A carefully crafted lesson is structured with a well-defined focus and a clearly-stated purpose. The lesson should present the class with an issue that is phrased in the form of a problem to be solved or a question to be analyzed and assessed by the class. Effective lessons do not merely cover information; they present students with major concepts and ideas and challenge students to think critically and take positions on open-ended essential questions. Here are some examples of essential questions for students of American history:
- Is America a land of opportunity?
- Did geography greatly affect the development of colonial America?
- Does a close relationship between church and state lead to a more moral society?
- Has Puritanism shaped American values?
- Was colonial America a democratic society?
- Was slavery the basis of freedom in colonial America?
- Did Great Britain lose more than it gained from its victory in the French and Indian War?
- Were the colonists justified in resisting British policies after the French and Indian War?
- Was the American War for Independence inevitable?
- Would you have been a revolutionary in 1776?
- Did the Declaration of Independence establish the foundation of American government?
- Was the American Revolution a “radical” revolution?
- Did the Articles of Confederation provide the United States with an effective government?
- Could the Constitution be written without compromise?
- Does state or federal government have a greater impact on our lives? (federalism)
- Does the system of checks and balances provide us with an effective and efficient government? Do separation of powers and checks and balances make our government work too slowly?
- Is a strong federal system the most effective government for the United States? Which level of government, federal or state, can best solve our nation’s problems?
- Is the Constitution a living document? (amendment process, elastic clause, judicial interpretation, legislative modifications, etc.)
- Was George Washington’s leadership indispensable in successfully launching the new federal government?
- Should the United States fear a national debt? (financial problems of the new nation and Hamilton’s financial plan)
- Whose ideas were best for the new nation, Hamilton’s or Jefferson’s?
- Are political parties good for our nation? (Federalists v. Democratic-Republicans)
- Should the United States seek alliances with other nations?
- Should the political opposition have the right to criticize a president’s foreign policy?
- Is the suppression of public opinion during times of crisis ever justified?
- Should we expect elections to bring about revolutionary changes? (election of 1800)
- Is economic coercion an effective method of achieving our national interest in world affairs?
- Should the United States fight to preserve the right of its citizens to travel and trade overseas?
- Does war cause national prosperity?
- Was the Monroe Doctrine a policy of expansion or self-defense? Or: Was the Monroe Doctrine a “disguise” for American imperialism?
- Should presidents’ appointees to the Supreme Court reflect their policies?
- Did the Supreme Court under John Marshall give too much power to the federal government (at the expense of the states)?
- Does an increase in the number of voters make a country more democratic?
- Should the United States have allowed American Indians to retain their tribal identities?
- Does a geographic minority have the right to ignore the laws of a national majority?
- Did Andrew Jackson advance or retard the cause of democracy? (autocrat v. democrat)
- Was the age of Jackson an age of democracy?
- Should the states have the right to ignore the laws of the national government?
- Does the United States have a mission to expand freedom and democracy?
- Have reformers had a significant impact on the problems of American society?
- Does militancy advance or retard the goals of a protest movement? (abolitionists) Or: Were the abolitionists responsible reformers or irresponsible agitators?
- Was slavery a benign or evil institution?
- Can legislative compromises solve moral issues?
- Can the Supreme Court settle moral issues? (Dred Scott decision)
- Was slavery the primary cause of the Civil War?
- Was the Civil War inevitable?
- Does Abraham Lincoln deserve to be called the “Great Emancipator”?
- Was the Civil War worth its costs?
- Was it possible to have a peace of reconciliation after the Civil War?
- Should the South have been treated as a defeated nation or as rebellious states? (a comparison of the presidential and congressional reconstruction programs)
- Did the Reconstruction governments rule the South well?
- Can political freedom exist without an economic foundation?
- When should a president be impeached and removed from office?
- Does racial equality depend upon government action?
- Should African Americans have more strongly resisted the government’s decision to abandon the drive for equality? (Booker T. Washington’s “accommodation” v. W.E.B. Du Bois’s “agitation” approaches)
- Has rapid industrial development been a blessing or a curse for Americans?
- Were big business leaders “captains of industry” or “robber barons?”
- Should business be regulated closely by the government?
- Should business be allowed to combine and reduce competition?
- Can workers attain economic justice without violence?
- Did America fulfill the dreams of immigrants?
- Has immigration been the key to America’s success?
- Has the West been romanticized?
- Can the “white man’s conquest” of Native Americans be justified?
- Have Native Americans been treated fairly by the United States government?
- Who was to blame for the problems of American farmers after the Civil War? Or: Was the farmers’ revolt of the 1890s justified?
- Did populism provide an effective solution to the nation’s problems?
- Is muckraking an effective tool to reform American politics and society?
- Can reform movements improve American society and politics? (Progressivism)
- Were the Progressives successful in making government more responsive to the will of the people?
- Does government have a responsibility to help the needy?
- To what extent had African Americans attained the “American Dream” by the early twentieth century?
- Is a strong president good for our nation? (Theodore Roosevelt) Or: Did Theodore Roosevelt further the goals of Progressivism?
- Was the “New Freedom” an effective solution to the problems of industrialization?
- Was American expansion overseas justified?
- Did the press cause the Spanish-American War?
- Was the United States justified in going to war against Spain in 1898?
- Should the United States have acquired possessions overseas?
- Was the acquisition of the Panama Canal Zone an act of justifiable imperialism?
- Does the need for self-defense give the US the right to interfere in the affairs of Latin America? (Roosevelt Corollary, “Dollar Diplomacy,” “Watchful Waiting”)
- Was the United States imperialistic in the Far East?
- Was world war inevitable in 1914?
- Was it possible for the US to maintain neutrality in World War I?
- Should the United States fight wars to make the world safe for democracy? Or: Should the United States have entered World War I?
- Should a democratic government tolerate dissent during times of war and other crises? (Schenck v. United States, Abrams v. United States)
- Was the Treaty of Versailles a fair and effective settlement for lasting world peace?
- Should the United States have approved the Treaty of Versailles?
- Was American foreign policy during the 1920s isolationist or internationalist?
- Was the decade of the 1920s a decade of innovation or conservatism?
- Did the Nineteenth Amendment radically change women’s role in American life?
- Did women experience significant liberation during the 1920s? Or: Did the role of women in American life significantly change during the 1920s?
- Should the United States limit immigration?
- Should the United States have enacted the Prohibition Amendment?
- Does economic prosperity result from tax cuts and minimal government?
- Was the Great Depression inevitable?
- Was the New Deal an effective response to the depression?
- Did Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal weaken or save capitalism?
- Did Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal undermine the constitutional principles of separation of powers and checks and balances?
- Did minorities receive a New Deal in the 1930s?
- Do labor unions and working people owe a debt to the New Deal?
- Did the New Deal effectively end the Great Depression and restore prosperity?
- Has the United States abandoned the legacy of the New Deal?
- Did United States foreign policy during the 1930s help promote World War II? Or: Could the United States have prevented the outbreak of World War II?
- Should the United States sell arms to other nations? Or: Should the United States have aided the Allies against the Axis powers? Or: Does American security depend upon the survival of its allies?
- Was war between the United States and Japan inevitable?
- How important was the home front in the United States’ victory in World War II?
- Was the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II justified or an unfortunate setback for democracy?
- Should the US employ atomic (nuclear) weapons to defeat its enemies in war? (President Truman’s decision to drop the atom bomb on Japan)
- Could the United States have done more to prevent the Holocaust?
- Was World War II a “good war?” Or: Was World War II justified by its results?
- Was the Cold War inevitable?
- Was containment an effective policy to thwart communist expansion?
- Should the United States have feared internal communist subversion in the 1950s?
- Were the 1950s a time of great peace, progress, and prosperity for Americans?
- Did the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s expand democracy for all Americans?
- Should the United States have fought “limited wars” to contain communism? (Korean conflict)
- Should President Kennedy have risked nuclear war to remove missiles from Cuba?
- Does the image of John F. Kennedy outshine the reality?
- Did American presidents have good reasons to fight a war in Vietnam?
- Can domestic protest affect the outcome of war?
- Did the war in Vietnam bring a domestic revolution to the United States?
- Did the “Great Society” programs fulfill their promises?
- Is civil disobedience the most effective means of achieving racial equality?
- Is violence or non-violence the most effective means to achieve social change?
- Did the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s effectively change the nation?
- Do the ideas of the 1960s still have relevance today?
- Has the women’s movement for equality in the United States become a reality or remained a dream?
- Did the Warren Supreme Court expand or undermine the concept of civil liberties?
- Should affirmative action programs be used as a means to make up for past injustices?
- Was the Watergate scandal a sign of strength or weakness in the United States system of government? Or: Should Nixon have resigned the presidency?
- Should the president be able to wage war without congressional authorization?
- Did participation in the Vietnam War signal the return to a foreign policy of isolation for the United States?
- Did the policy of detente with communist nations effectively maintain world peace?
- Is secrecy more important than the public’s right to know in implementing foreign policy? (Bay of Pigs invasion, 1961; clandestine ClA operations; Pentagon Papers court case, 1971; Iran-Contra affair; invasion of Panama, 1989; etc.)
- Should a president be permitted to conduct a covert foreign policy?
- Did the policies of the Reagan administration strengthen or weaken the United States?
- Should human rights and morality be the cornerstones of US foreign policy? Or: Should the United States be concerned with human rights violations in other nations?)
- Were Presidents Reagan and Bush responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War? Did the United States win the Cold War?
- Are peace and stability in the Middle East vital to the United States’ economy and national security?
- Should the United States have fought a war against Iraq to liberate Kuwait?
- Is it the responsibility of the United States today to be the world’s “policeman?”
- Can global terrorism be stopped?
- Does the United States have a fair and effective immigration policy?
- Should the United States restrict foreign trade?
- Has racial equality and harmony been achieved at the start of the twenty-first century?
- Should the United States still support the use of economic sanctions to further democracy and human rights?
- Should the federal surplus be used to repay the government’s debts or given back to the people in tax cuts?
- Should Bill Clinton be considered an effective president?
- Should a president be impeached for ethical lapses and moral improprieties?
- Should the United States use military force to support democracy in Eastern Europe? In the Middle East?
- Is it constitutional for the United States to fight preemptive wars? Was the United States justified to fight a war to remove Saddam Hussein from power?
- Can the United States maintain its unprecedented prosperity? (policies of the Federal Reserve System; balancing the Federal budget; international trade and the global economy; inflation factor; etc.)
- Is the world safer since the end of the Cold War?
- Should Americans be optimistic about the future?
- Should we change the way that we elect our presidents?
- Has the president become too powerful? Or the Supreme Court?
- Should limits be placed on freedom of expression during times of national crisis?
- Should stricter laws regulating firearms be enacted?
- Should affirmative action programs be continued to overcome the effects of past injustice and discrimination?
- Is the death penalty (capital punishment) a “cruel and unusual punishment” (and thus unconstitutional)?
- Does the media have too much influence over public opinion?
- Should lobbies and pressure groups be more strictly regulated?
- Do political parties serve the public interest and further the cause of democracy?
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