A few days ago, I assigned Howard Zinn’s section on Native American relocation under Andrew Jackson to my students. My class is 1:1 iPads, so I scanned it as a pdf, they read it, and annotated it as they read. I encouraged them not only to highlight, but to also write their emotional reactions to the material. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Howard Zinn, he is a very liberal writer, and he often takes aim with the U.S. Government and with the rich and powerful. Zinn is unapologetic in his writing, and I chose this particular article because it is very hard to read about the government’s actions with Native Americans without feeling some sense of outrage. If anything could excite students, this would be it.
After a few minutes, I checked in with them. I asked what had been examples of U.S. policy towards Native Americans. I saw a sea of blank stares. I asked what the government had done to Native Americans. A couple of hands went up, and that was that. My blood started to boil. A peek into my brain would have revealed these words: “How dare you not care?! Our government took away people’s lands and caused thousands of deaths?! Do you care about anything??” Luckily, the period was ending, so I was unable to voice my frustrations, thus saving me from myself.
When I continued the lesson another day, I tried to go about it a different way. I decided to build up to some analysis and opinion without trying to confront it directly. I activated what they had learned, and then had a discussion from there. I created a Padlet page, where students wrote one thing they learned from the pdf that they hadn’t known before. Suddenly, I could see their quiet passion on the webpage. Although they hadn’t vocalized their passion, they had it. All of them demonstrated anger and frustration regarding the injustice of the U.S. towards Native Americans.
I began calling on students to explain their rationales. After a few minutes, I asked if anyone had disagreed with the author. No hands were raised for a few seconds, until a very perspective young man dared to come forward. “Of course we all feel this way, because we have only been subjected to this one author’s opinion.” Without my even having to prompt the class, we had come round to the point of author’s bias in writing.
The lesson I took away from this class is that sometimes the passion and the excitement are there, but I don’t always go about unlocking it the right way. Perhaps I try to get right to the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy, without trying to build the pyramid from the bottom up. If I take the time and ask the right questions, I can tap into the excitement.