Critical Thinking and the Bill of Rights

Developing critical thinking in our students is our primary job. When the pace of curriculum, hybrid learning and other road blocks pop up in our way it can be a struggle to find the times to practice and develop this necessary skill. In a humanities classroom writing is often used as a way to push students towards employing their critical thinking muscles. It aids in the development of cohesive thought, helps students think through arguments and boosts literacy.

None of this matter to students. When writing assignments are introduced students glaze over. There is never warm reception or excitement in the room. Students sit silently waiting to hear their sentence; How bad will this assignment be? This doubles or triples when research is also introduced. The students know they are in for a heavy task.

Student choice aids in combating the bad reputation of a research paper. On this occasion we will use the Bill of Rights as a foundation of our research papers and help flex our critical thinking muscles.

Analyzing the Bill of Rights

The Bill of Rights spurs controversy based on different interpretations. The point of the research paper is for students to gather evidence to prove or disprove their point of view that they entered the unit with. 8th graders come into the conversation with strong opinions about the document, how it should be saved, or changed. While class discussions are always respectful and cooperative there is always a wide range of opinions about how to interpret each amendment. This paper gives students the opportunity to explore their opinion and learn about the counterpoint as well. It sparks critical thinking from the first word to the last.

The highest priority in the classroom is to always maintain a respectful and inclusion environment. When the Bill of Rights is discussed there it is inevitable that students will be diving into the conversation with a wide variety of views. In order to take an unbiased approach we begin by discussing by reading of the primary source. While some amendments are straight forward, others can be confusing. We then discuss the historical significance of each amendment, why is as placed in that order and what the part of the wording could be significant. While primary sources are not usually the source of animated conversation this student lead discussion is already moving quickly. Without much hesitation students share their beliefs and ideals which allows us to discuss how different people may interpret the same amendment and what controversies there may be in the news cycle. Within minutes students start to second guess their strongly held beliefs. Some as student points out that these are not as clear cut as they were lead to believe. They desperately look for answers when there are none. Should there be hate speech laws? Does EVERYONE have the right to own a gun? Why do the guilty get protected by the 4th and 5th amendments? Students lead these discussions with points and counterpoints.

This is critical thinking in motion.

The students think in terms of black and white. This is good or this is bad. Within minutes of starting a discussion many come to realization that the world is a landscape of gray and their ideas are just some on a wide spectrum of thoughts. You can visually see this epiphany on their faces. Their brain is opening in new ways and thoughts are rewiring themselves around what their peers are saying.

When the entire class is fully emerged in moral entanglements and unable to come to a consensus they are prompted to write down their questions. 

 A brain dump of questions in 3 – 5 minutes. Every question that is floating around their brains, every implication, idea or thought that is still rattling around should be written in their notebooks.

This is repeated for each amendment during our two day exploration of the document. At the end they have approximately two pages of their own questions and thoughts to use as a writing prompt. 

Sorting and prioritizing is the next step. Students analyze their questions, changing closed questions to open picking a top 10 and then 5. They combine questions to clarify. They consult their peers about better phrasing or clarifying their thoughts. 

Critical thinking is at its peak. Students are collaborating, connecting and creating new ideas together. They are challenging their own ideas and looking for “better” answers.

By the end of this exercise students have crafted an essential question that they actually want to answer. There is conversation and engagement. Students still do not want to write a research essay, but they are much happier when given choice and control in the process. 

Research

Research becomes its own process. Students must find at least ten sources from reputable sites. One source must be a political cartoon and one a data chart or graph. Students must also find at least four articles that offer a counter point. This is huge for me as I find nothing more perturbing than allowing people to curate their own information to live in a land of cognitive dissonance.  

Along the writing process we discuss interesting information that we learned from finding our own sources. Students find points and counterpoints that stun them. They discuss them and bring food for thought to the other students. 

This deep dive into research ignites the learning about current events and the Bill of Rights. Since students are finding their own research they are free to explore the topics that interest them. They find information that both supports and detracts from their ideas. It is a time to really challenge what we think is right and entertain that there are different points of view. The class discussions aid in this as well. Students hear about different viewpoints and want to know more about them. The discussions grown organically and soon several students have their lap tops out looking for support or detract from the piece of evidence that was just shared. 

Classroom Magic

Students are developing their critical thinking skills by deeply diving into controversial ideas that they chose. They are actively listening, developing thoughts and taking in new information that they may have never heard before. All of this is being driven 100% by the students. I’ve said almost nothing since the actual teaching of the Bill of Rights. 

In rare cases, students will change their mid -research and flip their claim. They will have decided for themselves that the position they started with cannot be supported by evidence and it changes their entire perspective of the issue. In most cases students learn a more nuanced understanding of the world and that most issues live in a gray area where there are a lot of hard questions to be answered. 

When the research is completed, the essays are written. They use structured graphic organizers and peer review. Rough draft and peer review. Final draft and peer review. All of this happens before I ever see the paper. When the final is due the paper has been read by 2 – 6 people who have used my rubric to evaluate and give constructive feedback of the paper. 

Evaluation, Analysis and Critical Thinking.

When the papers have been handed in we hold a celebration of hard work. Writing an argumentative research paper is not easy and these 8th graders have worked extremely hard. As we reflect on the past two weeks student feedback is insightful. While no one wishes to write another paper, they reflect that the process was not as difficult as it was in the past. They speak about how choice made the difference in their ability to commit and once they found a topic they were interested in the process was not difficult. 

More than the writing process though is the difference in the way students are thinking. They have been exposed to a complicated world and navigated through it. They have been engaged in high levels of critical thinking. This is all from a single page primary source, group discussion, research and writing.

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