What I Learned This Year Teaching 9th Graders
I’m just back from Normal, IL where — courtesy of Brian Conant and the Freshman Program at U. High — I’ve had my second chance to work with 9th graders over a full week. The Freshman Program is a shared endeavor in which English, Social Studies, and Science teachers work together. My bit comes when the class reads selections from my book Race, and they are given two weeks to write a research paper that takes off from some idea, event, or theme in my book. The students begin posting research questions to a school Wiki and formulating what their paper will be. So I arrive at the school knowing a bit about what their interests are, what their questions are, who they are. Indeed this year, before I came a few students were quite upset with me and the book, feeling I had attacked their (Christian/Lutheran) religion. Then for four days I give the whole class a talk in the morning about my research process — what I went through in writing the book — and then, throughout the rest of the day until lunch the teachers and I meet with the students and help them shape their papers.
I am telling you this because this extended stay is my one chance to be with a class and see the full arc of their work on a project — the first ideas (I asked Brian how come so many students picked extreme subjects in my book — the Klan, the Holocaust, the Inquisition, or the Freedom Rides, MLK — he said he thought because they recognized the term or person and so they thought they could jump right to the report without reading more carefully in the book); the "lost in the sauce" day when the kids realize that their first ideas don’t really meet the assignment and they get that vertiginous sense that this is going to be hard; the green shoots day — when the kids who get it land on something really exciting and begin to formulate new ideas; home free, as the real research papers take shape.
As Brian drove me to the airport to come back home we were talking about what works and does not in the program, and he nailed it: "writing is thinking." The point of this whole exercise is not to teach them about race, or Race, about my book, or my process, none of the above. The point is that in coming up with their own research questions, doing the work of finding sources and citations, and then making an argument on paper, the students are learning to think — to formulate an idea, defend it, question it, research it, and finally make it stand on its own two rhetorical feet.
If I have any goal for all of my books it is to promote thinking, and I am so grateful and thrilled to have this chance to work with terrific teachers and engaged students and see when and how that begins to happen.