Helping Students Recognize The Role of Emotional Response in Research

For a long time, I thought about research as the gathering of facts. I taught my students about research as a process of gathering facts. For a long time, I thought that emotions and a student’s emotional response to research and to reading played a very little role in the research process. And then, the election of 2016 came around and my understanding of what it meant to research, what it means to delve into a topic deeply and attempt to come out on the other side with greater understanding, all changed.

Last year, I wrote a three-part series about how I was working to rethink research in my classroom and how I was working to bring my students along with me through that process.  If you are interested, you can click here to read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of that series.  This year we are, again, engaged in this work of rethinking research as my students and I take on our inquiry circle project (which is what those three blog posts are all about). As mentioned in my Rethinking Research series, this work is based off of the incredible book, Comprehension and Collaboration, written by Stephanie Harvey and Harvey Daniels.  I have taken their concept and used it to guide my students through the inquiry process as they study self-selected, complex social issues by learning about those issues through multiple media sources.

This past summer, I helped to write the reading and writing curriculum for all of the fifth grades across my district.  And I made sure that our inquiry circle work was a part of our curriculum. So now, every fifth grade classroom in our district is engaged in this work.  This is wonderful.  This also invites questions and push back. One of the questions that I wrestled with this year is when teachers and parents asked, “Why do our young children have to tackle such difficult, and sometimes frightening topics?” It is a good question. It is one I am glad that people are asking because it invites dialogue and it invites reflection. Though our students are able to select their own topics, they often choose topics that are tough. However, one of the best parts of inquiry is watching how excellent students are at self-differentiating. The children who cannot handle the tougher topics, often know that about themselves and often choose to take on a topic like technology or pesticides. However, if we are going to have many of our students tackling the tougher topics, we had better be prepared to explain why.  And so, I sat with the question myself for a long time.

Why does it matter that we tackle the tough topics in fifth grade? Why can’t we do this same work with easier topics that still invite multiple perspectives. Topics like homework or cell-phones.  Why don’t these topics feel like enough? As I sat with these questions, I slowly started to realize that what was missing from these topics was the emotion, the heat that often arises from the conversations around tougher topics.  I know that parents and teachers want to protect our kids from feeling the heaviness of the world around them. I find that this is especially true of parents and teachers who work primarily with kids who live in privilege.  Our world. It is heavy. And those of us who are wrapped in privilege, often use that privilege as a way to isolate us from the rough and raw emotions that so many people in this world feel on a daily basis without a choice in the matter.  But this emotion. If we stop our children from experiencing it, then we are stealing from them a chance to learn how to recognize their own emotions and understand what those emotions might mean and the impact those emotions might have on their understanding of the world. If we do not dig into topics that will make our students feel something, then we cannot teach them ways to deal with those emotions and how they affect their understanding of what they are hearing and reading and learning.  And so they, like many of us, will grow up completely unaware of how their own emotions affect their reading and their understanding of the world and they will be the ones who are easily manipulated by the media and by others who use their own emotions to stop them from reaching full understanding.

So it is with that idea that we walk into this work. We walk into this work in order to arm our students with the skills that they will need to do better than we have done as adults.  Often times, teachers ask me where I get ideas for the lessons that I teach to my students. Many times, the answer is that I am inspired by those around me who have done this work long before me. But, also, I gain the ideas of what I want to teach my students by looking around the world and thinking about what I wish we, as adults, did better.  I think about what I wish the grown-ups around me were better able to do and then I think about how I might break those skills down and teach them to children so that they can do better.

And right now, when I look around the world, I wish that adults understood our own emotions better. When we read a headline and we automatically feel anger, we don’t always realize how quickly our brains shut down and we become incapable of reading on in order to understand.  When we hear a criticism about a group of people with which we identify, we often become defensive and render ourselves incapable of sitting with the discomfort that comes from knowing that we have done harm and that we can do better.  When we see an image, we feel sadness but we we allow that sadness to overwhelm us and stop us from looking beyond that single image and to the systems and laws and policies that allowed that image to come into existence in the first place. These emotions, could be used to help us to do better, but not if we are not aware of what they might mean and how we can “check” ourselves in order to ensure that our own emotions don’t get in the way of our understanding. This is what I wish we, as adults, could do better and so this is what I wanted to try to teach to my students.

And so…enter our inquiry circle work.  I will not spend time here detailing a how-to-run-inquiry-circles because that work can all be found in the three blog posts from last year that I linked at the start of this post. But, what I do want to share are the conversations that I added this year on how we can recognize our emotions as we research and “check” those emotions to ensure that they do not get in the way of our own understanding.

So in the second phase of our inquiry circle work, students have narrowed down their larger topics and are now finding their own resources that help them to build their understandings of those narrowed down topics. So, if a group was studying LGBTQ rights, in the second phase a student might have chosen to focus on transgender youth in schools. At this point in the work, they still have not formulated a specific claim, rather they are focused on gathering multiple sources that shed light on multiple perspectives connected to their topics that help them to understand their narrowed focus overall. So this happened to be the perfect time to introduce the idea of how our emotions impact us as readers, especially when we are reading to learn about complex issues.

The first chart that I shared with the students was this one:


Our first conversation centered around the idea that when we started learning about our topics, we were really just learning facts and these facts led us to what we know about our topics. But then, as we worked to notice the facts we were seeing and allow those facts to lead us to questions that helped us to notice whose voices we were hearing and whose voices were being left out, we let those questions guide us towards more sources that allowed us to see more perspectives. This pushed us past simply knowing facts and guided us towards understanding our topics. Now, we were at a point that we are able to deepen our understanding so that we can form beliefs and opinions that are based on more than just what our parents have said, that are based on more than the simple snippets found in sound bytes and headlines, but the kinds of opinions and beliefs that are based on real information from multiple perspectives.  Eventually, it will be these opinions and beliefs that will move us to action.

One of the ways that we can start to ensure that our beliefs and opinions are tied to actual facts and valid information is to constantly check our own emotional responses to what we are reading. This was our conversation on the first day of these phase of work.  At this point, my students were all knee-deep into their own research about their topics. So with those ideas in mind, I sent my students off to their own research and asked them to pay attention to some of the emotions that they were experiencing as they worked. We started a class list to brainstorm some of the emotions we noticed. As I conferred with students that day, I asked questions to try and find out what kinds of emotions they had been experiencing in this work so far. THIS IS THE NOTE TAKING DOCUMENT that my students are using in this phase of research, so we were able to look back at their notes together and talk about the emotions they had written about.  I added to our class list of emotions as students mentioned them to me.

At the end of that day, I took list of emotions from both of my classes and grouped them together until I was left with five big emotions that I thought we could explore together. Each day, we would tackle one of those emotions, talk about why we might be feeling each emotion as we did this work and ways that we could “check” those emotions to ensure that they did not get in the way of our understanding of our topic. Here are the two charts that I made that guided our conversations for the next five days:


You can clearly see the major points that we tackled on the charts above. I made these charts as I guide for myself, but what is missing from them are the incredible contributions of my students. Our conversations were so rich that I did not have time to capture their thinking in words on a chart. But here are some of the things we discussed:

Anger: This was probably our longest conversation as my students and I started to talk about the physical signs that we notice when we read something that we do not agree with. We talked about how we feel it in the pace of our heart, in the ways we are holding our hands, in the pace of our breath, in the “hot” feeling we get when someone is talking and we disagree with the first thing they say and then are unable to hear anything beyond that. We talked about how often times we get angry simply because of who is doing the speaking. Many students talked about how they see their parents react when a politician is shown on the tv, before the politician has even started to speak. I shared my own habits with anger and how it quickly disables my ability to hear. We also talked about how there is another kind of anger, the kind of anger that is a response to real injustice. We talked about how we can tell the difference between the two types of anger. How anger that stems only from disagreement can be a sign that we need to calm down, but anger that comes from the recognition of injustice, instead requires us to use that action to learn more or to do more.  We talked about being aware of which type of anger we were feeling with our research.

Sadness: This was a big one for the topics my students were tackling. These are all self-selected topics, so students tend to chose the kinds of topics that they feel ready to take on. But one of the things that came up in our conversation about sadness is that sometimes feeling heavy sadness when researching can be a sign that they need to step away and take a break. One student, who was in an inquiry circle group studying North Korea, told me about being brought to tears while listening to a woman who escaped from North Korea tell her story about what it was like to live there. The student shared how sad he felt and how overwhelmed he became by the story and how he had to pause the story, take a walk and then come back and finish. While I whole-heartedly believe that our students are ready for this work, I, too often, forget to teach the importance of self-care to students when doing this work. These are skills I wish I had learned and I was grateful that they came up in this conversation. We also talked about how sometimes, sadness can be a reaction to one single story or image, but if we sit in our sadness, it can actually limit us and stop us from pushing farther in order to understand the context of that one story and how it was allowed to happen. We talked about the single images of refugee children, the young boy whose body washed up on shore and the other young boy, pulled from the rubble and covered in white ash. These images made us sad. But if we stopped there, we would never understand how these images came to be. If we let ourselves become consumed by the sadness, we wouldn’t be able to work to understand the systems that allowed these sadnesses to occur and then we would be powerless to try to change them.

Defensive: This was a really tough one for my students. I teach many students who fall into multiple categories of privilege. Many come from white, wealthy, American-born families. And so, in this work, the work of understanding current social issues, they are often confronted with statements about groups that they find themselves a part of and the difficulties those groups have created for other, marginalized groups.  So there is a lot of defensiveness and also shame that comes up. My job is to walk the kids through that. One of the ways I can do that is to help them understand that these are not personal attacks, these are attacks on unjust systems. Systems that, yes, we are a part of. Systems that, yes, sometimes we have benefitted from. But the attacks on the systems are not attacks on us. I want them to see that difference. Because one leads people to shut down and defend and the other can lead people to learn more and work to change those systems. I was amazed at the way my students were willing to wrestle with this idea. In one of my classes, the three white boys who were studying racism in America stepped up as real leaders as they talked about the guilt they felt in learning about the systemic racism that exists in our country, but that instead of feeling personally attacked, it made them instead think about what changes they could help to make. It was a really powerful conversation to be a part of.

Fear: This conversation was probably the one that most resonated with the current events unfolding around us.  I began the conversation by talking about how the group that was studying gun violence in America began their learning focused on school shootings because that is what felt scariest to them. It was what they felt most connected to. However, as they did their research, they realized that their fear was tied not to the problem that was the largest, but the problem that felt like it would most likely affect them. In this case, their own fear, limited the scope of their understanding of the problem of gun violence. As they did more research, they learned that the biggest problems in this country around guns involve suicide and homicide, not mass shootings. Once they saw past their own fears, they were better able to work to understand the problem overall. This was where we started, but then the conversations in both of my classes turned as the students started to talk about how fear can also be used to manipulate people by exaggerating a specific problem or making something seem like a problem when it might not be. This conversation then turned towards the recent conversation about illegal immigrants and the groups who were studying this topic talked about how the facts that they had found did not support the fear that was being spread about the danger that illegal immigrants posed to the country.  It was amazing to watch fifth graders really analyze how fear was being used as a way to convince people of a solution to a problem that potentially might not even exist.

Hopeful: The last emotion we focused on was hope. I talked about how important it is to find hope in this work. I shared with them that for me, hope often comes from seeing the young people who are becoming involved in the fight for justice or from looking at the people who have spent their entire lifetimes engaged in this fight. But I also wanted the kids to be careful of hope. So we talked about how when we felt hopeful, we needed to make sure that the people who were most directly affected by a problem were also the ones benefitting from a potential solution and, more importantly, that their voices were being heard and centered when it came time to determining a solution. We talked about the desire to send things like teddy bears after a school shooting. This feels hopeful. It makes many of us feel good, but is this really what is most hopeful to those involved and is this an action that will result in larger change? If not, we want to be careful and keep looking for more.

Each day, when we discussed a specific emotion, that is what I focused my conferences on as the students were working. As they continued to take notes, I continued to push them to identify what they were feeling about what they read and how those emotions were influencing their understanding and their developing beliefs. We referred to the charts often as we thought about next steps to help us “check” our emotions and not allow them to limit our understandings.

After two weeks of this work, I asked the students to USE THIS DOCUMENT in order to synthesize their current understanding. I asked them to think about everything they had read in this phase of research and then do some reflecting on their current beliefs. What do they currently believe to be the biggest problem and what is that based on. And what do they currently believe to be some steps that might be taken to work to solve that problem and what is that based on. This synthesis will then guide us into our action phase of this work where they will work with their groups to use writing in order to ask for change from those who are most likely able to create it.

And so this is my why. This is what I come back to when people wonder why I ask my students to tackle these difficult topics. It is not just because these topics are engaging and self-selected and important, it is because these topics allow us to practice the kinds of skills that are lacking so very much in the world around us. And I truly believe that if more people were able to acknowledge the role their own emotions play in their understanding of the issues that divide us, then we would be much more capable of finding our way back together in a way that allows for more justice, more compassion, more change in the right direction. And so we lean in to this work and we continue to grapple with the emotions that we feel and along the way, it is my deepest hope, that we may inch ever closer towards a better understanding of our world and of each other.

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