ON LIBRARIES: Tackling Controversy

election-2016We are two weeks away from the Presidential election. Social studies teachers usually respond with a short unit on the subject looking at past history and the process itself.  Normally, emotions and opinions run high as the election approaches particularly among older students, some of whom might be eligible to vote for the first time.  However, this campaign has been far from normal.  The level of acrimony coming from supporters on each side is creating stress and arguments within families and among friends.  It’s tempting to step aside and not deal with it.

Yet we have an obligation to tackle it.

We need to find a path that allows our students to learn from what is happening, develop a deeper understanding of this election in context of what has gone before, and discuss it without hostility.  A tall order when our own feelings are also heavily engaged.  To do so, it’s necessary to focus on what you want to achieve with the unit and set ground rules from the beginning.controversy

For all grade levels, formulate the Essential Questions you want students to explore. Possible ones are: Why do we have elections? Should we continue to have an Electoral College? What causes political parties to change their views over time?  Why has this election campaign been so different from previous ones? The first would work well at the elementary level and will have a deeper analysis with high school students.

Once you know the direction you are taking, set up ground rules to ensure the exploration and discussions don’t descend into the rancor that has typified this campaign. A number of indicators in the AASL Standards for the 21st Century Learner refer to being able to do such things as “Maintain a critical stance by questioning the validity and accuracy of all information” (1.2.4), “Consider diverse and global perspectives in drawing conclusions” (2.3.2), and “Use knowledge and information skills and dispositions to engage in public conversation and debate around issues of common concern.” (3.3.3).great-pumpkin

In your first meeting with students have a brief discussion as to why ground rules are necessary. Acknowledge the emotions common this year about the election and the candidates.  Ask students to raise their hand without any comment if they feel strongly in favor of one of the two major candidates.  Then let them know there will be no attempts to change anyone’s preference and there will be no criticism of the candidates. Unlike what is happening on television, social media, and news outlets, the discussions will stay on target.  There is to be no name-calling, shouting over each other, or accusations about the other candidate.  Be open to having students add any ground rules.

If students are exploring the candidates in this election, have them work in pairs to research the candidate they prefer.  Using a lesson plan that ties into your Essential Question(s) direct students to get started.  One resource to use is Scholastic’s website or check out Edutopia’s Election 2016: Lesson Plans and Digital Resources for Educators.

factsAlthough at a far higher level than usual, candidates and their supporters regularly accuse the other side of lying. News media do fact checking, but students should learn how to so on their own. Get Your Facts Right – 6 Fact Checking Websites That Help You Know the Truth has three to verify political statements plus other for email scams and hoaxes.

When your project is complete and students come together for a final discussion and sharing, review the ground rules which should be posted. For those old enough to use the political fact checkers, have them discuss what they learned from it.  As much as possible, ask if they have verified a statement. Wrap it up with their responses to the Essential Question(s).

How are you handling this election?  What are you teaching your students?






ON LIBRARIES: Quality Questions

essential questionI have blogged on the many aspects of this topic several times, but the subject is worth repeating. The questioning is only important when what is asked is worth answering.   Both your questions and students’ questions need to be significant.

Your questions should begin with the Essential Questions you focus on in framing a project.  My post on the topic in November 2014 noted that EQs can deal with concepts which are core to the discipline but not necessarily obvious to those not in it or look at broader ideas designed to open minds to the real-world implications of what they are studying.  Even understanding what they are, doesn’t make them easy to construct.

When I first wrote about EQs I suggested if you were faced with teaching the Dewey Decimal System (which you really shouldn’t ever do) an EQ might be, “How do libraries arrange material to help users find what they need?” After doing many of these, I don’t like that question because it only has one answer – by subject. Instead I would put piles of books on a table and ask them how they would group them so that others could quickly find what they are looking for? They might arrange alphabetically or color of covers. When they were finished, they would have to explain their thinking. Encourage the class to discuss how well that would work.  You could then guide them to recognize librarians had to deal with that problem and also came up with different solutions (Dewey, LOC, and now genre-based), but all these work because they have one thing in common – subject arrangement.  By having them work on developing an answer to the EQ they understand the how and why of classification rather than the specific answer.question sign

In an article in the September 2015 issue of Educational Leadership, Grant Wiggins suggests in studying the Vietnam War, a rather than, “Why did we fight the Vietnam War and was it worth it?, the EQs should be “Why have we gone to war? When was it wise, and when was it foolish?’ There are no right answers to those two questions, and answers will change over time and experience.  Of course, students would have to explain/justify their answers, and the second question cannot be Googled.

Beyond EQs are the questions you ask students.  They, too, need to be open-ended.  When I was an elementary librarian a long time ago, I foolishly asked such questions as “What do we call the person who writes a book?”  Not only was there only one right answer, but students were aware I knew that answer and their job was to find it.  This is not deep, critical thinking.

Ask a good question and then wait.  It’s really hard to do this but you want to encourage thinking time.  When you get a response wait again.  This lets the rest of the class reflect on what was said. For a follow up ask, “Why do you think that?” “Does anyone have any other ideas?”  Make sure your tone is one of interest nq marksot judgement. It must feel safe. The answers aren’t wrong, they represent one way of looking at the question.

Encourage students to question what you say. It’s all about not accepting facts being given to you, but about exploring deeper to find out what’s underneath.  With you as a model, students can learn to create their own Essential Questions and to learn to ask quality questions rather than focus on being able to provide the right answer.

Your guidance will re-connect with the curiosity that is innate in humans and the quality and depth of what they research will improve.  Thinking about a topic and developing questions about it is intrinsic to Inquiry-based learning and lifelong learning.  Creating a safe environment for questions provide the foundation that will help students in everything they do.edutopia

I once again recommend you check out Edutopia on 5 Ways to Help Your Students Become Better Questioners.