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Issue 10, Spring 2013
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An Artful Thinking Classroom,
   Jessica Ross
Solving Real-World Problems With
Open Source Software
   Tim McNamara
Change Leadership For Learning,
   Tony Wagner
Deeper Learning In Common Core
Math Projects
   Sarah Strong
Design Thinking and the Shift
from Refrigerator Projects
   Lindsey Ott & Eric White
Deeper Learning For Professionals,
   Karen Fasimpaur
Gaining Perspective: Guiding
Student Reflection
   Tara Della Roca
A Differentiated Lesson, A To Z,
   Cara Littlefield
Taking A Stand On
Controversial Issues
   Mary Hendra
Scaffolding Creativity Through
Design Thinking
   Mindy Ahrens
Don’t Just Talk About
Character: Teach Habits
   Liza T. Eaton & Cyndi D.Gueswel
Teachable Moments: A Lesson In
Listening To Students
   Beth DeLuca
Mindsets and Student Agency,
   Eduardo Briceño

1: Energy Puzzles
2: Food For Thought
3: Historic Rap Throwdown
4: Turning Points, Toy Theatre
5: The End of the World Uncovered
6: Matter All Around
7: The Learning Landscape
8: Are You Fitter Than a 5th Grader?
9: The Great 9th Grade Odyssey

HTH GSE » UnBoxed » Issue 10 » method


Taking a Stand on Controversial Issues

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. 
—Margaret Mead

Agree? Disagree?  How passionately do you agree or disagree?  What evidence supports your stance?

What language is important as you decide where you stand on this statement?  “Never” or “only”? Is it significant that it is “citizens” or a “small” group?  What about an individual? What about a large social-networked movement coordinated through the Internet or through cell phones?

These are questions and statements I pose to students—and adult learners—after studying the Civil Rights Movement, most particularly a case study of the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. At this point, they know the history and the players involved.  They can talk about the telegrams to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the battle between Eisenhower and Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, and the role of the NAACP.  They know each member of the Little Rock Nine by name and have read narratives of student actions and perspectives from several of them as well as other students at Central.

Literally taking a stand on a statement like this helps them take their understanding to a deeper level.  This is called a “human barometer.”  It is similar to the “four corners” strategy where students choose whether they agree, disagree, strongly agree or strongly disagree.  However, the barometer recognizes that there is complexity in the question;  that a stance may include some agreement and some disagreement at the same time.  When students take a stand, they also listen to other students’ interpretation and evidence and regularly reconsider  their stance.  “Is my position truly this far over to one side or the other?” “Did my colleague convince me?”  I find this willingness to continue to take in new information an important part of students’ development of thought and application of the evidence they have been studying.

Why and When To Do a Barometer
Engaging in a barometer activity can be an effective pre-writing exercise before an essay assignment because it gets many arguments out on the table.  The barometer teaching strategy helps students share their opinions by lining up along a continuum to represent their point of view. It is especially useful when trying to discuss an issue about which students have a wide range of opinions.  It helps students refine their use of language, line up the historical evidence they can use to support or refute a statement such as Margaret Mead’s, and clarify opinion from fact—both in their own thinking and in that they hear from their peers.

How To Do a Barometer
Step one: Preparation
Identify a space in the classroom where students can create a line or a U-shape.  Depending on the space, you can also do this outside or in a hallway if it won’t disturb other classes. Place “Strongly Agree” and “Strongly Disagree” signs at opposite ends of a continuum in your room. Or, you can post any statement and then at the other end of the line post its opposite.  I like to use statements that have some ambiguity so that there is no one clear answer, and students will be able to wrestle with definitions as well as evidence.

Step two: Contracting
Set a contract for this activity. Since it deals with students literally putting themselves and their opinions on the line, it has potential for outbursts which result from some students not understanding how classmates can hold whatever opinion they hold. Reiterate your class rules about respect for the opinions and voices of others, and call for them to be honest, but not insulting. Re-address ways to constructively disagree with one another, and require that when offering their opinion or defense of their stance, that they speak from the “I,” rather than from an accusatory “You.”

Step three: Formulating an opinion
Give students a few minutes to reflect on a prompt or prompts which call for agreement or disagreement with a particular statement. For this particular barometer statement, students prepare by using Facing History’s “Choices in Little Rock” curriculum.  This is a rich curriculum which explores the legacies of segregation, the impact of Brown v. Board, and the specific case of integration of Central High School.  Students have the opportunity to explore the choices made by leaders, students, the media, and the community, and to identify the consequences of those choices.  As they prepare for the barometer activity, they can review the work they’ve done with this unit and/or the documents themselves.  It is also nice to let students journal personally about the prompt before taking a stand since they will have to explain their stance to others.

Step four: “Take a Stand”
Ask students to stand on the spot of the line that represents their opinion—telling them that if they stand on either extreme they are absolute in their agreement or disagreement. They may also stand anywhere in between the two extremes, depending on how much they do or do not agree with the statement.

Step five: Explain positions
Once students have lined themselves up, ask the students to explain why they have chosen to stand where they are standing. Ask students to take two steps out and face their peers as they talk about their stand.  This is an opportunity to share with each other, rather than defending their position to me, their teacher.  As they do this, only the person who has taken two steps out and turned to face the line should talk.  It is not a question and answer time with their peers—they should not be interrogated.  After they have shared, another student can step out of the line to share why they are standing where they are.  Encourage students to keep an open mind as they listen to their peers; they are allowed to move if someone presents an argument or highlights evidence that alters where they want to stand on the line.

Encourage students to refer to evidence and examples when defending their stance. It is probably best to alternate from one end to the middle to the other end, rather than allowing too many voices from one stance to dominate. Run the activity until you feel most or all voices have been heard, making sure that no one person dominates.

Step six: Debriefing
There are many ways you can debrief this exercise. You can have students reflect in their journals about how the activity changed or reinforced their original opinion. Or, you can chart the main for and against arguments on the board as a whole-class activity.

With Common Core reinforcing the importance of writing, I like to think of this as a strategy that front ends the deep thinking that will create better essays, better thesis statements.  After doing a human barometer, if I immediately set students to writing a thesis statement, their position is more nuanced, their thinking more complex, their evidence more grounded.

A Fun Variation
“The international community has a moral duty to intervene when human rights are being violated.”

This is a statement I pose after we’ve spent a bit of time studying the Armenian genocide.  It is another statement rich for debate and discussion! I introduce this after studying the Armenian Genocide with a resource book from Facing History and Ourselves.  Students understand the genocide by this point.  They know what happened, when, and who was involved.  They know that some individuals chose to rescue their Armenian neighbors while others stood by or even participated in the violence directed towards them.  I have also seen that at whatever time I ask, they recognize this pattern of intervention and non-intervention in other countries and situations at the current time. When I posed this statement in the early 2000s—a time when there was much discussion and disagreement about the US invasion of Iraq—a high concentration stood on the side of DISAGREE!  Students’ and teachers’ stances reflected a concern that “humanitarian intervention” was “an excuse for military invasion.”  A few years later, as Darfur took center stage in newspapers, many went to the AGREE end of the spectrum.

After giving an opportunity to discuss their personal stance, we take a whirlwind tour of individuals at the historical time period of the genocide itself to go deeper in understanding their choices and the impact of those choices.  We look at the words of Ambassador Morgenthau at different points in his progression of thinking.  Where would he be on this barometer?  We look at Clara Barton, organizing relief efforts in response to massacres of Armenians in the 1890s.  Where would we place her on the spectrum in comparison to the Congressional leaders at that same time who advocated the United States make a political statement against the massacres?  Does it matter what our capability for action is, how effective we are, or just what we believe?  We put their names on big post-its on the wall to show where they might be on the spectrum.  We move them around as we get additional people to put up on the wall.  We consider larger groups such as “American government,” and then rip those post-its apart as we find we need to understand the multiplicity of actors involved in a category like that.

There is no right answer.  It is the process of thinking which is so important.

This type of thinking and discussion is why I teach.  It is how we challenge and push our students to nuance and complexity.

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