Module 1: Truth or Consequences
- What is the truth?
- Why and how do people manipulate the truth?
- How can we find the truth amidst manipulation?
- I can describe techniques used to persuade and to manipulate the truth, and I can explain why this can be harmful to a healthy democracy.
- I can perform authentic research that draws on reliable sources to locate accurate information, and I can present this information through debate and writing.
- I can demonstrate how information can be presented both with and without manipulation, and I can harness creative techniques to powerfully convey the truth.
In grades 6-8, we are beginning the year with a large-scale unit that will be integrated with both Math and Science. The unit is based upon one that has been done at King Middle School in Maine, a school that excels in multidisciplinary and expeditionary learning. From a humanities perspective, this unit will focus on students' capacity to perform authentic research, to identify bias, to identify and employ persuasive techniques, and to separate 'real' news from 'fake.' Students will be looking closely at what it means to be both persuasive and objective, and at how this connects to their own searches for the 'truth' both in and out of school. We will be using climate change as an umbrella concept that helps tie the unit together across all four content areas, and this is one of the contexts in which students will be working through conflicting texts and seeking to understand what is fact and what is manipulation. As a literary tie-in, we are beginning the year with a challenging text called Memory of Water, by Emmi Itaranta. It is a dystopian story about a world that has been negatively affected by climate change, and it follows a young female protagonist as she seeks to discover answers long buried in the past.
We have finished our persuasive essays! Each student has written an essay based on his or her research into the various ways to mitigate climate change. Students used various trustworthy sources--from databases and Google searches--to integrate evidence into their essays in support of their theses. Students wrote persuasively about the benefits of everything from wind and solar power to biodiesel produced from hazelnuts. Many of theme were even able to put together formal analyses of their own work, in which they identified where they had effectively used techniques such as pathos, ethos, and kairos in their own writing. We worked on citing sources, selecting the best evidence, and organizing ideas in a logical progression. We also worked on acknowledging and pushing back on opposing viewpoints. We will continue this focus on opposing viewpoints as we begin practicing for our live debates. Students will be joining teams and facing off against their peers, using the same data that they researched for their essays. We will work together to curate this research data in such as way that we can access it collectively for the debate, so that our arguments can be as strong and well-supported as possible. We will, of course, be focusing on speaking and listening skills as they pertain to debates, including the importance of truly hearing someone if you want to respond appropriately.
We've also begun to have some important conversations about government--focused, in part, on changes as the EPA--including the branches of American government and the sharing of power. We read an article talking about how in order to appoint Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA, the President needed to share power with the Senate, which voted to confirm the Pruitt. We've also read about changes in the way the EPA is responding to the threat of global warming under Pruitt, including weakening laws that limit pollution and deleting the term 'climate change' from its website. We also read an article about the EPA limiting the ability of its scientists to speak about topics related to climate change, and we've tried to connect this to our larger conversations about truth and manipulation. We will continue to use the context of climate change to talk about the power that resides in various departments and branches of the US government, as well as current policy and philosophical changes happening right now at the federal level.
Also, we've finally finished Memory of Water, and students will soon be putting together final essays that connect the text to some of the larger issues we've been talking about--climate change, government, truth, etc. Students will be selecting from a list of potential prompts, which you can see here, but they will also have the option to come up with their own. I'm excited to see what the students produce!
We have been working hard on our second target--performing authentic research and identifying reliable sources. Students have been using the Vermont Online Library (VOL) databases to locate high-quality and trustworthy information about the pros and cons of the many different ways America might respond to climate change. Students have also been using more traditional search engines--like Google--while remaining careful to think about the quality of the sources they are finding and the potential biases of the people and organizations behind them. To reinforce the importance of this, we recently read two articles discussing the wave of fake news that proliferated after the mass shooting in Las Vegas. One article described the way that a small group of online activists were able to spread fake news about the shooter, his affiliations, and his motives. This effort was so effective that both Google and Facebook were very prominently displaying completely fabricated information after the attack. The other article discussed the way in which YouTube has been promoting videos that call the shooting a hoax and a 'false flag' attack--many of which have already been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. So our students here at CES have really been thinking about the quality and trustworthiness of their sources.
Students have also been using a great online platform called Noodle Tools to organize their research. Noodle Tools allows students to cite and keep track of sources, to create note cards that can be tagged or color-coded, and to outline their thoughts as they build toward synthesizing their research into something greater. One way that students will be applying their research is by using it to develop and support a persuasive essay about climate change mitigation. They will also be using their research to engage in live debates around the pros and cons of various renewable energies and other approaches to slowing global warming.
Students have also been hard at work preparing for our upcoming student-led conferences. Each student has created his or her own digital portfolio using Google Sites, and students have been carefully adding their best work to those portfolios. Students have been pairing up and practicing speaking about their own growth and learning--describing why we have attempted certain tasks, read certain texts, or connected particular ideas. They are really getting better at discussing their own learning and skills, and I think that parents are in for a real treat when they sit down with CES students this week at conferences!
Take a look at some recent student work:
Students have continued their investigation of persuasive techniques by analyzing two op-ed articles about gun control. The two pieces had opposing viewpoints, but they both used the same techniques to convince the reader that their perspectives were correct. We discussed how the article in favor of banning assault weapons relied more heavily on ethos and pathos, while the article opposing these bans relied more heavily on data and logos. Students have also just been introduced to the idea of confirmation bias, and we have begun to discuss how this psychological phenomenon can pose obstacles to authentic research and learning. We will soon be looking at the backfire effect as well, and we will be discussing both of these ideas in light of the resistance many people have to accepting the scientific consensus on climate change. We have read through Chapter 5 of Memory of Water, and this has also been providing the opportunity to talk about global warming and its potential impacts. We've looked at geographical changes to the Earth's land masses that would be caused by the melting of polar ice caps, and we've begun to discuss the potential for conflict and violence to arise as the result of diminishing resources.
Last week, we began our unit by looking at an article that calls into question the capacity of America students to perform careful and diligent research. The article references a study performed by Stanford University, and it underscores the challenges facing students today as they navigate an increasingly chaotic information environment both online and off. The article really seemed to frame for CES students the importance of our upcoming work. In the 8th grade, we also did a small-group jigsaw analysis of four shorter articles about the fake news phenomenon.
We began this week by learning about ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos. These are the Greek terms for four of the most common and important persuasive (and manipulative) techniques used in writing and other media. We identified the presence of all four in an op-ed text from Teen Vogue connecting Harvey to climate change, and we have also been working to identify how pathos is used in propaganda imagery. We looked at Nazi propaganda posters today, and tomorrow we will examine how even propaganda that is more benign--such as that created by animal rights or other activist groups--often employs the same persuasive techniques. We have been trying to keep in mind that while not all persuasive messages are bad or dishonest, it is important to be able to tell when someone is trying to be persuasive rather than objective.
Standards and Proficiencies
Below are the literacy proficiencies (skills and standards) we will be focusing on this year. This list was generated by adapting the ELA graduation proficiencies that were recently developed by North Country High School. The proficiencies themselves are stated in language that applies across grade levels, but the specific Common Core standards for each grade level are referenced as well. Although the digital portfolio and student-led conferences remain our most important means of reporting student progress and growth, selected standards from this list will appear on the 'reporting document' that is sent home at the end of each trimester.
The Themes and associated Guiding Questions that now frame and underscore the design of NCSU Social Studies curricula are also embedded below. As is hopefully evident from the descriptions of our units and student work samples posted here, these themes are embedded deeply into our learning and form the context for much of the skills work we do in class. You can also read the cover letter that was issued when these changes were made here. The letter provides describes some of the thinking behind the changes and provides some pedagogical justification.
In addition, I've included below the C3 social studies standards--which have recently been adopted by the state--as well as the Common Core standards for literacy.