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Finding Cases Can Be Challenging
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I have found that it's possible to generate much the same response from students by presenting an event in the news that they haven't necessarily heard about. It has to be a situation that will be intriguing to them and produce a strong reaction. The following are examples of some cases that I've used successfully in recent years.
Students at a local high school were threat? need with expulsion and charged with "gross disobedience and mob activity" after participating in a sit-in protest against the Iraq war (Ruzich).
An elementary school administration attempted to remove from the school library and Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell, and Henry Cole, a children's book about two real-life male penguins in New York's Central Replica Breitling Airwolf Park Zoo who together nurture a penguin egg and then raise the chick ("And Tango").
A high school social studies teacher in Colorado was suspended after a classroom lecture in which he was critical of President George W. Bush's State of the Union address. (Vaughan and Doligosa).
For the issue selected, students examine news-paper articles and search for other relevant information that they share in small-group and whole-class discussions. For the book protest issue, I brought a copy of the book to class for students to examine. For the case involving the teacher in Colorado, one student found a recording of the teacher's lecture on the Internet so that the class could hear exactly what the teacher said and compare it to what was reported in the media.
These issues resulted in virtually the same level of engagement as the moment-of-silence issue. Part of the challenge for the teacher is finding the right issue. I've found that the "realness" and surprising-but-true nature of the situations are key. One student commented, "I can't believe a teacher was suspended for that!" In reference to And Tango Makes Three, some students were shocked that anyone would object to the book; others were shocked that a book "about alternative lifestyles" was available for young children. Since the cases are "real," there are many complexities involved (e.g., in the school protest case, there were allegations that honors students were treated differently from other students), and students could find additional information as questions arose (e.g., a recording of the actual lecture in the social studies class).
I have also found that the cases that work most successfully involve concrete situations and specific people, rather than abstract concepts such as whether the death penalty should be abolished. Also, the issue needs to have enough information for students to have an informed debate based on evidence. Unsolved murder cases, for example, do not tend to work well because there is seldom enough specific, reliable evidence for students to examine to make an informed judgment.
For each of these cases, students were fairly equally divided in terms of their positions, so there was a great deal of debate that resulted. I only use cases that I feel can be argued well on either side. Since students are attempting to convince their classmates and others who have different viewpoints, they have the sense of a real audience for their writing even though they are not writing an actual letter to the editor or letter to their legislator. I never know ahead of time whether the students will be divided in their views, but most teachers who know their students well can fairly accurately predict which issues will result in spirited debate. I avoid expressing a viewpoint myself, and when I need to play devil's advocate, I preface statements with a phrase such as "But some people argue that . . ."so that students don't mistakenly assume that I am more sympathetic to one viewpoint than another.
Finding cases can be challenging. One source that is quite useful is NCTE's Inbox blog and weekly email newsletter . Also the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) has similar electronic newsletters to which teachers Omega Speedmaster Replica often have access. I now have several colleagues in my department who have joined me in collecting articles, and we keep an electronic folder that we share. Finding good issues takes a little work on the teacher's part, but the rewards in terms of student engagement and investment in their writing are well worth it.
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