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Developing essential questions: A social studies example

Suppose that Rebecca was planning a Civil War unit for her 8th-grade U.S. History course and that she wanted to use this unit to reinforce her students' abilities to meet the following benchmarks:

  • All students will reconstruct the past by comparing interpretations written by others from a variety of perspectives and creating narratives from evidence.
  • Use primary and secondary records to analyze significant events that shaped the development of the United States prior to the end of Reconstruction.

1. How could the essential and unit questions in the table below be used to support the above benchmarks?

Big Ideas

Essential questions

Unit questions

War—the ultimate failure of governmental policy

Should war always be avoided?

Could anti-war Southerners like Sam Houston have found a way to avoid war?
Is there anything Abe Lincoln could have done to avoid the Civil War?

In an ideal country, there should be fixed limits to state power.

Should a democratic country force its citizens to kill others?

What were the causes of the draft riots in the North and South?
Were these riots justified?
If you were a man who had been drafted in the Civil War, what would you have done?

In the long run, history punishes its sinners.

Was the Civil War the price that the United States paid for African slavery?

Was slavery the ultimate cause of the Civil War?
After 1800, could the U.S. ever have abolished slavery without a civil war?

2. What primary and secondary documents should Rebecca present to her students to help them develop answers to these unit questions? You might ask other teachers at your school about sources for primary documents. Many can be found on the Internet; others may be in your school or local library.