Saturday, November 12, 2016

Getting Traction on Critical Thinking

AP English 11 students work to put Emerson's paragraphs in order, using critical thinking, inference, and their notes.

Nobody is against teaching critical thinking. We’re just always looking for ways to get traction on something we can’t actually see. It’s like the wind: we can see what it does, but we can’t see IT.

That’s why I’m always excited when I feel like I catch a glimpse of IT. Like 2 weeks ago, when I posted about an exercise in ordering paragraphs of an assigned reading with my 10th grade class. 

This week I did a similar exercise with my 11th grade AP students. And, as appropriate for the step from 10th grade to 11th grade, it was a little more complex. Mostly the reading itself was more complex: rather than being a modern author, it was Ralph Waldo Emerson. I was hesitant to try the exercise: as I looked at the Emerson reading, I thought, “The paragraphs are so much longer than in modern writing, most containing what would now be several paragraphs, and the transitions are by no means obvious.” And then I thought, “But if students can articulate those 2 thoughts themselves as a result of this exercise, it will be a score for critical thinking. And there ARE relationships between the paragraphs—but they are by concept, by logical argument development, and not by obvious transition words.”

And understanding each of 10 paragraphs from an excerpt of “Education” WAS the assignment, summarizing each in one line.

So I copied the 10 paragraphs, cut them apart, and for the beginning-of-class exercise, asked pairs of students to arrange the paragraphs in the order they thought best—from their understanding of the development of Emerson’s argument—without looking at their notes or at their texts. 

Then, when they had the best order they could come up with, they could get out their notes—their one-line summary of each paragraph—compare between partners, and compare to the ordering of their paragraphs, making changes if necessary. (I overheard remarks like, “Are we talking about the same paragraph?” Hmmm. But that will spur them to look more closely later!)

Finally, they could get out their text to check. Then they were to create a diagram somehow representing the development of Emerson’s argument. (I modeled the first 4 paragraphs on the board: Claim => Counterclaim + rebuttal => 2 points of education [genius & drill] with balance of paragraph spent defining “genius” => 1 long anecdotal example of genius.)

I’m excited because I saw students really discussing Emerson’s ideas—what he meant in a paragraph, and how that relates to the ideas in the other paragraphs. Here are some of the things students said in exit tickets that they learned:
  • I learned about the ideal education as well as some good places to put examples.
  • I learned that if I enjoy what I do I’ll continue to get better. I not only need my experiences, but others’ as well.
  • I realized, after we put [the paragraphs] in correct order, that Emerson has an argument that builds up throughout the essay.
I’m also excited because students will be grappling with multiple perspectives. Before this old, dead white man’s ideas about education, they’d read a modern, upper-middle-class white woman’s perspective (Francine Prose, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read”). Next they will read the perspectives of a Native American man (Sherman Alexie, “Superman and Me”), an African-American man (James Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers”), a Japanese-American woman (Kyoko Mori, “Education”), and a specifically Christian perspective (Cornelius Plantinga Jr., “Educating for Shalom: The Calling of a Christian College”). Finally, they’ll read Fredrick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of a Slave. 

Then they will  write an essay on the essential question we’ve been considering all along: What is the relationship of schooling and a true education? They will have to have read critically and empathetically a wide variety of perspectives—varied by time, race, gender, class, religion—and synthesize those voices with their own thoughts as related to what they spend 6+ hours of every weekday doing. Breakdown questions include the following: What is a "true education"? What part does "schooling" play? What is my responsibility--to my own education/schooling and to others'?

I think that specific paragraph-arranging exercise helped—helped the thinking, helped the writing. And I look forward to reading the answers students will eventually come up with. As current politics rage and swirl around us, this is what I continue to do every day: look for ways to help students listen empathetically to multiple voices in a conversation, think critically about them, articulate compellingly their own considered synthesis, and contribute respectfully their voice back into the conversation.

May we all, whatever our purview, continue to do what God has always expected of His people: to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).  

More puzzling over paragraph order in Emerson's "Education"

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