This is the time of year when I teach George Orwell’s Animal Farm to my 8th graders. I lay a lot of ground work before they are ready to wrestle with the themes and controversies in this text. This is a book that examines, among other themes, the concept of the abuse of power as a result of the willful ignorance of the governed. A government that can get away with saying “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”
This year, more than any previous year, I felt the need to define controversy in an academic setting; what it is and what it is not. I told them that it is not throwing out an outlandish, unsubstantiated claim on social media in order to upset and shock. It is not yelling the loudest and most obscenely in order to drown out other voices.
I told them that, unfortunately, our political leaders were not representing the most mature and respectful ways of speaking to others with differing viewpoints; so we, in our classroom, will model how to do so.
Here is what I said to my students. “Controversy is when many people have many opinions that may sharply differ from each other. It is when there is much to say about a topic that carries a great deal of importance for many people.” I go on to emphasize that these opinions can be expressed in dignified and respectful ways.
I went on to provide them ground rules for the day’s activity which would be a four corners discussion. Posted in the four corners of the room, one in each, are four statements, “strongly agree” “agree” “strongly disagree” and “disagree”. A thematic statement is posted or announced by the teacher and the student proceed to the statement that best matches their current thinking. This is best done before the text is discussed. Students come with existing thinking; the text can then be used to challenge their thinking. The point of this activity is to provide students with an opportunity to express a opinion and to change it as a result of listening to others. The teacher can set up when it is appropriate for kids to change corners, if they wish.
The day’s theme is “All men are created equal”.
Here are the expectations and rules I presented in order to create orderly, dignified, and respectful discourse (Mitch or Paul, feel free to use any or all of these rules as you seem to have a need for them). There were no warnings and persistence is rewarded, not punished.
- Create your own opinion.
- Go to your corner in silence and remain there, in silence, in order to respect the thoughts of those around you. (I emphasize, repeatedly, the importance of allowing those around you the ability to think and reflect without interruption-it is a guiding principle in my classroom)
- Do not follow your friends or, conversely, avoid those with whom you have disagreed in the past. Go where your thinking tells you to go.
- Listen at all times. Do not interrupt.
- Remain silent if you would rather listen. An attentive silence is a sign of deep respect for other’s opinions.
- Avoid being politically correct. (This one always gets me a few puzzled looks-I tell my students that they are 13 or 14 years old and will likely say something that might inadvertently hurt someone’s opinions. I go on to say that as long as they are speaking from a place of kindness, then we will not be offended. I also say that I’ll provide the language, if needed, to make the statement less potentially offensive. For example, students always struggle with how to describe those with cognitive or emotional disabilities.)
- Today is not a discussion. Because these conversations about themes are new and challenging to many of my students, I don’t want them arguing with each other, yet. We can argue about a text but not about beliefs and ideas. Early adolescents are delicate creatures, despite the personas they may try to show. Feelings are easily hurt.
- We don’t gossip in the hallways. This is a safe space. What is said here is not thrown in anybody’s face later.
- Tell your parents/guardians what we talked about today. Get more ideas.
- You may move to another corner after we have talked for a few minutes. (I don’t want kids milling around the room while a student is sharing an idea).
The last bullet was a fail. And, I am still excited about that as I write about it several days later.
After explaining these rules, we began. I had the theme hidden on the front board. I revealed it and, after students had a minute or so (they don’t typically need much time to deliberate) to decide and move to a corner, I called on students with their hands raised. I don’t decide on a corner, I just start calling on kids from all corners. I take notes, capturing key concepts and ideas. I remind my students to listen. Students shared their opinions and ideas and I recorded them. I don’t call on kids who don’t have their hands raised. Not yet. One other important thing-I stay out of the conversation. I am the facilitator and note taker. Here is a photo that captures some of the key ideas generated by one class:
As you can see, some of the things they focused on whether they strong disagreed, disagreed, agreed, or strongly agreed as they discussed, “All men are created equal”.
- what people are born with (natural talents)
- what parents provide (nature versus nurture)
- equality in the United States compared to the rest of the world
- the impact of prejudice and stereotyping
The fifteen minute conversation was so rich, engaging, and thought provoking, that, within the first three to five minutes, I had kids literally sliding their feet toward other corners. When I asked what was going on, they responded with, “do we have to wait to move?” They were listening so attentively to each other and were so open to other ideas, that they were eager to move to support another opinion and to express a new idea. Of course, I told them to move as needed. It worked just fine. My classes average 28 students; 10-12 students in each class moved corners.
The hardest part of the lesson was concluding it. When I told them that I wanted them to have a few minutes before we left to write their ideas into their journals, I still had the class eager to share more ideas (to be honest, things were getting repetitive, so I was okay with putting those ideas on hold.) I left the notes on the board for them to use. I erased them before the next class arrived.
Provided with a safe and welcoming environment, a controversial topic could be discussed with dignity and maturity. I had many students ask “when can we do this again?” Good stuff.