Discussion Guides

Talking about United America

University of Michigan sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker has invited veteran writers of educational materials to prepare these free discussion guides. Each one describes activities and questions that have proven successful in getting people excited about discussing American Core Values. You are free to use them in your class or small group.

TASTE OF HOME

This guide describes a group exercise that has been used repeatedly to foster discussion of themes in United America. Talking about our favorite food traditions and, even better, tasting those beloved foods, is not only revealing—it’s fun! This activity can be used as an ice-breaker; it also works well mid-way through a series of discussions about United America after group participants get to know each other and are eager to interact.

In addition to the study guide, Dr. Baker also published a five-part OurValues series expanding on this idea.

As a one-time experience, a leader can simply ask participants to talk about their family food traditions. Or, if you have sufficient time in your discussion series, you can invite participants to bring samples of favorite foods to a subsequent gathering. Stories about food traditions could connect with your discussion of at least 4 of the 10 Core Values:

  • “Respect for Others” (sharing food traditions helps us to appreciate ethnic diversity);
  • “Freedom” (some foods are associated with holidays and seasons that celebrate freedom from American 4th of July to the Jewish Passover Seder);
  • “Self Reliance & Individualism” (some foods relate to personal and family challenges or struggles to survive and thrive);
  • “Pursuit of Happiness” (for obvious reasons).

AMERICAN IMAGES

This is the second in a series of discussion guides that readers may want to use while talking about Dr. Wayne Baker’s book. This guide describes a one-session exercise that is a sure-fire discussion starter for groups, especially if participants arrive for the first time anxious that they may find themselves in uncomfortable disagreement with others about American values.

The exercise works well as an ice-breaker and does not require anyone to have read the book before jumping into this exercise. The goal: help class participants meet new people on the first day of class and begin talking about their deepest feelings when they consider American values.

See the gallery of American images here.

In addition, Dr. Baker published an OurValues series exploring some of the American images and adding additional questions.

Often, Dr. Baker is invited to travel across the U.S. to appear at events, sometimes leading large groups of people through a discussion. This American Images activity reliably gets people talking, right away, whether they are in large groups or smaller settings. In 2014, Dr. Baker led a workshop for an internationally diverse group of men and women at the North American Interfaith Network annual conference. The American Images discussion immediately broke through cultural barriers and soon participants were sharing a wide range of heart-felt stories.

FAMILY TREASURES

The activity described in this guide takes more than one week and is perfect for groups that want to discuss United America in a series of weekly sessions. It takes a minimum of two weeks: one to explain the activity and then a session for participants to bring in their objects and tell their stories. Some groups find that every participant is eager to take a turn, so they spread a couple of these stories out through each week of the discussion series.

The study guide for Family Treasures explains how to plan for this experience, which many groups have reported is very popular with participants. In some cases, groups have decided to record the presentations involving these “family treasures.”

Along with the American Images and Taste of Home exercises, this Family Treasures activity often summons deep emotion. Group leaders have told us about total strangers who have bonded over stories of objects as simple as a grandfather’s “dog tags” or a grandmother’s candy dish, a hard-earned Boy Scout merit badge or a piece of embroidery created with a mentor, a work-worn hammer from an old tool chest or even a seasoned cast-iron fry pan. We have seen truly precious objects: jewelry, rare stamps, an antique Persian carpet and even a 100-year-old baseball card. And we have heard stories with great emotion spun around objects no one else would even recognize: a chunk of copper ore from a mine or an iron handle from an old wood-burning stove. This exercise invites surprises!

In addition to the study guide, Dr. Baker also published a five-part OurValues series expanding on this idea and sharing examples of objects men and women have brought to their small groups.

BIBLE STUDY

This guide describes a series of up to 10 weeks that could be organized in a church group or Sunday school. Dr. Baker’s book is written for everyday reading in all settings, including schools, library groups and other secular organizations. However, Dr. Baker realizes that across the United States millions of small community-based groups meet, each week, in congregations. Some are simply called “small groups;” some are called “Sunday school.” Since the goal of United America is to help Americans realize that we share more than many of us realize, sparking discussion in congregations becomes a natural extension of this project.

Many small-group leaders in congregations have expressed interest in adapting the book for their settings. Specifically, they have asked for a Bible Study guide with references from scripture that group leaders can include in conversations about the 10 core values identified in Dr. Baker’s book.

This Discussion Guide was developed by veteran teachers and writers, experienced in developing Bible study materials for mainline congregations: Beth Miller, who has written a number of small-group books for Abingdon Press, and the Rev. Megan Walther, a United Methodist pastor serving in Michigan. They have organized this guide in 10 short parts, related to the book’s 10 chapters. In every case, they recommend a Bible passage. Then, they offer sample questions. Miller and Walther both advise: “Don’t feel you have to cover everything. You’re free to add your own Bible references. Choose the questions that are best suited to your group. And, feel free to write your own questions. This guide is your starting point, not a rigid set of rules.”

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