Saturday, December 15, 2012

Getting Students to Think Challenging Thoughts

Whether they realize it or not, my students are influenced by every interaction in life, if only in the smallest of ways. All humans are impacted daily as a result of the ways which we socialize with one another. Demonstrating the concept of 'influence' and how it coincides with the creation of the U.S. Constitution might be seen as a stretch, but it provided a genuine opportunity for good learning this past week. It would also be a challenging one for my students as well as this first-year teacher, and the paradox took place on the day of a formalized Teacher Observation by the school's Assistant Principal. It had all the makings of a huge disaster or one which would open the door for long-term success.

My freshmen classes have been embedded in a four-week unit on the Constitutional Convention, U.S. Constitution, and accompanying Bill of Rights...subjects which are not often warmly embraced by a generation which is oriented for visual learning. The first 10 years of our nation's history were wrapped around the Articles of Confederation, a unique concept in itself, but a time which did not allow our country to fulfill expectations of its citizenry. Representatives arriving in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention sought change, but couldn't agree on how this would all come about. Each of these fifty-five men were influenced by writers and books from not only their era, but a time reaching back over 500 years prior. My ordeal was finding a way to apply this concept into "real time" so students would identify with the big idea.

There are times when teaching can be simplistic in nature and minimal effort is required by the teacher. For the record, I avoid this teaching style as it is stuffy and b-o-r-i-n-g. I like to mix it up by challenging my class with "stuff" which ties to 21st century learners to an exciting perspective like U.S. History. I began by asking students to explain the word INFLUENCE. What did it mean to be INFLUENTIAL?  Would they agree with me that their lives were influenced by their friends and family?  I instructed each student to use my blank handout to compile a list of books, movies, music, and TV shows that have influenced them, providing no more than two for any one media. This was easy enough for them to do, but the hardest was yet to come....

I asked students to put this paper aside so we could review the purposes behind the Constitutional Convention, a subject which they had been well-versed on in past days. I reminded them that state governments appointed delegates to attend the convention, twelve states sent delegations (who was missing?), delegates were civic leaders, members of congress, leaders of state governments, and revolutionary war veterans, and that the convention was held in Philadelphia, the largest city in the United States at that time. What they didn’t know was The Library Company, one of the nation’s first libraries, provided books and reference material for the Convention delegates. Imagine that, a library which was located next door, was shuffling books and documents back and forth to the closed-door meeting so delegates could use this material to construct a new constitution. These reference materials were INFLUENCING the very men who were debating a new structure for our government. The books offered up ideas and and information, some of which was written over 500 years before their birth. I displayed the words PRIOR KNOWLEDGE on the screen and probed as to where they (my students) received this information from. "That's easy, Mr. D...from our parents, friends, teachers, and life." Do you think that PRIOR KNOWLEDGE played a role for those attending the Constitutional Convention?

Now, the assignment.....I preassembled packets of excerpts from the different writings of Locke, Machiavelli, Blackstone, Swift, Paine, the Bible, Magna Carta and others for the class to examine. Based on the available time and overall difficulty of the lesson, they didn't have to look at them all, only 3-4 writings which I randomly highlighted. I preselected groups by targeting six individuals who were mature enough to keep their groups centered on the task and other students were assigned by personal learning skills. Rather than risking challenged students ending up all in the same group, I mixed them up so individual strengths could assist with those who need additional help. Handouts were distributed with the idea that this was "The Founders' Library" and they were being asked to identify segments of writings which were then integrated into both the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Tough stuff but an opportunity for true learning!

Students were off to the races, anxious to socialize about this difficult assignment which Mr. D had given them. As much as I had explained and asked if there were any questions prior to their group work, there were still those who looked at the handout and instantly threw their hands up in the air with pleas of "I don't get what we have to do!" This was a normal reaction and I knew that each group would need individual attention; after all, this is was true teaching is all about. I reiterated the instructions which those groups who struggled with the task and slowly they got it. They matched specific ideas with the First Amendment or 4th Article....then went on to the next writing. It was 15 minutes of absolute learning, moving from group to group, waiting for total chaos to break out, all while being very much aware that my performance was being evaluated by a superior in the corner of the room. Yikes!

The chaos never once erupted and students remained on task for the entire class period. Five minutes prior to the end of class, it was time to tie everything together. I asked students to pull out their original handout which outlined 6-8 things which influenced them and their thinking in life. By understanding how our country’s leaders had been influenced by books and writers, I asked them to respond to a writing prompt of “How do our lists of 'favorites' influence the ways in which we think about life?”  Their writing would not be graded on punctuation and grammar, but on content which they offered up in response to what they had learned in class today. "Bring it back tomorrow and turn it in for credit."

This had been a good day for many reasons and "connections made" was at the top of that list. Their in-class worksheets noting the ties between thinkers and the Constitution was one thing, but then to read students' understanding of how influenced they are by movies, music, and other media is totally priceless. This is genuine learning to the max and I was satisfied in knowing that my risky lesson plan did everything I hoped for and more. And the formal evaluation by my school principal was pretty sweet, too! She observed everything which took place, probably more so than I did. As a result, this teacher reinforced an important concept that the best teaching is engaged learning.

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