are a lot of fun creations students could make to show their learning.  The ELA teachers I work with have students keep a blog.  I like the idea of requiring students to create a blog post that answers their compelling question on their ELA blog.  You could also have students submit digital copies of their writing or projects and post all of them on the class website.

Don’t forget that you’ll be needing a rubric for whatever culminating activity you choose to do.  I haven’t made one yet, but feel free to share if you beat me to it!

The goal for this school year, stop thinking about how to make kids learn and start learning about how to make kids think!

One Comment:

  1. Awesome lesson! Thanks. I always use this painting as well… as an old art teacher this is natural for me. However, the structure you provided here will be much better than my loose method of discussion.

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