INTRODUCING CONTROVERSY IN A SECONDARY ENGLISH LANGUAGE ARTS CLASSROOM TO INVOKE CRITICAL THINKING

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Teaching struggling secondary students concepts that lead to critical thinking and writing forced me to find methods to increase engagement and motivation. Using controversial topics proved to be a successful vehicle for embedding concepts and skills
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  USING CONTROVERSY IN CLASSROOM TO INVOKE CRITICAL THINKING  1 INTRODUCING CONTROVERSY IN A SECONDARY ENGLISH LANGUAGE ARTS CLASSROOM TO INVOKE CRITICAL THINKING Sandra F. Matson Teaching struggling secondary students concepts that lead to critical thinking and writing forced me to find methods to increase engagement and motivation. Using controversial topics  proved to be a successful vehicle for embedding concepts and skills while engaging all students in meaningful discussions and assignments. In this article, the events of 9-11 and the controversial theories regarding the crash of Flight 93 were used to teach critical examination of multiple texts and persuasive writing using textual evidence to support a stance.  USING CONTROVERSY IN CLASSROOM TO INVOKE CRITICAL THINKING  2 Assigned with the task of teaching a group of struggling high school students to think more critically and write persuasively a year ago, I found myself returning to what I knew. The group of 12 students had been strategically placed in a small group to best meet their needs as students with learning disabilities. The sophomore English Language Arts class met five days a week for 50 minutes for two semesters. The concepts and details of how to write a persuasive  paper using textual evidence and multiple examples could be taught using any material. I knew if I was to engage my students, the material needed to be relevant to their lives and somewhat interesting. The concepts would be reinforced and repeatedly taught and practiced the entire year building on skills mastered. I would be introducing a critical literacy unit in the spring that would require six weeks to complete. I wanted to start in the fall and scaffold by guiding students through thinking critically, questioning text, and examining possible bias in texts. Students whose primary experience with text has consisted of retrieving information from reading often find it challenging to think critically about text (Alvermann, 2002). Hall and Piazza (2010) concluded, “ Too few students are likely to have had experiences with critical literacy in school” (p. 91).  Behren (2006) suggested turning critical literacy into classroom  practice presents challenges “demanding innovative and local solutions” (p. 491). Hall and Piazza (2010) maintained students must find topics relevant in order to invest the effort required to learn to look more deeply at text and ideas. Luke (2000) encouraged teachers to adopt an “organic approach to critical literacy” (p. 453 -454). He discussed the importance of teachers and students creating critical literacy curriculum based on relevance, background knowledge, and choice. In order to introduce the basic skills, I knew I needed to start with a bang. If I captured their attention with this first lesson it would provide the foundation for all the others to follow.  USING CONTROVERSY IN CLASSROOM TO INVOKE CRITICAL THINKING  3 One thing I considered when choosing the subject was selecting a topic that was timely. In other words, one they may hear of in the news or listening to other teachers or family. The month of September was just around the corner and I knew 9-11 was a subject that even if they did not fully understand the background, they would more than likely hear again and again. I had used nonfiction materials about 9- 11 in the past and had discovered students’ engagement and motivation increased. Background Knowledge-Filling in the Gaps  I started by asking a few questions to check for what the students knew about the events, the hijackers, and how many planes were involved on September 11, 2001. I was surprised at how little they knew and that most believed the only planes involved were in New York and that the planes had exploded as a result of bombs on board. My first step was to provide background information they may not possess such as general information regarding the incidents that occurred on that September morning. This information was presented initially through a portion of videos available on the internet. I selected a video that contained surveillance footage from the airports and contained videos of the terrorists as they proceeded through checkpoints. It also contained interviews with the ticket agent who dealt with them as well as recordings from the flight crew members from the first plane to hit the twin towers. The students were able to put faces to those responsible for the events of that day as well as learn New York was one of three sites of plane crashes that day. This introduced the use of  primary sources, what they were, and why they are important. De La Paz and Felton (2010) support the use of primary sources, even conflicting ones to assist students in learning to develop well-structured arguments with supporting evidence. They believe students most successful in  persuasive writing are those who learn to sift through conflicting sources and take a single  USING CONTROVERSY IN CLASSROOM TO INVOKE CRITICAL THINKING  4  position using primary sources as evidence to substantiate their argument. The students needed to understand the use of multiple sources and how they differed such as first hand witness accounts of the plane crash, studies by experts of the debris fields, as well as photographs of the crash site. It was immediately apparent the interest in this topic was unanimous as they left class that day asking, “Can we learn some more about that?” “Are we going to talk more about 9 -11 tomorrow?” “Miss! This is really interesting!” Introducing Controversy My next decision was just a natural progression. I wanted to stimulate questioning, thinking, and critical discussion. Anders (2009) posits that peer interaction and discussions represent crucial ingredients in developing critical thinking in students. I knew controversy would probably accomplish this and they were interested and engaged in learning about 9-11events. I decided to introduce the story of Flight 93. I wanted to begin by introducing the most basic facts and build on that with introduction of the conspiracy theories and debates to follow. The culminating assignment would include the students taking a stance and supporting it using textual evidence from multiple sources. When we had completed the introduction of  background history using several sources, we discussed examining one plane more closely. I introduced a variety of graphic organizers for note taking and jotting down thoughts. Each student chose what they felt worked best for them. They were allowed to choose to simply take notes without the use of a graphic organizer as well. This took us into the close of class on a Friday. I ended the class very mysteriously with a cryptic request , “Ladies and gentlemen, we will be delving into infor  mation that has become the focus of top investigative agencies in and out of this country. I am requesting you get plenty  USING CONTROVERSY IN CLASSROOM TO INVOKE CRITICAL THINKING  5 of rest this weekend and come ready to work next week. The work in which you will be engaged could possibly solve one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of this century. Are you up for the assignment?” The students gazed at me in solemn wonder, but all quietly nodded or responded with a quiet “yes” as I asked each student if they were up to the challenge. As they quietly left  class, I overheard one of my most challenging students whisper to another, “Oh my gosh, I am so loving this class right now.” Organizing Information with a Venn Diagram The following week, I felt it was important to embed the concepts and skills into the information to not lose the momentum. I chunked information into small introductory pieces that the students could use that day during class while delving into the information they found so interesting. For example, I needed to teach them to take notes on differing sides of a story. I introduced the use of a Venn diagram to create an easy way to visualize facts that differed and some that overlapped in the information regarding Flight 93. I modeled the Venn using information from something they were all familiar with such as two popular television programs. They quickly grasped the use of the diagram and how to use it to organize information. The use of the Venn diagram to organize evidence in relation to that present in a crime scene clarified the concept of textual evidence for the students. It provided the extra step needed in understanding the term evidence in the literary context. We discussed quotations, the use of quotes when presenting textual evidence and citing sources. By embedding these lessons in the information they found so engaging, the students were motivated to practice the skills associated with great success and understanding. I continued to explain with each lesson these skills were all necessary tools to solve the mystery
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