Recently, I taught my seventh-graders in West Virginia about the Syrian refugee crisis. I also asked them to write argumentative essays in response to President Donald Trump’s refugee ban. By the end of the unit, many students surprised me with their comprehension of the issues and their ability to empathize with and argue for people who live half a world away, and who are culturally different from themselves.
Before we started the essays, I needed my students to understand the true consequences of the ban. Students arguing for both sides were passionate, so I had their attention. But the students needed to see things from alternate perspectives. Students for the ban initially did not see its impact on Syrian families fleeing violence, and students against the ban did little to understand President Trump’s reasoning for it. I knew I had to get these teenagers in the heart of Appalachia to understand the arguments underpinning both sides of the issue before they could thoughtfully write about it.
Because of the subject’s timeliness, I found many relevant resources to guide my students. Newsela presented plenty of nonfiction articles, which I drew from to offer my students a variety of texts at different reading levels. I also found a number of online videos. The YouTube channel of the Canadian news program The National was particularly useful, supplying informative and age-appropriate videos about the refugee crisis.
I also used resources that fostered interaction among students in small-group discussions. The groups explored true stories about refugees’ lived experiences and deepened that learning by creating montages using the Shadow Puppet Edu app on iPads. These activities opened their eyes to the horrors of the refugee crisis. And because the activities were done in small groups, students discussed what they learned as they learned it, helping them articulate their feelings about the issue in a low-stakes way.
To challenge some of my higher-level students, I presented two poems, Emily Dickinson’s “If I Can Stop One Heart from Breaking” and Bai Juyi’s “Bitter Cold in the Villages.” In small groups, students discussed the poems’ focus on compassion, and as they had already been learning about Syrian refugees, many students clearly saw the connection.
As my students pored through all of these resources, I made a conscious decision to not require certain things. Let me first explain why.
I remember being a student myself, the teacher giving the class a text and telling us to take notes as we read. We filled out graphic organizers, K-W-L charts and reading journals. Sometimes it was a list of questions, and as we read a text or watched a video, we had to find answers to those questions.
I also remember finding myself only paying attention to the questions or only worrying about filling up the graphic organizer. Once the questions or the organizer were complete, I tuned out. I stopped paying attention, and I didn’t care about what came next.
Note-taking while reading or watching can be an effective strategy, but teachers also run the risk that students will tune out once they reach the required amount of notes. Or students may find themselves only listening for certain facts and ignoring other vital information. Students can get overwhelmed and apathetic because many teachers use these often-useful activities as busy work. I have made that very misstep in the past.
As my students learned about the refugee crisis, I did not want them to grow apathetic. I did not want them to feel like the research was a chore. I wanted them to immerse themselves in information so that, when it came time to put pencil to paper, they could draw upon their knowledge of the issue and truly argue their side. I wanted them to present their claims with passion, thoughtfulness and intelligence—but also with respect and empathy for the other side.
So, I just let my students read. When it came to videos, I just let them watch. They didn’t take notes. They didn’t fill out graphic organizers.
This is, after all, how I educate myself as an adult. I find a subject and fall down an internet rabbit hole exploring the subject, reading all I can about the given issue until I have a thorough understanding. I figured that seventh-graders could learn in much the same way.
Near the end of the unit, I overheard two students debating the ban. Both students supported the ban, though one student took a hardline approach, arguing that refugees should be banned forever. The other student argued that banning refugees forever would be un-American and inhumane. This second student cited the words on the Statue of Liberty—“Give me your tired, your poor”—as evidence that the United States doesn’t turn people away. Though this student argued for a temporary ban in his final essay, he empathized with refugees in that moment and drew on what he had read as a basis for his empathy.
I knew then that I had gotten at least one student to see things differently. I was probably doing something right.
Webb is a seventh-grade English teacher at DuPont Middle School in West Virginia.
Editor’s note: This post is part four of a series on teaching and learning how to know in 2017. Find part one, a discussion of key terms from cognitive science and media literacy, here. Find part two, a classroom example of teaching about confirmation bias, here. Find part three, a window into a classroom discussion on trust and knowledge, here.
Philosopher Michael P. Lynch writes in his famous book In Praise of Reason: Why Rationality Matters for Democracy, “When you can’t agree on your principles of evidence and rationality, you can’t agree on the facts. And if you can’t agree on the facts, you can hardly agree on what to do in the face of the facts.” This observation holds importance for teachers because understanding how students learn to think and know is an essential part of teaching. This understanding is especially urgent in what many are calling the post-truth era (or the post-trust era), in which shared assumptions about truth, rationality and knowledge have been eroded.
That’s where epistemology comes into play. This field of philosophy and cognitive science examines how we know and what underlies principles of evidence and rationality. Epistemological questions are about what makes something fact and the conditions under which something could be held as true knowledge. For example, epistemological inquiry involves questions like “How do we know what we know?” and “What is the difference between fact and speculation?” Epistemological development, a small field within cognitive science, refers to how we come to build, define and evaluate knowledge.
For teachers, understanding epistemological development—and designing curricula to advance it—is a crucial part of preparing students for the complexities of the world.
The research of Deanna Kuhn, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, shows that students’ epistemologies develop predictably. In her book Education for Thinking and in her research, she describes the progressive stages of epistemological growth. The youngest children are “absolutists/realists” who believe that facts arise directly from the world through observation. For them, knowledge is certain, not meant to be questioned and originates in an external source.
As children become adolescents, they come to see “knowledge, once entirely objective … as entirely subjective.” They become “relativists” who see all views as inherently equal and reducible to perspective or opinion. And they also easily conflate facts with opinions.
The most-refined epistemological level, what Kuhn calls the “evaluativist stance,” is not so easily reached. Evaluativist knowers can distinguish between fact and opinion, can synthetize multiple causes when dealing with complex events, and can articulate coherent arguments based on knowledge and logic. They aspire not toward neutrality, in which all perspectives are tolerated, but toward objectivity, in which common standards of logic and rationality are applied to ideas and viewpoints. To me, that sounds a lot like the kind of civic participants we need in today’s world.
An understanding of this epistemological progression can help teachers better support their students’ development of robust thinking and knowing skills. Kuhn’s research has led her to argue that a curriculum based on inquiry and building rhetorical argumentative skills are two strategies for promoting advanced epistemological development.
As students are exposed to others’ ideas and ways of thinking, they come to see that much of what they’d previously experienced as factual is based on subjective assumptions. (The Stanford History Education Group’s “Lunchroom Fight” is a good example of curriculum designed to accelerate this growth.) More difficult is to push students past relativism and toward a more evaluativist approach that applies consistent criteria and evidence-based, coherent viewpoints. Like most cognitive habits, this is a disposition that requires practice and refinement. Students can be evaluativists in one domain but lapse into non-evaluativist ways of knowing in others.
Epistemological development is also well supported by a metacognitive approach that allows students, in learning about their own thinking, to better learn how to know. As Kuhn puts it, “To be competent and motivated to ‘know how you know’ puts one in charge of one's own knowing, of deciding what to believe and why and of updating and revising those beliefs as one deems warranted.” This means asking students to reflect on what and how they’re learning, to study themselves as thinkers, and to scrutinize their assumptions and viewpoints.
In a time when intense polarization, fake news and echo chambers make it harder to learn to know well, we need to empower students to develop robust epistemologies built on a shared reliance on logic, evidence and rationality. Doing so will help them resist oversimplification, counteract motivated reasoning and seek to make connections between ideas and among people.
In today’s world, to be informed means more than just having information; it also means having a well-developed understanding of the nature of knowledge and how we think. The charge for teachers, then, is difficult but clear.
Gold is a seventh- and eighth-grade history teacher at Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island.
We’re excited to announce that Teaching Tolerance has won six REVERE Awards, given by the Association of American Publishers! These awards “identify and honor high quality resources that educate learners of all ages, in all media, and in all educational environments, both in and beyond the classroom.”
The top awards, called the Golden Lamp Awards, will be given when the AAP celebrates this year’s winners at its annual gala in May. We’re up for two Golden Lamps, so we hope to have more news then (fingers crossed).
Meanwhile, please join us in celebrating these wins—we owe them to you and the work you do for students each day.
Lesson Series on Immigrants
Best Social Science and History Supplemental Resource
With all the political debate about immigration happening in our country and around the world, you may be looking for ways to teach about this important topic. Help your elementary students discover what they have in common with young people around the world with two lessons on immigration and immigrant experiences. These collaborative and highly engaging lessons are aimed toward grades 3–5 but can easily be adapted for older and younger students.
STEM Lesson Series
Best Science, Health and Environment Supplemental Resource
This series of lessons explores the work of STEM professionals, examines the underrepresentation of women and people of color in STEM, and considers ways to encourage diversity in these fields. Students get in touch with their “inner scientists” as they explore the varied work of scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians and discuss possible reasons that prevent various groups from being equally represented in STEM careers. The theme of this series is “STEM for all!”
EDITORIAL AND DESIGN WINNERS
Teaching Tolerance Magazine
Best Overall Editorial in Professional Magazines
Best Overall Publication in Professional Magazines
Teaching Tolerance magazine provides teachers, administrators, librarians and counselors with the knowledge and support they need to be effective anti-bias practitioners and advocates for equity and justice in schools. This publication distills complex topics and innovative research into digestible features. Recent topics include political polarization, whiteness and school resegregation and closures. Subscriptions are free to K–12 educators in the United States and Canada. Sign up today!
Teaching Tolerance Magazine, Fall 2016
Best Single Issue Editorial in Professional Magazines
The Fall 2016 issue of Teaching Tolerance helps teachers navigate the 2016 election by unpacking topics such as voting rights, civil discourse and political polarization in the classroom. A particularly popular feature, “No Time Off,” delves into the heavy responsibilities many students face when they leave school for the day. The issue’s most-read feature, “Don’t Say Nothing,” addresses another timely topic by empowering educators to teach about police violence.
"Anatomy of an Ally"
Best Feature in Professional Resources
When educators witness students facing oppression based on their identities, caring is not enough. This feature explains how to be a “teacher ally”—a teacher who works to fully understand their own identity and privilege, and who commits to dismantling systems that silence students and colleagues. This feature also explains how to breathe new life into the classroom and the curriculum to support marginalized students.
Best Illustrations, Graphics and Photography
When learning about people of races, ethnicities, religions or nationalities that differ from their own, students—and everyone else—tend to focus on the differences. But learning with international films can help students explore themes that connect people across space and time. “Reel Life” offers teachers strategies to do just that.
EDITORIAL AND DESIGN FINALISTS
"Shifting Out Of Neutral"
Best Feature in Professional Resources
History teachers have a unique opportunity to cultivate morality in the classroom. Rather than leave their objectivity at the door, the author of “Shifting Out of Neutral” encourages teachers to give honest attention to the roles that power and privilege play in the narration of history and historical injustices. By owning and assessing their biases and providing evidence for their viewpoints, both teachers and students can develop strong moral views necessary for making change.
"No Time Off"
Best Illustrations, Graphics and Photography
Millions of students in the United States carry heavy loads, juggling school with employment, caregiving, parenting or some combination thereof. This feature examines common challenges that students with large out-of-school responsibilities face. It also shows how educators’ awareness of these responsibilities isn’t enough; students also need supportive advocates within their schools.
Oh, United Airlines. You’re trying. You really are. But your repeated explanations about why your gate agent turned away two girls (and delayed boarding a third) for wearing leggings this weekend isn’t going over well with critics. Here’s why.
1. Your explanation rings hollow. You’re pinning your response on the fact that the girls were not paying customers but “pass travelers” and thus subject to a dress code out of respect for its customers. The dress code also states that pass travelers should look "neat and professional" and prohibits form-fitting or spandex tops, pants and dresses, T-shirts with derogatory language, and clothing that is "excessively dirty,” worn or "inappropriately revealing.”
First of all, how are the paying customers going to know who is flying as a pass traveler and who isn’t? Secondly, publically shaming anyone—paying or not—and then denying them services not only humiliates that person but also causes a disruption for everyone, escalating stress in the already stressful airport environment. It also sends the backhanded message that you think all leggings are inappropriate (even though you say otherwise), but keep it to yourself because you know you can’t force your customers to wear loose-fitting clothing. If maintaining good customer relations is the goal, how exactly does this action accomplish it?
2. Your policy—and the way it was enforced—relies on sexist norms. These legging-wearers may not have been paying customers, but they are young women and girls (the youngest was reportedly 10) who were publically told that their bodies were too visible and therefore that they lacked decency. Why? Because girls’ bodies are inherently desirable? Distracting? Sexy? To whom, exactly? And why are we privileging the feelings of a possibly distracted mystery person over the freedom to dress oneself? If anyone ever needed an example of what mainstream sexism looks like, this is it.
3. You’re not listening to the public. Customers quickly took to social media Sunday morning, protesting the gate agent’s actions and the policy. Instead of admitting you have some work to do, you doubled down on the correctness of the gate agent and issued a dozen different versions of the classic non-apology: “I’m sorry you were offended.” For anyone who has ever spoken truth to power, this response is maddening. It is essentially a polite way of making the victim (or those defending the victim) the problem.
United, believe it or not, there are many school administrators around the country who identify with the pain of this debacle. As an organization that provides resources to educators, we help school leaders grapple with these dynamics daily. Many of them have learned the hazards of setting different standards for different groups, enforcing dress codes that target a particular identity and sticking stubbornly to zero-tolerance rules that ultimately cause more negative consequences than they prevent. That’s why many schools are moving away from policies that rely on policing students. Consider reading this article about how to do it.
And even if you don’t, for Pete’s sake, just apologize. You’re a multinational corporation. They’re children. Talk about lack of decency.
van der Valk is the deputy director for Teaching Tolerance.
The Atlantic: “In all likelihood, vouchers will lead to more racial, religious, and socioeconomic segregation in schools.”
CBS News: “Sesame Street has always based its characters and content on extensive research. ... In the case of Julia, they also worked with autism organizations to decide which characteristics she should have and how best to normalize autism for all children.”
Education Week: “My job as an educator is not to perpetuate an oppressive system, but rather to give students the tools to dismantle it. Ultimately, that’s what the canon has often been. It’s been a way to silence the stories of those not in power by claiming they lack importance or influence.”
The Guardian: “‘The Mercator [map] projection is a symbolic representation that put Europe at the center of the world. And when you continue to show images of the places where people’s heritage is rooted that is not accurate, that has an effect on students.’”
The Hechinger Report: “The GNETS [Georgia’s Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support] system violates the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, both by segregating children with disabilities and by denying them access to an equal education.”
The Huffington Post: “The Monroe Work Today research group launched a map earlier this year that allows users to discover the roughly 4,770 people of color lynched in the United States from the 1830s to the 1960s.”
National Public Radio: “We still don’t know is whether students who escape suspension under new discipline policies will eventually end up better off.”
NEA Today: “This glaring gap between policy and practice ... suggests the global community is ignoring its responsibility ‘to help children and youth who have fled regions affected by armed conflict go to and stay in school.’”
The New York Times: “Iowa is one of 31 states where legislators have proposed creating or expanding school choice programs this year, without Washington even lifting a finger.”
The New York Times: “Museums that preserve and present the truth are also fighting revisionists and Holocaust deniers who are increasingly vocal on the internet, and who are confusing the public, at a time when firsthand accounts of the Holocaust are fading.”
The Washington Post: “The ‘evidence is overwhelming that the unjustified incarceration of African American fathers (and, increasingly, mothers as well) is an important cause of the lowered performance of their children’ and of the racial achievement gap.”
If you come across a current article or blog you think other educators should read, please send it to email@example.com, and put “What We’re Reading This Week” in the subject line.