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Questions That Bring Contemporary Context to Past Personalities

Most students find it difficult to think of famous historical personalities as real people. They also read texts without realizing that there are tangible personalities behind them.  I have found one of the most effective ways to give flesh and blood to the past is by designing questions that ask students to bring authors, historical characters, and texts into the classroom.  There are a variety of formats that these questions might take. Following are some that I’ve used and other examples that might trigger queries you could adapt for your courses.

The simplest format is simply to ask how a well-known person might have acted if he or she was in a comparable contemporary context.

Questions like these can help teachers determine whether students have genuinely grasped the character and motivations of the person, and whether they have learned the principles at stake during the historical period.

A second format of questions discusses how a classic text might have been written differently if it was composed today.

Questions in this category provide insights into how well the student understands the historical context in which the writing occurred and how those influences shaped the writing.

A third question format involves contemporizing a classic story.

Through student responses to questions such as these teachers can assess whether students understand the foundational themes in the story.

Still another question format brings the character from the past into the classroom or into a contemporary situation and asks what advice they might offer.

These questions help to bring the historic character to life by giving the students an opportunity to “dialogue” personally with the character.

Perhaps one of the most useful applications of personality in context questions is to “interview” the author of the text or reading being used in class.

It can be a challenge to get students to do the reading much less immerse themselves in it.  Interview questions will often reveal to teacher and student whether the reading has taken place and at what level. They also give students a chance to connect with the author and text in ways that are meaningful to them.

I regularly use all four formats of these questions, and given my institutional affiliation you can likely tell which of the sample questions highlighted in this article I have used with my students. I have found the final readings-based questions work best when given as an out-of-class learning task, and the others I tend to use to generate in-class discussion. However they are used, the key is to promote dialogue between the past and the present and in that way bring the past to life for the students. When students connect with the past, they are better able to gain wisdom for the present and future.

Dr. Perry Shaw is a professor of education at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon. 

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 29.9 (2014): 1,6. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.