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.