Culture, Cognition, & Narrative: Navigating Current Events in Class (Part 2)

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My brain as I try to navigate the rocky terrain of current event discussions in our modern political climate.

This post is a continuation of Culture, Cognition, & Narrative: Navigating Current Events in Class (Part 1). In this post, I’ll explain how I created a context for students to apply their newly acquired knowledge of cognitive bias, cultural bias, and narrative, through a reflective Article of the Week sketchnote, and discuss their experiences through Marisa Thompson’s Thoughts/Questions/Epiphanies (TQE) Method, which I highly recommend.

Note for context: I teach an hour outside of Washington, D.C. in a fairly racially and culturally diverse school. Socioeconomically speaking, students’ families are typically middle to upper-middle class. Here’s an overview. Before engaging in discussion of these potentially sensitive issues, I work really hard to build a class culture of safety, inclusion, and empathy. It’s certainly not perfect, but I don’t engage in these discussions prior to laying the groundwork to make them possible. 


Phase 4: Applying our knowledge to current events

Now its time to let students apply their knowledge in more authentic contexts. For this phase, students consult www.allsides.com and choose a topic. Based on that topic they find two articles from ideologically conflicting sources and complete a reflection where they triangulate their two sources and their own cognitive bias. Here’s the graphic organizer I have them complete and a few student samples.

 

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For each article students had to complete the following:

  1. Bias Check: What cognitive and cultural bias did you experience reading this article? Share how it affected your perception of the content.
  2. Summary: Summarize the article in roughly the length of a Tweet.
  3. Analyze the Narrative: Who are the “heroes & villains” in the article. What “story” was it trying to tell and how could that affect people’s perception?
  4. Rhetorical Appeals: How did the author use ethos, pathos, and logos to persuade?
  5. Conceptual relationship: Make a conceptual relationship statement based on the articles you read.

Next, students come to class and have group discussions based on the content on their sketchnote. To facilitate this, I employ the aforementioned TQE Method and have had some amazing results. Asking students to generate their ideas, but also share them on the board for the class, creates an increased sense of accountability and pride for each group. Plus, they know the better the ideas they generate, the easier time they’ll have constructing their conceptual relationship statement at the end of the discussion. It’s a flexible, agile method to facilitate class dialogues that are supported with structure, but don’t restrict the conversation.

One thing is for sure, my students have blown my mind with the wisdom they’ve shown. Here’s a slideshow of some of their most impressive epiphanies.

 

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In addition to these epiphanies, we’ve also had some incredible conversations. A few of my personal favorite conversational topics:

  • Capitalism & competition aren’t inherently good or bad, but they cause a lot of our current societal problems: anxiety, divisiveness, fear, inequality, corruption, etc.
  • Language and labels often fail to communicate the complex ideas and systems they represent, so oftentimes we’re arguing more over definitions than discussing ideas.
  • Facts don’t matter as much as the frame they’re presented in.
  • We need to have empathy and listen to other people. Stories about people’s lives can cut through the politics and posturing and help us be more compassionate.
  • A lot of beliefs are based on stories that might offer psychological comfort (the wall, The American Dream, Democracy, etc.) but don’t actually operate the way those narratives suggest they would.

Phase 5: How does it all fit together?

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One of my instructional goals for this year was to be more intentional about ensuring all the lessons I teach contribute to broader, more easily transferable understanding.

I want to be clear about the fact that, though I have specific guiding questions I’m asking along the way, it’s pivotal that students are the ones exploring and expressing the relationships between these concepts. That is how they forge true understanding.

If you’re interested in the questions I ask and activities I do to scaffold that understanding, check out the Prezi I shared at the beginning of my post. The goal is less to have students come to a precise conclusion, but more to let them mix and remix their understanding over the course of the unit until they can write a generalization (a relationship statement between two or more concepts) that they can explain and defend with evidence.

After our TQE discussions, we co-construct one “big idea” understanding based on the epiphanies they generated. At the unit’s close, we’ll generate a “Wisdom Wall” where students have to pick the generalization they felt was most powerful, explain why, and provide examples.


My personal reflection

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Live footage of me internalizing any negative feedback I get from students as “Sound of Silence” faintly plays in the background.

Overall, I was really pleased with the procedures and norms I established, and my students offered a lot of positive feedback. I’ve compiled my thoughts in a list below based on two categories: strengths and areas of improvement.

Current Event Procedures: Strengths

  • Providing students a list of referents that plug in to a broader framework really helped them better understand a concept that is often oversimplified or overlooked.
  • Engaging in learning transfer became a key factor in our discussions. Not only did they make generalizations across articles, but they also started recognizing similar patterns and ideas in our anchor text for this unit, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
  • Focusing on dialogue over debate allowed for some really great, dynamic conversations during our table discussions and TQEs. I was impressed (for the most part) by their willingness to share their ideas with their classmates.
  • Giving the students freedom to take their table conversations and TQE discussions in different directions was beneficial. Even though the class dialogues always covered different topics and ideas, we always returned to the same concepts by the end of class. It was satisfying to see each class take a different route to the same understanding.
  • Affording students the trust and autonomy to have these discussions was powerful. A lot of them told me they never get a chance to have meaningful dialogue about current events and appreciated the opportunity. Some said it made them curious to pay more attention to current events and others said hearing people with different political/ideological views than they hold was an eye opening and enjoyable experience.
  • Building off of that, I was impressed by the number of students who said their favorite part of Current Events was just learning about what their fellow classmates thought about the world. Anything I do that helps my students be more empathetic is a win.

Current Event Procedures: Areas of Improvement

  • Taking my students feedback in to consideration, it might’ve been beneficial if I provided more structure for their topic selection. Instead of having students pick articles loosely grouped by politics, social trends, and economics I could let them pick a more specific topic (tax policy, campaign finance, gun control, etc.) instead. Our TQE would then allow us to form generalizations as a class based on each group’s epiphany.
  • Facilitating student’s ideological empathy and open mindedness takes work and I think there will always be room for growth here. Even though 99% of interactions were positive, I received one comment where a student said a person at her table was so dismissive of her ideas and opinions that it made her feel “smaller than she ever had before.” My heart sunk when I saw that. I failed that student.
  • Building off of that, I had a pair of boys in one class who seemed more interested in being right and boosting each other’s opinions than having a constructive dialogue. They were never outright rude or disrespectful or antagonistic (that I heard/saw) but there was a level of arrogance that I found frustrating and their classmates found exhausting. I’m fairly sure the aforementioned comment from above was a result of this group.
  • Determining how much of my own perspective to inject in to these discussions was something I constantly wrestled with. Unless kids are disrespectful, belittling, or discriminatory (in which case I’d drop the hammer), I try my best to remain a neutral moderator of discussion. Despite my own strong political opinions, I want students to think and believe for themselves. Finding the line between being neutral enough to keep them open to my questions and being complicit in their close mindedness was the most stressful part of this process. Any advice or ideas on this front are appreciated.

What my students said

Overall, students rated their experience with Current Event TQE’s as 4/5 “stars”. 
(If you’re interested, I can provide you with some of the raw data)

Finally, I wanted to highlight the top five comments I received (in no particular order):

  1. “The questions in the article of the week made me search for more information and forced me to explore and open up my mind to new thoughts and perspectives. The discussion was very fun because it allowed me to hear other interpretations and ideas generated from the article of the week. Since not all of us do the same article, it allows more diversity and a lot more to talk about.” 
  2. “Recently, I’ve examined my political beliefs and have solidified them, now that I’ve sought out more firm and factual reasons for them instead of purely emotional ones. Through this unit, I’ve gained a new understanding of my beliefs and also have been prompted to question why I think what I do.” 
  3. “It had me thinking more about how our issues are the same yet so different. We all see things in our own perspective but when we come together and talk about it, they may not be too different after all.” 
  4. “I liked hearing the different perspectives other people communicated. It was nice to hear differing opinions, and it was beneficial for us (as teens) to know what is actually happening in the world.” 
  5. “The fact that I was able to express my political views in then discussions. I also enjoyed the reminder of how fascinating news is, and I’m enjoying the new perspective taught to me by English class.”

I’ll let them have the last word, but I’d love to hear any ideas, questions, or feedback you have about what I’ve shared over the course of these last two articles. Until next time!

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