Monthly Archives: March 2012

THINK, Dammit!

I have been doing a lot of fretting lately about the state of our national intellect.

This isn’t a new exercise for me, really, but because of the increased conversation about issues and candidates in the news recently (what’s the saying?  You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting someone with an opinion?), I’ve been ramping up my anxiety about our collective seeming inability to think.

As a teacher, I take seriously my responsibility to model and encourage my students to think beyond the easy and expected.  I want them to push their own edges, to argue with their preconceptions, and to question the things that have been presented to them as fact.  Sometimes they do that, but most of the time, they can’t be bothered.

This is this morning’s writing prompt.  I don’t know that it’ll generate any particularly thoughtful answers, but I’m going to keep asking the hard questions.  I will not release a group of complacent, ignorant people into the world.

Relate a time when you made a realization that changed your perspective.  How did you feel about believing/knowing something before that you now believe/know is wrong?  Consider the political meme of “flip-flopping.”  Why do we put out the cultural message that changing one’s mind is a sign of intellectual or moral weakness, and what effect does that have on people’s (your?) willingness to try to see things from another angle?


Filed under concerns, critical thinking


I had an experience the other day that I’m having a really hard time getting over.

Every week, I give my students a couple of quotes that I ask the kids to ruminate and write about.  Last week’s offerings were “a person who is nice to you but not nice to the waiter is not a nice person,” and “what wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?”  I posted some critical thinking questions in which I asked the students to consider whether they could genuinely engage with a person who, because of his or her beliefs, thought that they (the student) was beneath them in some way.

At the end of the week, I collect the students’ writings and we have a discussion about the topic.  For the purposes of jump starting that conversation, I read them this essay in which I muse about a comment I heard someone make about Rick Santorum’s being a “nice guy,” and whether or not I can give my energy and care to someone who really, truly believes that I am a lesser person than they are.

We were having a pretty good conversation – the kids were struggling with the implicit “black and white” quality of the questions we were engaged in – is there a line one crosses between being a “good” person and not? –  when one of the students piped up and said, on no uncertain terms, that she thinks that Rick Santorum is absolutely, completely, and unequivocally correct in both his beliefs and his plans for the country.  She went on to say that it is an outrage that any employer (but particularly religious employers) should be “forced to pay for contraception when they don’t believe in it,”  that there was “never a time when abortion is okay,” and that she would support legislation that would force a woman to gestate and deliver a child conceived in rape.

I was floored by this, not only because, in general, we are a pretty liberal and open-minded bunch at CHS, but also because I had, to that point, yet to meet a woman who was so enthusiastically, almost gleefully, supportive of measures that would seek to limit her own freedom.

I decided to press the question of insurance coverage and tried to keep as far away from the religious implications of her comments as I could.  In the end, though, she was completely unmoved by the facts I presented to her about how insurance coverage works as part of a compensation package; she believes what she believes, and no one is going to change her mind.

I have to remember that this child is a fundamentalist Christian; in fact, I’m pretty sure (though I’ve not inquired too closely) that she’s of the pre-Vatican II, Mel Gibson-style brand of Catholic.  I can’t quite get beyond her obstinate lack of thinking, though; she’s very clearly not following her unfettered support for this candidate through to its logical conclusion – unless, of course, she aspires to the life of an obedient, fruitful wife.  Regardless, I’m troubled by this encounter; I would like to think that, despite the influence of their upbringing, my students would be willing to engage in some energetic critical thinking, and if ever there were a time for energetic critical thinking, it’s now.


Filed under concerns, critical thinking, debate and persuasion, I've got this kid...., really?!, rhetoric, Yikes!, You're kidding...right?

Thought for Thursday – Doing Your Research

(cross-posted at The Blue Door)


My seniors are (or, rather, should be) engaged in a research project that will allow them to write an analysis paper on The Handmaid’s Tale.  Their purpose is to link Atwood’s dystopian novel to current (or recent) events, whether here or in other countries, in meaningful and logical ways.  Given what’s happening in politics lately, I thought it was a paper that could pretty much write itself.  I don’t want it to write itself, though, so I’ve been spending some time with the kids going over how to do ethical research.

The problem when I was a kid was finding information – we needed to be taught where to look for the things we needed to know.  The problem for my students (and my children) is finding good information – there is so much that is so readily available (and is so often ridiculously unreliable), that teaching kids how to sift through the sketchy stuff to find valid sources is a priority in my teaching about research.

I was thinking about this tonight when I got into it with a facebook friend about the factual validity of something that was posted on her wall.  On the surface it was no big deal – it was a clearly partisan bit of sarcasm and anger and was clearly intended as such – but it sparked a conversation about the veracity of the information that we bounce around the internet.

One of the things that I need – not just want, but need – for my students to understand is how desperately vital it is that they learn to think critically about the things that get presented to them as fact.  It seems to me that we’ve gotten to a point (or, perhaps it has always been thus and I’m just noticing it more) where it’s become accepted practice to pick and choose the details one wants from a given set of information so that one can prove whatever point one is trying to forward.  It doesn’t matter that the whole of the set indicates something entirely contrary to what is being reported – as long as items A and B support a particular viewpoint, items C through Z can be conveniently downplayed (or outright ignored).

Facts can be very inconvenient things.  They can challenge a previously held belief, they can force a reevaluation of a prejudice, and they can seriously hinder an argument.  Facts can compel us to rethink the way we see ourselves and can rattle what we think of as foundational beliefs.  That can be scary; so scary that a lot of people are just as happy to not do it at all.

It’s important to me that my students not be intimidated by the idea that the facts might force them to rethink the way they see the world – or the way they see themselves.  It can be profoundly uncomfortable – threatening and existentially terrifying, even – to have one’s thesis (or world view) refuted by the facts, but my hope is that I can raise my students to understand that the mark of a strong and mature intellect is being able to adjust one’s thinking when the evidence indicates that an adjustment is necessary.


Filed under about writing, analysis, compassion and cooperation, concerns, critical thinking, ethics, Literature, out in the real world, politics, rhetoric, self-analysis, Teaching


I got to have dinner tonight with Terry.

Terry was my sophomore English teacher in high school and, later, when my internship was imploding due to stupidness and politics, she offered to take me in.  I flourished under her mentorship, and we’ve developed a strong friendship as a result.

I really admire this woman.  She is thoughtful and creative, she genuinely cares about her students, she’s in love with the discipline, and she’s one of the most ethical professionals I’ve ever met.  Despite the fact that we were supposed to have a mentor/apprentice relationship, she demanded that I approach her and the work we did together as an equal exchange; she made it patently clear when she accepted me as her intern that we were no longer teacher and student.  It’s taken me a long time to think of her as a colleague, but I think I’m finally there.

One of the things I love about spending time with Terry is that, no matter how uneasy or uncertain I feel about the job I’m doing – no matter how frustrated I am that the kids aren’t doing the work,  or that I’m going to lose each and every one of them to their own stubborn ignorance – I leave our time together feeling like I really AM good at this job.  Terry’s been teaching for a long time (I don’t know how long, exactly, but she was my sophomore teacher, so that’s saying something), and it’s heartening for me to hear her talk about the same fears and frustrations that I feel.  We collaborate beautifully, we always come away from each other with new ideas and different tactics to try, and we encourage and energize each other.

I don’t know how to adequately express how wonderful it feels to be respected – truly respected – by someone I admire as much as I do Terry.  She is who I wanted to be when I grew up – she is one of my big inspirations for choosing the path that I chose – and I think that much of the satisfaction I feel when I spend time with her is rooted in the fact that we really are very much alike.

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Filed under admiration, colleagues, compassion and cooperation