This past week, my students taught me a lot as sifted through the events of the world around us and tried to make some sense out of them. A few weeks ago, we began our work with our Inquiry Circle unit.
This week, our kids all had their topics and they were all in our groups. My team of fifth grade teachers had selected our own topic, access to education for girls around the world, and we were planning to use that topic to model the kind of thinking and learning and acting that we wanted our students to do.
And then, last Friday, the Muslim Ban happened. I, like much of the world, sat confused and frightened and disappointed and ashamed on my couch as I tried to read as much as I could about all that was taking place. Hoping to make some kind of sense out of something that just did not make sense to me. As I sifted through articles and websites and videos and interview and facts and opinions, I suddenly realized that I had found myself right in the middle of my very own inquiry circle.
And as I moved through the weekend, I put my fragile understanding of what was going on together with my wife’s developing understanding, and my friends’ developing understanding and eventually with my coworkers developing understanding. And together we put together what we knew and what we believed and what we understood to try to come to some understanding of something that continued to baffle us all.
And that. Is what I want to teach my students to do. I actually want to teach them to do better than me. Because I do what I believe most adults do. I seek out the sources that I know will agree with me and I read those to become informed. I do not always stop to notice whose perspective is being shown and whose is being left out. I do not always stop to think about if what I am reading is fact or opinion. I do not always take notice of the questions that are forming in my brain and hold on to them so that I can seek out additional information to help me to answer them. I certainly do not always notice when my own biases, misunderstandings and misinformation are affecting the way that I am reading a text or understanding an issue.
These behaviors. They stop me from always being able to understand an issue from all sides. And I know that they stop others as well.
And so I want to teach my students to do better. I need to teach my students to do better. Right now, it is the greatest hope that I have of us ever being able to fix this mess that we are in.
So I decided to bring the story of the Muslim Ban into my classroom in order to model for my students how we can go about learning about complex issues when we are constantly being overwhelmed by biased information. I do not want to hide these issues from my students. I do not want to hide the biased information from my students. I want to use our school curriculum in order to help them learn how to understand the curriculum that the world is giving us right now and in the future.
Two weeks ago, after we had chosen our inquiry circle topics, I began to model for my students how to synthesize information from a variety of sources. I modeled for them how to pull out pieces of information and facts as they read and to document how these facts added to their current understanding of the topics they were studying. I used THIS DOCUMENT to help me model how to pull out facts and write about how they added to our understanding.
Here are some of the anchor charts we used to help us understand synthesis:
At the end of a text, I modeled for my students how we could use the language of synthesis to help us pull away the big ideas from an entire text and then add those ideas into our current understanding of the issue that we were studying. Here is the anchor chart I used to introduce some language to help them with this synthesis:
After doing this work with online articles, we then repeated the same process with websites, videos and we will be doing infographics on Monday. Here are the charts that we used to talk about ways we are best able to read and synthesize information from each of those different sources:
Luckily, on this past Monday, the first day we were returning to school after the Muslim Ban was ordered, we happened to be already engaged in doing this work. We were ready to talk about how to read and synthesize information from videos. And so it was an easy decision to switch from the topic that I had been modeling and instead model the work I wanted my students to do in their inquiry circle projects and out in the world while sharing with them the very real work that I was doing in trying to understand the events of the past few days.
So I shared with my students my own observations about how I was learning about the Muslim Ban. And then I introduced the idea of using videos in order to gather information. And then I modeled using four different videos, representing a variety of media outlets and perspectives, and I modeled how I worked to pull out the facts and track my growing understanding. HERE IS A LIST of the resources and a few notes on how I used them so far and the infographic that I plan to use this coming Monday.
Now here is the where my own real learning came in. I planned to model my thinking. I planned to track my growing understanding. I planned to write down my own questions that I needed to find more information in order to answer. I planned to share this process that I wanted my students to learn while also giving them information on a current and important social issue.
What I did not plan for was just how eager my students would be to share their OWN thinking about this issue. I did not realize how much my students had already heard. I did not realize how many questions they came up with. I did not realize how many of their parents ideas they were carrying around with them.
But as children often do, they showed me right away how very wrong I had been. They had so much to share. And to be honest, I wasn’t ready for it. I wasn’t sure how to proceed. I didn’t know the best way to respond to their comments. Not the ones I agreed with and certainly not the ones that I did not agree with.
And then something incredible happened. A student in my room started to share a statement. He began with the words, “Well, my father told me…” And then the student stopped. He paused. Thought for a moment. And then he said, “Well, actually, I don’t really know if it is true, so I am going to ask it as a question instead…” and then finished his statement as a question.
And in that moment. I realized.
That is what we needed to do. We needed to be able to identify the things that we only THOUGHT we knew. We needed to recognize that perhaps we had heard something and maybe we didn’t fully understand it or maybe we knew there was another way to see it or maybe we just knew we didn’t know enough. We had to learn to state these misconceptions, these potential biases, these misunderstandings, these pieces of misinformation, to state them and then learn to push them into questions that would drive us to further information that would help us to really learn and understand.
So that is what we did. We conitnued to move through the videos. We continued to pull out facts and use writing to track our understandings. And then, we would stop when we noticed ourselves saying anything that began with, “Well, I heard…” or “My mom said…” or “Another kid told me…” or something similar and we would work as a class to push that into a question instead. And then, in real time, we would do a search, evaluate the sources we were presented with and find information that would help us to better understand what we only thought we had already understood.
So for example, when a child stated, “My dad told me that refugees could be dangerous.” We worked as a class to push that into the question, “How many refugees that have entered the United States have caused harm to people here in America?” And then we set off to find sources that helped us to answer that question. We then learned that since 9/11 there have been two documented cases of people who came into the United States as refugees who then actually carried out attacks on Americans. Two. And they were both from Somalia. We wrote down this fact and documented how it changed our understanding of the threat of refugees to us as Americans or to the safety of our country.
This work was amazing. By the end of the week, the kids were actually starting to catch themselves before they began a sentences with, “Well, I heard…” and more importantly, they were starting to ask questions and admit they needed more information. They were finding out what they needed to know and they were allowing their thinking to change.
And the best part was that at no point did I need to share my own opinions with the kids. At no point did I have to make anyone feel like they were wrong or their parents were wrong or that I was telling them what to think. All I had to do was to teach them how to recognize when they need more information. To teach them how to ask themselves, “How do I know that this is true?” and “How can I find out if this is true?” And then together we followed their questions and started to find answers.
And then they repeated this work with the topics that they had already chosen for their inquiry circles. Then they repeated this work on their own and with their groups. And I have to hope that one day, just maybe, they will go out into the world and repeat this process in order to make themselves more informated human beings.
And that. More than anything this past week. Has given me so much hope for this world.