A paradox: Students raise their voices when they have something personal at stake. But, to be heard outside the classroom, they must meet the expectations of a wider community. A personal stake is just not enough.
In helping to prepare students in one urban school to read and write the kinds of arguments that will be expected of them in college, we created a curriculum that uses three essential “Rs” (no, not ‘Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmatic!) to speak to both sides of this paradox:
Students rarely see how the things they have to read are relevant to their lives, both now and in the future. We confront this problem head-on. We treat the texts students read as “turns” taken in an ongoing conversation—a conversation that revolves around topics and themes so important to adolescents because of their connection to broader existential issues. The question, “To what extent am I responsible to others?” provides a staging ground for students, helping them see how the things they do in school relate to their immediate lives.
When students understand how the things they do in class are relevant to their immediate lives and their futures, they start to participate in their schooling in new ways:
- They develop a sense of responsibility toward the quality of their arguments and the moral and ethical subtexts of the things we ask them to argue about.
- They begin to understand how they are accountable for supporting their positions through specific forms of reasoning.
- They create their own shared expectations for what counts as a good argument.
- They generate positions reflective of their own existential growth, as they start to give deep consideration to how they, too, must become responsible and active participants in all aspects of their lives: when at home, in school, in the workplace, and in the broader community.
Assuming the responsibilities that come with being a relevant participant in classroom conversations requires that students become careful readers, active listeners, and conscientious contributors to the ongoing spoken and written dialogue around them. The classroom is no longer a collection of individual learners; rather, it is a community of aspiring intellectuals who are preparing to enter into the larger conversations of their lives. Through this preparation, students develop a deep sense of respect—respect for others, respect for the need to ascertain the quality of messages conveyed to them through peers and popular media, and respect for their own roles as classroom participants who shape and are shaped by the classroom community.
What Do The 3 “Rs” Look Like in Practice?
You can see how these three “Rs” play out in a unit we created around the question “To what extent am I responsible to others?” To dig deeply into that question, students read Hosseini’s The Kite Runner outside of class while also completing in-class reading about people whose lives raise questions related to the notion of personal responsibilities.
One such person is Pat Tillman, an all-pro safety for the Arizona Cardinals who, just after the events of September 11, 2001, abandoned his NFL career to enlist in the army. Tragically, Tillman was killed in Afghanistan two years later. Tillman’s life story compelled students to consider some really powerful questions about the extent to which a person is responsible:
- Was Tillman’s decision to join the army an example of noble sacrifice, or reckless idealism?
- Did Tillman’s sense of responsibility to his county come at the expense of his responsibility to his loved ones, friends, and fans?
To fully examine all sides of these questions, students read editorials offering contrasting views of Tillman’s life, news articles reporting on some of the controversy around his death, and testimony from his bereaved loved ones. Their conversations around the various perspectives offered through these texts went something like this:
Teacher: Okay, so we’ve been reading some about Pat Tillman and it’s pretty clear that people have different positions on him. Where do you stand?
Student 1: I think Tillman was a hero.
Teacher: Okay, well what makes you say so?
Student 1: He gave his life for his country.
Teacher: Right. But so what?
Student 1: The author here gives the dictionary definition of what hero means. Tillman is definitely a hero because he fits the definition.
Student 2: I don’t agree. All he did was hurt the people who matter most to him.
Teacher: Hmmm, that’s interesting. What makes you say so?
Student 2: You can read right here how his mom and his brother feel like he died for no reason.
Teacher: Of course his family was devastated by the loss. But so what?
Student 2: Well he was responsible to them, too. He wasn’t thinking about them when he joined up to fight. You can’t be a respectable or responsible or heroic person if you don’t care about the people closest to you.
Student 3: And what about all of his fans from the NFL? He was already a role model to many people, a lot of them probably kids.
Teacher: What makes you say so?
Student 3: Well, you know how fans feel about sporting figures.
Teacher: Nope. I’m not much of a sports fan.
Student 3: Just look at the article. It says in the article that he turned down an offer from the Rams just to stay with the Cardinals.
Teacher: Right, he did. So what?
Student 3: Well that means he must have really loved his fans and he didn’t want to let them down.
The argument taking place in this scenario is clearly characterized by deep student engagement. And we think it evidences the power of our new three “Rs.”
In short, we can—we MUST—prepare students for the future. But in order to do so, we have to engage them in the present. We do it by making sure our students have opportunities to engage in complex reasoning around challenging topics that demand of them more than just their own gut feelings. We believe that, as educators as well as responsible citizens, this is also how we hold ourselves to the three “Rs.”