By Brenna R. Kelly
The history of the United States is rife with conflict, yet teachers often try to avoid wading too deep into the mire.
Not Ryan New, he dives in head first.
“I value the conflict, because I know that it’s going to make my students better off,” said the Boyle County High School social studies teacher. “I want my students to feel discomfort when they are in my class. My job isn’t to make students happy, it’s to make students prepared for the rest of their lives.”
At the Kentucky Historical Society’s Kentucky History Education Conference in July, New explained to social studies teachers how he tackles controversial topics in history and government and why doing so is vital for their students and society.
“I think a lot of teachers just move on from the controversy. They say, ‘This is what happened, we can’t change it, we’re not going to stop and get into it,’” he said.
But getting into it is exactly what living in a democracy is all about, New said. Students need to know how to participate in a democratic society, how to talk to people with opposing views without getting into a shouting match, how to listen to those opposing views and then evaluate the arguments.
“Democracy embodies conflict at its very core,” New said. “If we lived in a dictatorship, there’d be no conflict, only obedience, complacency, but in a democracy it’s imperative that we each speak.”
New’s approach makes history and government relevant to his students because they can see how the issues relate to present-day controversies, he said. For example, they can explore how the racial unrest after an unarmed African-American was shot by police in Ferguson, Mo., can be traced to discriminatory housing policies or how a U.S. Supreme Court decision about same-sex marriage hinged on an age-old issue of the balance of power between the federal government and the states.
“I don’t mind for things to get messy,” he said. “I don’t mind to talk to the parent who has a question about why it is that I’m presenting information to their student.”
New prepares his students for the topics by asking broad framing questions about an issue, then getting out of the way. By using inquiry-based learning, he allows his students to explore the topics and come to their own conclusions.
“Inquiry removes the teacher from the situation,” he said. “The teacher is the one who front loads and frames a lot of this, but at the same time the teacher is outside of this.”
New provides his students with several sources on each side of an issue, students then follow the inquiry arc laid out in the C3 Framework. The inquiry arc calls for developing questions and planning inquiries, applying disciplinary concepts and tools, evaluating sources and using evidence, and communicating conclusions and taking informed action.
The method allows students to learn a process that they can apply to any type of information, he said.
“I could fill their heads with dates and facts, but what happens when I’m not there,” he said. “What happens when they encounter something new later on; how are they going to make sense of that?”
Helping students develop these types of critical thinking skills is a hallmark of good social studies instruction, said Lauren Gallicchio, Kentucky Department of Education social studies consultant.
“These skills will allow students to determine distinctions between truth and fallacy while crafting their own answers to tough questions,” Gallicchio said. “It will also enable students to develop the ability to make informed decisions as citizens of a democratic society in an interdependent world.”
New’s former student Jordan Smith – who also spoke at the conference – said the framing, disposition, discussion, inquiry and outside sources were the key to successfully exploring a controversial topic.
“If you don’t have one of these things, they all kind of fall apart. They all go to help each other and build on each other,” she said.
When the students tackled gender, they started with framing questions about what does it mean to be a man today and what does it mean to be a woman today. When the class discussed the issue, it was student-led, Smith said.
“Mr. New probably spoke twice the entire day,” she said. “It was really cool when there were 30 students in the classroom and we could hear everyone’s thoughts. We could build off each other.”
New said students choose how to discuss an issue. Sometimes they submit questions anonymously and sometimes they use the fishbowl method, where two students sit in the middle and discuss the issue while the group listens. Each student rotates through the fishbowl.
Former student Wesley Wei explained how the class looked at the gay rights movement through the lens of why certain movements are successful. Students had the option to write a research paper or create an inquiry-design model (IDM) on the topic. An IDM is a one-page blueprint with supporting questions to frame an inquiry, performance tasks that allow students to communicate their conclusions and sources that allow students to understand the content and support their conclusions.
Wei wrote an IDM called “What makes a movement successful,” which is published on the C3 Teachers website. New plans to use the IDM in his classes this year.
When the students were talking about the gay rights movement in their classes, Wei said students in other classes heard about what they were doing.
“People were more interested than turned off,” Wei said. “They just wanted to see what we were doing.”
Tackling that controversial topic of gay rights paid off when the Obergefell v. Hodges case – the Supreme Court case that legalized same sex marriage – was a test question on the AP Government exam, New said.
“My students rocked that section,” he said, “because most people won’t teach the Obergefell case because it’s gay marriage.”
Kim Sergent, a regional instructional specialist for the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative who attended the conference, said she knows there are teachers who will avoid controversial topics, but they shouldn’t.
“We no longer live in a time where our content and our curriculum is isolated,” she said. “We are way out of that. It’s not a generic curriculum anymore; it’s lively and most importantly it’s very organic to our students’ lives.”
Sergent said she hoped to use some of New’s ideas to show teachers in her co-op that they can allow their students to discuss controversial topics.
“How you frame that controversy is absolutely crucial,” she said, adding that teachers have to make sure students understand that the classroom is a safe place to have these types of discussions.
“When you hand over the reins of learning to the students,” she said, “they will become so empowered that they will become protective of that safe environment.”
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