Last year I had a real spitfire in my eleventh-grade English class. He was the most ready to challenge majority views, push his classmates to support their ideas with credible facts, or listen seriously about the need to tackle cliches in his writing.
Then, in January, I made a critical mistake that cost me the vitality of this student.
The class writes research papers in January, and I wanted to invite the students to research a social justice issue they knew nearly nothing about. We watched TED talks and read articles on the failings of abstinence-only education, plastic in the ocean's gyres, the Bechdel test, and the crushing standardization of public schools. Their assignment was to research a problem and then argue for a solution or a set of solutions to fix the problem.
What I didn't want was another pro-life diatribe, anti-marriage equality tirade, or pro-assault weapon essay that, although properly reflecting the majority beliefs of the community, would not allow enough serious inquiry into the unknown.
To facilitate the choosing of a topic, I assigned the students the task of randomly selecting three TED talks or articles and using those texts to generate questions for further research. As each student brought their three texts to me and we discussed their questions and potential for research papers, I made suggestions, offering what I knew on the topic with the intention that the students would have somewhere to start.
My conversation with the spitfire went like this:
Student rushes up to me in the hall, breathless with indignation. "Ms. Ricket, I just watched the most disgusting thing I've ever seen in my life." No pause for me to react. "In Canada, there is a lake the size of Manhattan filled with waste from the tar sands. One man can't even feed his family now because the water is so polluted. It's so crazy disgusting. You have to watch it."
At once I was filled with pride, disgust, and excitement because I thought we were on the verge of a "teachable moment." This is where I made that fatal mistake. I stepped out of the process of inquiry and into the sage-on-the-stage role.
"You know," I said, with a conspiratorial grin and an air of insider authority, "something just like the tar sands is happening right here in our town. It's called Fracking. Natural gas companies contaminate huge amounts of water and then dump it back into the ground where it's contaminating people's drinking water, hurting agriculture, and even causing earthquakes....