This week I have the good fortune of once again working with 9th graders in Illinois. They have read parts of my book on race and are working on their first major research paper — following up on, or challenging, some contention of mine from that book. I’ve been reading over their proposals and while of course students vary greatly there is one clear trend: it is hard for them to take the step from description to question. Nearly all of them can come up with a How or What question — how did Hitler win over youth? How did MLK and Malcolm X differ? How does the Disney princess reflect or shape current images of young women, etc. The really challenging part is leaping from there to proposing an argument, a theory, an thesis, an interpretation. This will be no news to those of you who teach or work with 9th graders. But it is fascinating because exactly this step is the heart of the Common Core.
That analytic piece — that shift from absorbing, noticing, describing to contending, examining, interpreting is where we have been weak, and what CC is telling us we need to strengthen. Seeing these students struggle reinforces my sense that authors need to be even more clear, more forthright, in announcing that we have reached the end of the known and are venturing into speculation. We need to model not just how we obtain information but how we mold it, shape it, craft it, and announce it as our view, our take, our judgment. Students need that from us — they need to see how it is done, how you leave safe harbors, take risks, announce conclusions, defend them, and leave yourself open to criticism. We are not all experts, but we are adults with knowledge, experience, and insight and when we research and write about dangerous subjects, we have opinions, theories, insights. They more we show our hands, the more young people can learn from us — if only in setting out to disprove our views, to fence with them, to take them on.
I meet the 9th graders tomorrow, I’ll let you know how it goes.