Thursday, February 13, 2014
We need SOME controversy!
Rather than shy away from controversy in the classroom, teachers draw on edgy topics as an authentic opportunity to practice the critical thinking and social-emotional skills needed to debate sensitive issues.
The phrase "ripped from the headlines" is often used to hook viewers into a TV show, but in the classroom, are similar topics off limits? Social studies class, in particular, can present a catch-22 for educators who want to engage students critically with complex issues from both current and historical events. Will parents storm the school board, or will classroom discussions devolve into shouting matches? With practice and intent, educators and researchers are making history inclusive and discovering why controversy is good for the classroom.
"Any time you tell the full-circle truth on a topic, that automatically makes it controversial," says Beth Sanders, a 10th and 11th grade American history teacher at Tarrant High School in Birmingham, Ala. Sanders's students have investigated topics such as civil disobedience, covering a range of perspectives from passive resistance and Martin Luther King Jr. to Malcolm X's ethos of "by any means necessary." Deep within historic civil rights country, Sanders says that when young people and their teachers engage with these topics and apply them to current policies such as Alabama's immigration law, they are kicking the hornet's nest.
"What I taught in my American history class might be considered controversial," remarks Bill Bigelow, who taught social studies for 30 years in Portland, Ore., and is now curriculum editor of Rethinking Schoolsmagazine and codirector of the Zinn Education Project. Bigelow recalls that although students easily recognized Christopher Columbus's role in history, none could name the indigenous tribe—the Taínos—who encountered Columbus on his fabled voyage. "To me, standing up in front of the class and saying Columbus discovered America, choosing to take sides and silence the curriculum, that's the real controversy."
Studies show that these silences can be deafening. In October 2013, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), based at Tufts University, released All Together Now, a report on how to educate young Americans for political participation in a time of deep polarization. CIRCLE Director Peter Levine says that during the fall 2012 elections, about a quarter of the nation's American government and civics teachers believed that parents would object if they tried to discuss politics in their classes. U.S. government teachers, during an election year, were afraid to let students talk about politics.
The primary problem of youth engagement in civics has shifted from connecting students to the community through service learning to providing a counternarrative to bitter political dialogue, notes Levine. "When Congress can't pass a budget, that's bad civic education for kids."
"High school, especially, is a time when kids are developing as political beings," says Diana Hess, professor on leave from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and senior vice president of the Spencer Foundation. "We want kids to develop in the most democratic environment possible because we want them to contribute to and improve what is clearly a highly dysfunctional democracy."
With few mainstream exemplars, students need practice developing the skills and behaviors to civilly discuss potentially taboo topics. "You can't just jump into this stuff," Sanders warns. She uses the free, online program Start Empathy as the curriculum for creating a student-centered community.
"You don't want students to compartmentalize their social-emotional learning skills and abandon them when they get into a heated argument," adds Tom Roderick, executive director of the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. Arguments built on a foundation of respect and empathy are more constructive because people are actually listening to each other, Roderick says. "If this doesn't happen in a social studies classroom, where will it happen?"
In New York City Public Schools, no one bats an eye about teaching controversy, says Stephen Lazar, a social studies teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in Brooklyn. "The prework is building a culture of respect." Lazar sets clear expectations that discussions revolve around ideas, not the people who had the ideas, and that judgments are grounded in evidence. "It's not about being right or wrong but about really trying to understand the issue before taking a stand," he clarifies.
"One of the fundamental principles of a democratic society is having a robust exchange of multiple and competing views," says Hess. "You will come up with qualitatively better decisions when views have gone through a rigorous evaluation and inquiry process, and that can't happen if you only have dominant perspectives represented." Teachers have several approaches for engaging students respectfully.
If you set up the space for difference right from the start, says Susan Graseck, you will encourage a natural diversity of viewpoints. Graseck is the director of Brown University's Choices Program, a nonprofit that develops curricula and training for high school teachers on current and historical international issues. To encourage and ensure representative discussions, however, each Choices Program unit centers on a "hinge point," or a set of different perspectives on an issue, which students role-play. "This gives legitimacy to the student who really does see things differently from the rest of the class," notes Graseck.
Lazar teaches a high school freshman course called Looking for an Argument, a curriculum developed by two teachers at New York's Urban Academy. Each week, the curriculum introduces a new controversial question, for example, "Are New York City's 'stop and frisk' laws just?" On Monday, two teachers model a debate, presenting opposing sides to the question, and students discuss the debate. Students then read and research the topic thoroughly, and by Friday, they use evidence from their research to take a stance in an argumentative essay.
When a majority of students line up on one side of a discussion, Lazar says that his job is to introduce more evidence to confuse their made-up minds. "If kids walk out of my classroom questioning what they think, then I've done my job," he beams.
In Bigelow's classes, students held mock trials to decide who was responsible for the death of the Taínos—the king and queen of Spain, the system of empire, Columbus, Columbus's men, or the Taínos themselves? "It's not up to me to make those judgments. We alert students to the best information and then engage them in making ethical decisions."
"When you teach critical thinking, students need to be thinking about something," notes Graseck. Kids need enough historical content and context to grow their understanding over time and to whet their appetites for more knowledge, she adds.
Plenty of online resources are available for teaching critical approaches to social studies content (visitwww.ascd.org/eu0214resources for a sampling). Sanders recommends Howard Zinn's A Young People's History of the United States as especially helpful for students on a lower reading level. Her class reads their traditional textbook against Zinn's works and other texts, identifying points of divergence and convergence.
"Textbooks make a great target," says Bigelow, recalling how he used The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration and a role-playing activity to supplement a U.S. textbook that only devoted two paragraphs to the U.S. War with Mexico. "I want kids to think of themselves as activist readers, rather than consumer readers. Checking the adequacy of textbook coverage is a good way to do that." Sanders says that Twitter has been a game changer by allowing her not only to teach controversial topics but also to get her students' voices heard on those controversial issues. "We're tweeting down the walls of the classroom," quips Sanders. In the past year, her students have hosted live Twitter chats with Jose Antonio Vargas, the openly gay, undocumented immigrant who founded Define American and who is challenging Alabama's immigration law. Sanders's class has its own Twitter hashtag (#standardsTHS), creating a 24/7 backchannel for dialogue that spills beyond class space and time.
Sanders advises teachers to share curriculum with parents and to show that resources are credible and fact-based. At one time, her instinct was to put in earbuds and plan a lesson, but now she works with parents to uncover the roots of their concerns. Lazar, who started his career in Virginia and received parental blowback about teaching the 2012 election, says that finding like-minded colleagues and following their lead is key. "Then, if you're criticized, you can point to the model you're building on."
Bigelow suggests that younger students approach the silenced history of Columbus in age-appropriate ways, for example, through Michael Dorris's book, Morning Girl. The book follows the lives of children in a Taíno family; Columbus doesn't arrive until the final pages of the book. The story "recenters the experiences of people who have been marginalized in the traditional curriculum," he notes.
Hess and Levine are optimistic that the new College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) national standards, released by the National Council for the Social Studies in fall 2012, will renew support for discussing controversial topics in history. Levine, who helped author the new C3 standards, says that they emphasize discussion much more and are also dramatically more streamlined than current standards. Although C3 standards afford teachers more time to dig deep into challenging, current topics, standardized assessments for civil discussion remain problematic.
"If you use standardized tests in civics, two bad things happen," explains Levine. "Tests lag behind current events, and [they] are completed individually—and civics is essentially about interaction." Currently, Tennessee is piloting portfolio assessments in civics, in which students choose the topic and present their portfolios to peers. These assessments are promising, but questions surround how to reliably score them for accountability measures.
Even though standardized testing doesn't include opportunities for students to civilly discuss current controversies with peers, it need not sideline teacher efforts to make this a classroom priority. "The beautiful thing about a critically thinking class," says Sanders, "is that a standardized test is cake to kids who are having higher-order dialogue, doing close readings, and teaching each other."
"Students are demonstratively more engaged when there's a real question in front of them," and that, says Graseck, will lead them deeper into the content. Fight the temptation to simplify history and social issues, and kids will come back for more, adds Lazar.
Your ultimate goal should be not to change students' opinions but to help understand and respect our commonalities and differences, says Graseck.
Kids are drawn to "controversial" topics, but they also need engaging pedagogy that asks them to be critics, thinkers, and evaluators, says Bigelow. "I'm not telling students what to think, but I want them to be willing to question the curriculum."
Paraphrasing education scholar Deborah Meier, Lazar adds, "We want to give kids the understanding of the world they live in and the courage to confront it."