Map of the world with a passport on top, symbols of movement of people.

Three Essential Questions About Movement for Your Social Studies Class

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It’s not news that civic knowledge and civic engagement throughout the country is pretty low. Recent polls show that a lot of people can’t even name the three branches of government.

One reason for this is that our social studies classes are often not living up to their purpose. In a lot of cases, they are history courses dominated by facts and chronology. This leaves other important themes – like civics and economics – on the sidelines.

Instead, we could build our social studies curricula around essential questions and themes. This would put those otherwise useless facts into perspective and make them tools by which we can understand the world around us. This is learning to read the word in order to read the world – instead of for its own sake.

If I had my way, the social studies curriculum would be completely thematic and we’d just throw out the idea of chronology. But we don’t all have that luxury, and an alternative is to make sure that we use essential questions to prioritize content and create connections across different time periods and units.

Today, we’ll look at one of those important themes: the Movement of People. I’ll share three essential questions about movement and immigration that I use with my own students along with a powerpoint that I use to structure a discussion in class. Stay with me to the end of this post, and I’ll share some resources on other important themes as well.

Three Social Studies Essential Questions Related to the Movement of People

At the beginning of every year, I start out by discussing a set of essential questions. That includes three questions that relate to movement and migration. By doing this, I can get a sense of what my students think as they are coming into my class and I can get my kids thinking about some big ideas that we’ll return to throughout the course.

Here are three of the essential questions about movement of people that I used for this.

Why Do People Move and Migrate?

This is the simplest question to answer, so I like to start with this one. You can start with the general question – “Why do people move or migrate?” and see where the conversation goes.

You’ll probably get answers like to get access to more opportunity or build a better life. These are pretty typical.

You can dig into this a little more by separating it into push factors and pull factors. What attracts people about a location – is it a job, family, a college, cheap housing or cost of living? Is it access to land and resources?

On the other hand, what pushes people out of their homes? Is it a lack of opportunity there? Is it crime or oppression or an ongoing war?

This question lends itself to obvious connections with current events. It’s also a relevant question to ask in an assessment of most historical time periods and units. Whether you’re talking about colonization, westward expansion, or the Great Migration, movement of peoples is a fact of American History.

It’s also worth thinking about examples of people who moved against their will. Whether you’re talking about enslaved people being transported across the Atlantic from Africa, Native Americans being pushed along the Trail of Tears, or the Jewish diaspora being scattered during the Holocaust, you have opportunities to connect this question to historical topics that your students likely have some knowledge about.

Great Wall of China on top of a Mountain Range
What kinds of barriers inhibit the movement of people? Are these natural or man-made?

Can People Move Freely?

This question starts to get a little deeper. Are people free to move around or are there barriers to their movement?

There are physical barriers that can hinder movement and technological advancements that can promote it. But there’s also a peculiarly political element to movement. Who can come and go, and why?

If my students are stumped for an answer on this question, I often ask them to think about the difference between traveling in and out of the country compared with in and out of the city. There are no borders between our city and the next one, and you don’t need a passport or any kind of documentation. But try to go to Canada or Mexico, and suddenly it’s a thing.

In terms of history, there’s another connection here to slavery and segregation. Your students may have seen Birth of a Nation and the scene in which Nat Turner needs a pass to go from one plantation to the next. On a side note, that makes you think about hall passes a bit different, doesn’t it? But anyway, this gets to the more profound question of whether or not freedom of movement is a fundamental human right.

How Does Movement Change People?

Finally, this last question seeks to explore the relationship of immigration and cultural change.

What happens with a group of immigrants moves into a country? How is the country changed? How are the immigrants changed? This is a critical question of American history from the get go, when the Europeans show up and interact with the Native Americans.

This is also a good chance to talk about the role of trade in cultural diffusion. People don’t have to permanently migrate there to leave a mark – or to be changed themselves.

How Do These Essential Questions About Equality Fit Into Your Class?

Well, that’s your decision. But here’s a bit about what I usually do.

I always use this for one of those first introductory class period at the start of the year. I spend the first week or two on class expectations and essential questions. In that opening, I take a day to discuss these questions about the movement of people.

I usually start with having students do a silent writing or brainstorming to think about answers to the first question, “Why do people move?” From there, the discussion will naturally flow and I’ll follow up with probing questions where appropriate. I often spend a lot of time talking with students on the first question and just introducing them to the second two.

At the end of that discussion, they’ll do a quick writing assignment for homework. I have them answer that first question in a paragraph, citing some historical or personal examples to support their response.

The second two questions – about freedom of movement and about cultural diffusion – play a more prominent role later in the year. I’ll pick out topics that relate to these questions to help students think about them, and they’ll feature prominently in some unit assessments and writing assignments. They are recurring themes that can make connections across time periods.

More About Essential Questions and Thematic Curricula

Movement is one of five themes that I focus on throughout my course. You should also take a look at these posts on essential questions related to Civics, Conflict, Economics, Equality.

You ought to check out Dr. Beth Rubin’s book, Making Citizens: Transforming Civic Learning for Diverse Social Studies Classrooms. I learned a lot from it on how to integrate themes and essential questions into my course, and it’s an excellent read if you want to dig into this stuff more. This blog post also offers some ideas about the topic.

Have you used these questions with your students? How did the conversations go?

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