Leaning into Difficult Topics: Toward an Informed Stance

After the Parkland school shooting in February, we witnessed something tangible shift in our discourse about school safety and gun regulation.

Nationally, we saw and still see young people like the Parkland student survivors stand up and make their voices heard, including the CNN sponsored town hall with Florida politicians and a coordinated student-led walkout on March 14 in schools across the country. With the increased attention to issues related to gun control and gun rights, we’ve also seen some (though not enough) discourse around the history of activism among students of color regarding school safety and gun reform.  And this weekend, millions are expected to gather for March for Our Lives events around the country to advocate for gun reform.

But something shifted, too, among my students. All politics is local, and the fears and challenges that have increased in the wake of the Parkland shooting has become personal for many of my students. In fact, shortly after the shooting, several of my own students asked me to sponsor a new club, Students Against Gun Violence. They hope to not just increase awareness through greater education on gun control issues, but to also advocate for change that will keep students safe in schools. They want change, and inspired by their fellow young people at Parkland and across the country, they don’t want to wait for the change to happen—they want to do something.

Yet in my actual classes, students didn’t bring up Parkland and many seemed content to go on with class, business as usual. But as a teacher, it seemed strange to continue with the lesson of the day with so much happening in the world affecting our students’ lives. Perhaps it was me: maybe students feel comfortable with me leading us through these messy conversations. I know the routine and ritual of school can also be comforting for kids. Or perhaps it was a lack of awareness or disinterest. But no, I knew that wasn’t true. You could hear their conversations in the hallways, on social media, and in the library. Students were already talking about these issues, which made me wonder: How? Who was leading them through these difficult conversations? If school is any kind of reflection of the outside world, I wondered, how many of their conversations included multiple perspectives? How critical was their media consumption? How were they processing the endless stream of noise? How were they distinguishing the shouting from the dialogue?

For many years, I think there was a general assumption that teenagers were generally apathetic, especially when it came to politics and civic engagement. Sure, there would also be groups of Young Republicans and Young Democrats, but overall, I think many teachers bemoaned young people’s lack of awareness of civic issues. I’ve always thought the criticism was a little unfair. I don’t think it’s that students don’t care. I think they do—and in light of Parkland and our current social climate—I think many are ready, impatient for change. So how do we help them? What is our role as teachers? How can we help students talk through difficult issues in an informed, safe, and meaningful way?

I think it starts with self-reflection and civil discourse.

In the days after the Parkland shooting, I knew that I wanted to provide an opportunity for kids to talk and write and think, but I wanted it to be in a way that invited them them into the conversation that felt more natural. What follows is the step-by-step process that I used over the course of several days.

1. SLOW DOWN TO THINK

When my students walked into class, they walked in to see the following three problems projected on the board:I then passed out copies of the article “Why Slow Thinking Wins” which discusses the different “fast” and “slow” thinking processes that work together when we’re introduced to new information or trying to solve problems. The authors reference psychologists Kahneman and Tversky, whose research identified the various cognitive biases that often plague our thinking. From the article:

What makes these otherwise simple questions so tricky is that they are tailored to tempt human intuition with specific wrong answers. Of the 3,428 people Frederick surveyed in his study, 33 percent missed all three questions, and 83 percent missed at least one of the questions. Of the various universities from which Frederick collected data, MIT had the highest percentage of students to answer all the questions correctly — only 48 percent.

Frederick said respondents typically gave the following intuitive, but incorrect, answers: 1) 10 cents, 2) 100 minutes, and 3) 24 days. The correct answer to the first question is 5 cents. The correct answer to the second question is five minutes. The correct answer to the third problem is 47 days.

2. SLOW DOWN TO WRITE

After discussing the article, I then gave students the following writing prompt:

With 24 hours news media and instant updates, information in today’s society seems to be moving at speeds that were unimaginable only a few years ago. While there are certain advantages to having much information so quickly and easily accessible, there are no doubt costs to this lifestyle as well. For example, though we may get information faster, are we processing it any better? Are we better thinkers as a result of this mass information age?

In Thinking Fast and Slow, cognitive scientists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahnman argue that thinking slowly has real advantages—as do the people who are possess this ability. One method they recommend for fighting our impulse to think too quickly is to build a habit of self-reflection, especially about issues that might elicit emotional (quick) responses.

Slow down to write and think about something you have heard or read about in the news or in conversation that is “on your mind” or “got you thinking.” Take some time to slow your thinking down and reflect on this issue. Where is your thinking on this issue? Why? What are others thinking (or potentially thinking)? Take some time to explore the issue’s many sides and points-of-view.

After writing for about 8-10 minutes, I asked each student to share in 1-2 words the topic that they had written chosen to explore. Because this was just days after Parkland, 95% of students wrote about gun control and related issues. It was clear what was on students’ minds, and with that out in the open, we decided to move into a mini-unit exploring the issues of gun regulation more closely. And how did we begin? We went back to our notebooks.

3. WHAT YOU KNOW (OR THINK YOU KNOW) AND WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW

This is a strategy I have often used whenever we’re exploring a new idea or issue. Before we discuss as a class, I ask students to stop and reflect first individually. Students create two columns in their notebook, one for “What you know (or think you know)” about the topic, and a second column for “What you don’t know.” Students have often told me that this simple act of having to list, factually and honestly, what they know and don’t know has been helpful for them to think through complex issues. Often, students find that they begin to question everything that they know, wondering if what they think they know is really true. It’s this wondering that helps students start from a stance of tentativeness.

4. PRESEARCHING

After students share their lists in their small groups, I then ask students to come back to class with two articles related to gun regulation or school safety. For this initial set of articles, the only guidance I gave them was to bring in articles they found insightful or compelling. I wanted to see what type of sources and arguments they would find on their own. Students also posted links to the articles in our class Schoology page so that all students had access to all the resources.

5. SPEED DATING

When students brought their articles, we formed two concentric circles. Students in the inner circle turned to their partners in the outer circle; each pair shared their articles in a speed dating format. I kept the pace quick – only about 2 minutes – so that we could make it around the circle within class time.

6. WRITE AGAIN

When students finished speed dating, we finished class by writing again. I prompted students to think and write about something new that they learned, whether that “something new” was new information or simply new questions that might be pushing their thinking.

7. STAKEHOLDERS

Now that students had the opportunity to write and read and learn from one another, we took some time as a class to reflect on patterns we saw in our readings. Specifically, I asked students to consider what stakeholders—both individuals and groups—were involved in these issues. Or put another way: whose perspectives and points-of-view can or should be considered? Who needs to be at the table, part of the conversation?

I had a student gather class responses on the board (in retrospect, I wish I had snapped a picture before I erased it a few days later!), and then we examined it for any missing pieces: Who’s voices are missing? I then asked students to turn and talk about which top ten stakeholders they felt were most important in the discussion of gun regulation and school safety. (Note that I tried to keep the issue of gun regulation specific to the context of school safety as well. Not only was this more relevant to students’ own lives, but it helped give focus to what could otherwise be an unwieldy topic.)

8. STAKEHOLDER STATIONS

After coming up with the “Top Ten Stakeholders,” I quickly passed out ten pre-printed sheets I’d made as “station signs” for our next activity. The signs were blank, except for the two-column chart that students used to guide them in their note-taking at each station (NOTE: they didn’t write on the station signs, but simply used the chart headings to lead their discussion). Students filled in a different stakeholder for each sign and then we quickly hung the signs in the hallway. I then divided students into groups of 3, and together, they rotated through each station and discussed the issue of gun regulation and school safety from the point-of-view of that stakeholder, taking notes as they proceeded. Students spent about 3-4 minutes per station.

 

9. AP-STYLE SYNTHESIS – PART 1

By this point, students had been thinking, writing, and talking about the issue of gun regulation and school safety from multiple perspectives and various stakeholders. Based on the conversations I overheard as I eavesdropped, I could tell that students were having thoughtful conversations, trying to see the the points-of-view that others might have. So instead of what  could have otherwise been a heated debate, students had to treat other perspectives with the time and respect that they deserved and to at least consider what was “at stake” for individuals and groups other than themselves.

Because this is an AP Lang class, and because I also have to get kids ready for the exam, I then asked students to create their own synthesis question around the issue of gun regulation and school safety. Or, more precisely, I asked them to find 6-8 sources and choose the most important excerpts from those sources to include in their synthesis packet. Below is the question I gave them to help them determine sources:

Although the “right to bear arms” is guaranteed by the 2nd Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, there is debate over what this right entails, to what extent it holds true and under what circumstances.  Disagreement over the 2nd Amendment has become particularly contentious in light of recent shootings and concerns over public safety, especially in spaces traditionally considered safe, such as schools.

Using at least three sources for support, develop a position on the issue of gun regulation as it relates to school safety concerns.

Having examined the perspectives of multiple stakeholders, students were now better equipped to put together a set of sources that better represented the range of opinions on the issue. Because we had already looked at previous AP synthesis prompts, students knew that their sources needed to be open enough to allow even someone whose opinion differed from their own could answer the prompt with success.

Students arranged their sources into AP-style synthesis packets, but aside from collecting the sources, students also had to write a very brief reflection about each source to explain 1) what perspective was represented in the source, and 2) why this perspective was important to include, and 3) how the information could be used to answer the prompt.

10. AP-STYLE SYNTHESIS – PART 2

Students then used their synthesis packets as a mock AP prompt for an in-class write. I gave students the option of either using their own synthesis packet or switching with a peer. Although only a handful of students decided to use sources they had never seen before, even students who used their own sources found it helpful to think through—to synthesize—their thoughts by writing a coherent essay in a single, sit-down session.

AND REFLECT…

The next day, the final writing prompt for this lesson was reflection… specifically, I asked students to write about how their thinking about the issue of gun regulation changed after this work. Although not many students said they changed their initial opinions, they did say that being forced to include multiple perspectives allowed them to understand the opposing view a little bit better. They could see common ground, even if they disagreed on specifics.

What I ended up appreciating about this approach is that it provided students with a protocol to approach any controversial issue: start with what you know and don’t know, look at multiple points-of-view by identifying key stakeholders, and then take a more informed stance. Hopefully by slowing down, by surveying the landscape of opinions, students can resist the quick and easy sound bytes that inundate our discourse and better argue from a stance of openness, complexity, and empathy.

How do you handle discussion of controversial issues? If you have any suggestions, please share them below!

 

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