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April 1, 2019
Vol. 61
No. 4

How to Map a Controversy

Teach students to dialogue in an age of division.

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Classroom Management
I've always enjoyed teaching first-year college writing courses to seniors in high school. Young people who are just months away from adulthood get a taste for the kind of learning their future might hold.

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My school is no different. My classes are filled with bright, opinionated students who hold deep convictions but struggle to engage with ideas that do not immediately resonate with them. I feel a responsibility to imbue students with more than a working knowledge of rhetorical situations or how to structure a well-written essay. I want to develop students' critical thinking, so they know how to communicate their ideas, listen to others, and discuss productively, even when they disagree.

Observe and Listen

To help students learn how to dialogue through difference, we embark on a controversy mapping assignment where they select an issue to research. My students' questions are all over the board: Should there be limits on free speech? What policies should the United States enact regarding gun control? What steps can we take to solve the opioid crisis?
Depending on the year, we do this assignment for a couple of weeks or for the entire semester. Longer timelines allow students to follow a variety of events in their inquiry, but both approaches work. The goal is for students to observe and listen to the various perspectives on a topic or issue, not to immediately respond with a predetermined viewpoint. Students ultimately take a stance, but not before they demonstrate understanding of the issue's complexity.

Use Analysis Tools

Students research a wide range of perspectives to gain as objective an understanding as possible. One of their favorite websites is AllSides, which breaks issues down into categories of bias. Students use Google News and Hypothes.is, a tool that annotates websites, to find and annotate the most current sources. We also use the CRAP Test tool (currency, reliability, authority, and purpose) to determine if websites are credible. These tools help students think about bias, credibility, and best research practices.

Construct a Visual Timeline

Once students have researched various perspectives, they complete a visual timeline using Knight Lab's TimelineJS tool to demonstrate their understanding of an issue's key points. One of my students, for example, questioned the ethics of animal poaching. She used a template to from her research, connected images and videos to her work, and created a timeline to present many perspectives to the class.

Make an Argument

Finally, I ask students to apply their learning to make an effective argument. In an argumentative essay, students present their reasoned perspective on the issue while demonstrating an understanding of the opposition and building effective rebuttals. Multimedia work with podcasts, videos, and photos can also be powerful. Ultimately, the assignment allows students to ask big questions about topics and issues that interest them, research and summarize the complexities, and craft an argument that showcases their path of inquiry.

Reflect on Both Sides

The highlight of the unit is the final two reflective questions I ask students: Why do you believe your opinion on the issue you researched is just? Why might those who disagree with you say their perspective is just? Crucial questions like these train our students to not only investigate their ideas with fervor, but also to step back and dialogue with others, especially when they disagree. This life skill has unfortunately not been modeled well for many of our students, as evidenced by the way adults discuss issues of the day. Teachers have a responsibility to change that. I hope that students like mine will take our country down a new path of productive argument.

 Sean Hackney (@sean_hackney1) is a National Board–Certified teacher and the English department chair at Minooka Community High School in Minooka, Ill. His website is www.seanhackney.us. A version of this article appeared in ASCD Express.

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