You are cordially invited to try out being controversially classy; Or is it classily controversial… Either way, please join me and my good friend James Norman on a journey into trying out a cutting-edge pedagogy of using controversy in the classroom!
James Norman, a higher education teacher of literature from Massachusetts, and I have been exploring the idea of using controversy in the classroom. We are NOT talking about teaching “controversial topics”, although that very well may be a byproduct of our journey.
Specifically, we are proposing that teaching could be improved by introducing an element of controversy into lessons. I have been trying it out with great success!
Just this week, I was preparing to have my students read an article about teeth from a brand new Storyworks Junior magazine. What do good teachers do before delivering a text? We have students explore what they already know: recount prior knowledge. There are loads of great ways to do this, and they all work well. It hit me, though: Why don’t I tryout what I’ve been researching? James and I have been reading, discussing, and thinking about the use of controversy in the classroom since the beginning of the summer of 2019. What if teachers took ordinary topics and found ways to make them controversial? How would that affect learning?
I decided I’d try out some controversial class on my kiddos, and I asked them, “What is more important, brushing your teeth OR washing your hands?” Because I have had my students do this kind of thing before, they knew how it worked. After I split them into two teams and assigned positions, they naturally formed groups of three or four to discuss ideas that could support their position and challenge their opponent’s. I let them chat for a few moments. I was moved by how engaged and even animated my students became!
— kara corridan (@kcorridan) November 16, 2019
I stopped everyone and had them regroup with different friends from their teams. This way they were able to rethink and better organize their ideas. Mini-debates within teams ensued.
Some things that I enjoyed witnessing were students taking turns sharing, practicing good listening skills, and displaying passion for the topic through nonverbal communication.
When we regrouped as a whole class after only ten minutes of controversial competition preparation, I used Siri to “flip a coin”. One team “called it” and won the toss. I asked, “Who is going to present?” Hands were raised and fingers were pointed; Several students were interested in presenting. I told them, “You can only speak once, so decide if you want to go now, or hold onto your argument for later in the debate.”
The teeth team was presenting first, and the boy they had chosen to headline their position was confident. He communicated to me that, rather than wait, they wanted to come out strong–He literally told me this! I laughed, as I gestured for him to begin. “This is a true fact,” he began, “That once your teeth rot, it will affect your gums, and go down to your heart, and you will die.”
The metaphorical conch was then handed to the hand-washing team. A girl delivered their initial position that germs could be transferred from person to person if hands were not properly cleansed, thus (my word;) affecting more than just one individual.
Point * Counterpoint!
Next came the argument that if your teeth did rot and fall out, you wouldn’t be able to eat anything. Again, it boiled down to not brushing your teeth leading to certain death!
The hand-washers chose to point out that you could simply blend your food and “eat” it through a straw before presenting their new argument for the importance of cleansing your digits: It’s winter and everyone catches a cold in the winter. Washing your hands limits the amount of germs left on door knobs, helping everyone stay healthy. Someone called out, “Body-hygiene was the 2nd leading cause of death!” After I regained composure of the group and got over my own shock of third graders knowing and understanding such concepts, I suggested that brushing your teeth was a form of “body” hygiene. Also, “How do you know it is the 2nd leading…?” Shrugs.
This whole experience was so fun and exciting! I had everyone sit down for my wrap up. I praised everyone for their outstanding, classy behavior. I pointed out that one of the most important things to practice when discussing controversial concepts is being good listeners. I explained that this meant actually being open to the fact that the opposing team could very well have an idea that is correct. Do not assume that your opponent is wrong. You have to be ready to admit when they are right. Only through this attitude can you be prepared to come up with valid, strong, appropriate counterpoints. A classy debater is not dismissive.
“Who won!?” someone couldn’t help blurting out.
I didn’t even have to answer: “We all did,” a bright young lady pointed out.
All of this took less than 30 minutes. Now, we get to read the article that spurred this lively controversy in the classroom, “History of Teeth”, written by Kristen Lewis, published in the December (2019)/January (2020) edition of StoryworksJr.
Incidentally, every Storyworks Junior magazine has a section geared toward and even titled, “Debate”. What James Norman and I are working toward is taking the sparks of debating and lighting a fire in regular pedagogy. Don’t feel like you have to take your teaching topic all the way to debate. Simply find a way to make it controversial. Students could very well engage in an internal debate after you present a rhetorical thought-puzzle.
In closing, I will reiterate the invitation: James Norman and I would love to hear about how you tried out introducing the concept of controversy in your classroom. Tweet with the hashtag, #ControversyCanBeClassy and connect with us through commenting on blogs.
Have you ever purposefully made something simple controversial, in order to get kids thinking?