Russell McBride & Jeremy Thomas
Between the election, Black Lives Matter, and the other problems facing the United States and the world right now, our students are exposed to lots of differing views on issues. One approach we’ve used to deal with this has been to present students with a current event each day and ask them to express their opinion. As we did these activities, it became clear that many students only know how to repeat what they were hearing at home or from the mostly biased news channels they were watching. We wanted to do something different, something more meaningful and hopefully more impactful. So, we came up with a pretty radical idea. We designed an entire course focused on inquiry. That’s right, we built a course where all students do are inquiries, all day, every day, every week, all year!
We’re learning a lot in this process. So far, we’ve learned that inquiries take longer than we anticipated. We want students to have in-depth experiences with sources and time to develop high-quality arguments. We also want students to spend a decent amount of time considering how the questions connect to current events. But, for us that was OK because our course is flexible enough to accommodate for extra time on each inquiry.
In this post, we describe our experiences teaching an inquiry on the question, “Did we overcome racism yet?” We found this the inquiry on the “Inquiry with the Library of Congress Resource Hub” (http://www.c3teachers.org/inquiry-with-the-library-of-congress-hub/), an online repository of inquiries and other materials developed by the Library of Congress and the Teaching with Primary Sources program. As we thought about teaching the inquiry, it was clear that we would need to stretch our students to step outside of their comfort zones. As we began planning for the racism inquiry (available here – http://www.c3teachers.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/TPS-Long-Civil-Rights-06-16.pdf), we decided to first have students write op-eds. They were asked to take on the persona of a Black Lives Matter activist, a police officer, or a politician. We thought this would stretch our students to think differently and enable them to see issues from multiple perspectives.
The inquiry includes interviews (videos and text transcripts) with a variety of African American leaders about their experiences with civil rights. We spent a week reviewing the interviews (including text and video versions) and analyzing the sources using Library of Congress analysis tools (http://www.loc.gov/teachers/primary-source-analysis-tool/) and an historical scaffold called SCIM-C (http://historicalinquiry.com). Students wanted to discuss some of the sources in depth so we had to limit the analysis, but students also appreciated working with different types of sources — both texts and videos. They also began to see the bigger picture of how the historical events discussed in the interviews might apply to current activist movements. Student engagement soared when we worked with the video interviews. It allowed them to put a face to the text and experience the emotion through the different views. Finally, we spent about three days developing questions for a public forum. This was the students opportunity to Take Informed Action. We decided at the beginning of the year that this inquiry would culminate with the students helping to host a forum to help them answer the inquiry question.
Students’ interest and experiences in the forum was evidence for us that our students realized there is more to the issue of racism than just their perspective. At the same time, we also wanted students to be able to see that civil discourse can exist among people who have differing opinions about issues in the U.S. We wanted students to have a personal investment in the forum, so they developed their own questions and moderated the forum discussion. The panel was made up of two educators, a pastor, the mayor of our local town, and a police officer from a neighboring community. Each member had a differing perspective on the questions the students presented, and their opinions divided sharply particularly on the issue of the Black Lives Matter group. By listening to these differing perspectives, students were able to witness and engage with multiple perspectives and the people behind these perspectives. They saw that people with differing views were able to talk civilly and do it in a way that made it clear they had considered what they believe and why they believe it.
We were so pleased with the outcomes of this inquiry as it culminated in the public forum. Not only did students learn about important issues related to race, but they experienced civil discourse on the topic and, we think, took a small but important and thoughtful step into the civic area. Below are some quotes from our students that we think support our view that this inquiry experience made a difference!
- The forum went even better than I imagined. The panel was great.
- I loved how we all the different points of view on racism from the community.
- It was really interesting to me the differing perspectives of the different members on the panel. It helped me see a perspective that I had not seen before.
- This inquiry has been an amazing unit because of being able to see what people with personal experiences and political views have seen.
- It allowed us to go outside of ourselves and to understand the backgrounds of those who have come from different places.
- The past inquiry helped me understand and realize the affects of the civil rights movement and how it impacted individual people.
- It is very important to understand and recognize different opinions and points of view. It allows us as students to be exposed to new ideas, which is essential in learning and forming our own opinions.
- I can now see what is happening for once. I feel like I was blind to the world and most of its problems.
- The last inquiry made me more aware of the racism issues going on in our country.
- It really gave me a perspective on how other people think about racism and not myself.