Friday, March 23, 2012

Deeper Thinking in Middle School Research

It's been almost four weeks since my eighth graders began this unit of discussion and research on the First Amendment.  Their presentations this week have been thought provoking and informative, but there was also an element of surprise when groups shared facts or statistics that no one else knew; for example, Elvis's Christmas songs were banned in some places because of his unchristian values (he did shake those hips).  Though many students stuck with the facts--often First Amendment or censorship definitions from the Encyclopedia, which stated the five freedoms of speech, press, assembly, petition, and religion, and the four types of censorship (moral, military, political, and religious)--they made interesting connections with how those definitions applied to their topics of music censorship, book banning, or expression.  Interviews with peers, teachers, and even authors (via email) opened a conversation about other viewpoints.  One student couldn't wait to share how he and a friend debated about the legitimacy of shelving the Bible at school...this conversation happened while they were on the bus ride to school!

Even better, though, is to see their thought process as they write about their experiences with this research.  As I read their drafts of this process, I see opinions as well as more questions forming.  I ask the students after their presentations or while I circulate and read drafts what they think about this topic of research, or more specifically what they think about these issues.  One student replied, "I have more questions now than I did when I first started researching."  I told her that her questions will make a fascinating conclusion to her essay.  How can they not?  Can we really pretend that research is about finding the simple answers?  Then maybe we aren't asking the tough questions.

Because the introduction of this research unit centered around the idea of Banned Books Week (with this  trimester class I recreated the discussion that happens the last week of September every year), many students focused their research on reasons for book challenges, particular books that have been challenged, and how authors might feel about censorship.  One group member had nearly finished the Hunger Games series when she discovered that the first book was on the most challenged list.  Nearly in shock, she attempted to find out why it made this list.  (Mature themes such as violence, children killing children, and political commentary are certainly some of the reasons that it has been removed from some libraries and classrooms.)  Her look of disbelief guarantees that I will continue to have these discussions with my students.  They need to find out for themselves that censorship is a real thing, but it is not always a bad thing.  And they do understand why music, movies, books, and television are censored.  They acknowledge that language, sexual content, violence, drugs, and other mature themes make adults uncomfortable and should be kept out of the reach of younger children. But they can also explain how the First Amendment protects the rights of those who want to keep the media uncensored.  They want adults to know they "can handle it."

When theaters released the Hunger Games movie, and many of my own students (as well as my daughter) attended the premier, I became curious about the fervor for this movie adaptation.  After listening to Jennifer Buehler's podcast on (Episode 48 Published March 16, 2012
"A Second Look at The Hunger Games"), I approached my students with the ideas and questions she posed in this episode.  The futuristic, dystopian nature of The Hunger Games doesn't feel too distant in the future and seems far too realistic (for some countries).  To summarize briefly, the Capitol has taken control of twelve districts and obliterated the thirteenth after a rebellion.  To keep similar uprisings from happening in the future, the Capitol creates the Hunger Games in which a girl and a boy from each of the remaining districts compete to the death.  The one winner receives a lifetime of ease and the district being represented receives a more comfortable year for its people in terms of food and other supplies.  What I focused on in my brief discussion was the fact that these games are televised for the Capitol's entertainment.  This book, which makes a commentary about the lure of entertainment and the voyeuristic qualities of reality television and the news, is now being released on the big screen as entertainment.  One student said, "I didn't think about that" while another student questioned, "Isn't that irony?"  Indeed it is.

The timing isn't always so opportune.  And a replicated discussion of the issue may only work for a short time ("Remember last year when The Hunger Games movie was released?" versus "Remember four years ago..."). But won't there always be another timely issue?  Don't we often have controversy when it comes to freedom of speech and movie ratings and political correctness?  I want my students to be ready to think, so I ask the deeper questions, the harder ones.  Believe it or not, these kids want to be asked, are ready to be asked, and they want me to hear their answers.

Monday, March 12, 2012

An I-Search Reflection

In my eighth grade literacy classes, we have been researching the First Amendment.  Many of the students began this unit of study wondering what difference it really makes to have the First Amendment when there are such limitations in a school setting.  They are discovering now that these freedoms pertain to everyone, and that students can voice opinions and do have rights.  They have developed questions that many adults don't consider: What is free speech? How can I use this freedom without "getting into trouble"? How does the freedom of press affect me? If I protest a publication, how will that affect other people?  Do I have the right to tell other people how to believe, what to say, and what not to read? They are forming opinions about what is appropriate and inappropriate in their school settings, home, and community.  It is now my job to make sure they know how to find evidence to support their opinions.

This job is not an easy one.  Yes, you must have a book reference.  No, there is not a book with the title Book Banning. Yes, the Free Speech book has information about the affects of censorship. No, the encyclopedia will not have an entry on "school dress code."  Yes, you can interview an author via email.  No, there is probably not a book that has the complete answer to your research question.  And I tell them that unlike finding the definition to specific terms such as "freedom of speech," "censorship," and "freedom of press," gathering information to answer their research questions will be a challenging task to say the least much like a jigsaw puzzle.  Where is a simple answer to how authors feel when their books are challenged or banned?  In what encyclopedia is there an entry that details the differences between an adult's and a child's First Amendment rights?  And where is the website that lists the appropriate and inappropriate books for a middle school library?  With that last question there may actually be a site, but what are the best descriptors for that search, and is that website blocked in your school like it is in ours?

My students wonder why a book that was challenged and banned in Boston, Massachusetts in 1922 was also burned in Germany in 1929.  Another student is questioning the role of censorship in music, and I was surprised at many of the song titles and reasons.  But there are some students who still don't get it.  On some level they may care about the topic, but what I see is a bleak future for our country if I can't incite a passionate response (or even a casual yet somewhat interested response) about civic rights and duties.  As I carry around my clipboard, I wonder if I am checking progress or inspiring thought.  And I think, again, that it is my job to make sure they know how to find the answers to their questions because, after all, they are the ones who made up these questions.

The students' checklist includes a place for me to chart completion of notes and citations for six different sources: book, encyclopedia, internet, periodical, library website/catalog, and interview.  Students work in small groups or individually to uncover facts from all these sources.  I recommended that students "divide and conquer" the work, and most of them do.  Unfortunately, some students use one notebook, one pencil, and one hand to record information.  This tells me that my researchers lack confidence in their researching skills.  Do they really want to break away from their partners only to return to the group with wrong information?  It is not just for grade accountability that they scribble furiously to copy a partner's notes into their own notebooks; it is for self preservation; it is to be alike rather than different.  Do I have an answer to that?  Not yet, but I'm working on it.

So I wonder about the final products of this research project.  The Prezis, movies, Animotos, and PowerPoints will no doubt be dizzying and informative.  The notebooks will have some indications that they traveled with the students to the library, the computer lab, and down the hall for interviews.  The buzz in the classroom will be proof that discussion and debates ignited in between talk of ballgames and lunch.  And students may develop a stance for an argument.  Yet, I wonder if they will be able to support these stances with evidence.  Will their interests wane as I guide them to the books (encyclopedias, internet, journals) yet another time to find the publisher, year, and page numbers for their information?  Or perhaps they need information from the source they so dutifully cited?  And when the time's up for the booked library or scheduled computer lab what's next?  The books come to them, and maybe that makes a difference.

As I venture to the next step, which is group collaboration on the presentation of information, I must remind myself that learning happens sometimes in spite of what I try to do.  My clipboard can't capture the number of times I've heard students say, "I didn't know _____." Often I can reply, "I didn't either. Tell me more."  And maybe that's when I become a real teacher...and learn from my students.