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.

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