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Making Civics Real Workshop 7: Controversial Public Policy Issues  
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Workshop 7

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Teacher Perspectives: Her role in discussion

JoEllen Ambrose: I try very hard to model good questioning. I try to get them on a higher level of thinking. [To check] comprehension, I’ll ask, “What did you learn about that? Restate for me what you’re saying. Give me the basics.” To get to analysis [I’ll ask], “What arguments support this position?” I’ll often take the opposite position to get them to go further or I’ll ask a question that gets them to elaborate. [If they] just give the easy answer, I’ll say, “Have you thought about this? Or what about that? Can you elaborate?” For example, today they found it real easy to say partial racial profiling is okay. That didn’t define it very well so I said, “Let’s clarify, what do you mean by this definition?” Then you try to get synthesis. “Let’s take what you learned here and apply it to this new situation.” That’s a lot of what law is. “Now we have a new case. How does the law fit? Where is it similar? Where is it different?”

Especially in controversial topics, I really purposely think about where a particular comment is going. If there’s a lot of controversy because we’re not defining something, we’re not all on the same page. For example, “What exactly is terrorism?” If we can’t define it, I’ll say, “Can we accept this as a definition for terrorism and move on?” Let’s look at the next issue--a factual question. Ask them questions like, “What kind of source are you using? What’s the basis for that fact?” If that fact is true, to get them moving to the next level, [ask], “What kind of policy do you want to see as a result of that fact?” It’s a real simple technique, but it eliminates a lot of tension by [making] the assumption that it’s true or it isn’t true and asking, “What should we do about it?” If we disagree about policy, then what democratic values are we really arguing about? We’re arguing about equality. We’re arguing about how people should be treated fairly. We’re arguing about order in our society. All of a sudden, we’re back to values, which takes them to where I want to leave them.

Questioning is very difficult. I used to have every question written out because it was very unnerving. When they give me that quizzical look, I’ll ask the kids to paraphrase. “What do you think I just said, and did it make any sense to you?” I’ll get back, “No, it doesn’t make any sense at all because I don’t understand the word ‘disparity’.” That’s a great check for me because we’ve got to go back to the definition.

I try real hard to focus on what they’re saying instead of the emotion. I try to validate the student’s idea. Often, just paraphrasing what they say takes it to that different level. It puts it back to them to take it further, to respond. As a good social studies instructor, I was taught not to take a position but I’ve found that sometimes that’s impossible. It’s always better to be up front with your students. In this case, I think they could tell I was trying to be objective because we were looking at “Agree,” “Disagree,” and “Undecided.” In situations where I may have to own my opinion, I’ll tell the kids this is my position and a personal point of view. They need to hear from the teacher that they have an opinion as well.

I find oftentimes I do too good a job on the opposing viewpoint. Because they are students and they are at a certain age, you either have weight or you don’t. They may think, “Well, because she’s knowledgeable about this, her decision must be right.” I don’t want my authority as a teacher to be what persuades them. [On the other hand,] not all students are willing to accept the authority of the teacher. They might look to exactly the opposite because they want to counter that position. I really want everyone to feel [his or her] opinion has value and that [he or she can] bring out what might be an unpopular opinion.

I do a lot [of] affirming with nonverbal [behavior]. I say, “That’s a great point.” I think it validates their opinion and gives them permission to continue speaking and to express something that they might not be comfortable with. Sometimes we have discussions [that] become very personal. That would be a situation where I would kind of time out. These kids had ground rules, [e.g.], “We’re not going to judge people personally. We’re not going to interrupt.” I didn’t have to jump in and enforce any rules. In another class with this same lesson, I would very much have had to even physically stand by one person and say, “This is what he’s saying and we’re going to allow him a chance to say that, and it’s not going to be personal.”

My job as a referee is part of teaching controversial issues. I enjoyed today because I was really able to think about what they were saying and bring in a different situation--What about this? What about that? I could stay with the flow of the discussion. In other classes, the management piece might break the flow. I might have to say, “Wait a minute. This person is able to say this, and we’re not going to make it a personal attack. Let’s move on.” Sometimes that prevents the discussion from going smoothly. Sometimes it’s just the reminder people need, and we continue the discussion.

Really listening to the students is a challenge. I want to be sure we can focus and respectfully hear the different positions that come up. I get lost in our own little conversations. I really want to be able to respond without losing the whole but drawing out the one--getting kids to feel comfortable changing their viewpoints in a way that the class isn’t judging them.

If I can spark enthusiasm in the initial discussion that begins to help kids formulate their own questions about the topic, so when they look at the research they begin to say, “What about this? What about that?” and let their own curiosity take them to a deeper level, [I’ll feel successful]. [Another indicator is if they say], “Wait a minute. What about Minnesota? Is this an issue that concerns our state? Should it concern our state? What facts can we use to support it?” [rather than] “What do I need to do, and how should I explain it?"

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