Once or twice a year, I have my 8th graders do a Chalk Talk. The goal is to have them think about and discuss knotty philosophical issues from a fresh perspective. As we start our Civil War unit, I like to ask three provocative questions:
  • Is there such a thing as a good war?
  • Does violence ever solve anything?
  • What would you be willing to kill somebody for?

This year, my students were very resistant to digging deeply into any of these questions.

Q: Is there such a thing as a good war?
A: "Yes."  "Yes."  "I don't know." "Maybe" "Probably"

I discovered quickly, that for this group, I needed to frame my questions much more specifically:
  • What is a good war?
  • When does violence solve problems?
  • What would you would be willing to kill somebody else for?

A good lesson for me.
As always, their answers were really interesting, if you compare them to what a Civil War-Era Southerner might have said.
One of my goals for my 8th grade American History classes is to foster a spirit of introspection. In one sense, that's easy - you'd have to look really hard for anyone outside the world of show business more self-centered than a fourteen year-old.

Or outside politics.

Or professional sports.

Or law.

Or banking.

Okay - on second thought, fourteen year-olds aren't any more self-centered than most of us.

Which makes it even more important to get them in the habit of examining their beliefs from time to time and seeing how they stack up against a larger framework.

One way to get a conversation going is to use a tried-and-true classroom technique - the Chalk Talk.

The idea behind a Chalk Talk is that the teacher - me, in this case - writes one or more questions - preferably provocative ones - on the whiteboard in my classroom. Students write responses to my prompt and respond to each other's responses. They are not allowed to speak while they do this - all communication is supposed to take place on the board.

In theory, this all takes place in silence, but I actually like to play appropriately-themed music while they do this.