As a 9th grade Ethnic Studies teacher, I spend an entire year offering students a counter perspective to what I assume is their primarily mainstream experience with learning history in grades K-8. Over the years I have witnessed students light up with interest as they learn about the struggles and achievements of people of color in the United States. Early in the year, I teach students about dominant narrative versus counter narrative. The dominant narrative is the narrative that is presented in mainstream American culture and history textbooks – for example, the notion that Christopher Columbus is a hero who discovered America. The counter narrative is the perspective from those who are not in the privileged groups of society – women, people of color, working class communities, etc. For example, the counter narrative of the Columbus story is that Columbus was the first European to step foot in North America, whose arrival precipitated the decimation of millions of Native peoples and the wholesale confiscation of their land.
Students often tell me that my class feels “different” from all the other history they’ve learned because they are now learning the “real” history of their people. This is always amusing to me because I never actually state that the counter narrative is the absolute truth, but students often interpret it that way. While I love the level of enthusiasm for Ethnic Studies that many students demonstrate, I am also concerned that they are now simply adopting the counter narrative as a replacement dogma to the dominant narrative. My inquiry question is:
How can I expose students to more than one narrative and deal with the complexity that it entails?
By implementing a new talk structure in my class, a modified version of a Structured Academic Controversy (SAC), I wanted students to grapple with both sides of an intellectually challenging historical question instead of simply accepting some version of a counter narrative that was presented to them in class. I realize that when students leave Ethnic Studies and encounter the opinions and ideas in the real word, they will need to be equipped to address counter arguments, devise rebuttals and defend their positions with clarity and confidence. Being able to synthesize different viewpoints is a critical fundamental skill in the process of civic engagement.
After our unit on the Black Panther Party, almost every single student was in fervent support of the Panthers’ strategy of armed self-defense in forming their own Panther Patrols to document police interactions in black communities in Oakland before the SAC. So at the end of the unit, students participated in a SAC on the following question:
Was armed self-defense an effective strategy for the Black Panthers to achieve their goals?
For the SAC, students worked in a four person team divided into two pairs. In each pair, students were given a document with statements supporting that particular side. For example, the side that argued that armed self-defense was NOT an effective strategy included points such as:
Since the Panthers were known for carrying weapons, police would often use that to justify their own use of violence. This would often cause police to engage in even MORE brutality and excessive force when interacting with the Panthers.
The side that argued in favor of armed self-defense included points such as:
Protesting in the March on Sacramento with weapons caused the Black Panther Party to gain thousands more members when they saw the coverage on television news across the country.
After each pair read and prepared to paraphrase their bullet pointed document, the group explores the question through a structured academic discussion using that information. Afterwards, students are given an opportunity to share what they “really” think within the group. For the most part, I attempted to assign students to argue the side that they did not originally agree with.
When students were asked to argue the opposing side to what they originally believed, many students changed their stance. For example, many students went from believing that armed self-defense was an effective strategy to believing that nonviolent resistance was a far better tactic. Hearing these two points in particular shifted many students’ opinions in this manner:
- Images of African Americans arming themselves scared off whites who might have otherwise supported them in the fight against racism. African Americans needed strength in numbers to bring about a significant change in society.
Armed self-defense, and the funds that were necessary to give legal support for Panthers who were imprisoned used up an enormous amount of the Panther’s budget. This took money away from other aspects of the movement (like the Free Breakfast for Children program).
Students referenced these two ideas frequently when explaining why they switched sides to believing that nonviolent resistance was the more effective strategy. This surprised me because prior to the SAC, most students staunchly believed that armed self-defense was the best tactic. The ease with which students changed their minds so drastically reminded me of why exposure to multiple perspectives is absolutely critical for students to develop their independent thinking and analysis about a subject.
Students appreciated being able to hear both sides of an argument. This allowed them to solidify their ideas before formulating a final stance. Additionally, this process seemed to empower them and make them “feel smarter.”
High class engagement – Organized into tables of four, students were held accountable to their peers. A few students did refuse to participate, but overall about 95% of students did participate.
Students at all levels were being challenged. For students who struggle with literacy skills, they simply selected and shared a few pieces of evidence, sometimes verbatim from the handout. For higher level students, they were able to paraphrase arguments and include their own analysis to accompany that piece of evidence.
Excerpts from Student Reflections
Erica: “When I was debating a different side I felt different but at the same time educated.”
Tony: “I believe this debate structure was neat because of how we got to argue in a respectful way, learning the real truth!”
Alejandro: “I feel more educated. This was a side I changed to because it made more sense.”
Alexis: “It wasn’t originally what I thought but I’m glad I argued this side because violence is really not the answer. “
Q: How do you think this activity went?
Alexis: I think the activity worked well, because you made us… you didn’t let us pick what we wanted to pick. You made us do the opposite side so that we could see the other person’s point of view. Plus I think a lot of people changed their minds when they were done with the debate.
Alexis: Because they had proof and evidence and everything, like someone people said armed self-defense was good, switched to non-violence and vice versa.
I am often hesitant to put students into groups, preferring that they either work in partners or as a whole class activity, like Socratic Seminar. However, with the SAC structure, I felt that the small group interaction was extremely productive. Students were forced to grapple with an intellectually challenging question that required them not only to analyze historical events but also deeply contemplate their stance on nonviolent resistance and armed self-defense.
In moving forward and thinking about when I could have students participate in a SAC earlier in the school year, I feel a bit stuck in coming up with questions that are appropriate for Ethnic Studies.
Additionally, one of my higher performing students, Jamil, mentioned the following in his reflection:
“I believe that we should have more time to actually debate and not just state what side we are on.”
Jamil accurately identifies one of the pitfalls of the SAC structure. While this activity presents students with two opposing sides that they have the opportunity to process, the classic SAC structure does not offer students a chance to come up with their own, original arguments for either side. When students are presented with documents arguing each side, they are paraphrasing and synthesizing arguments that I have stated for them, rather than coming up with ideas on their own. If I were to use the SAC structure multiple times throughout the year, I would want to modify the activity to provide embedded opportunities for students’ original thinking as the year progressed and students became more comfortable with the structure.
Ultimately the goal is for students to come up with their own original arguments on any given topic. This would require more advance preparation (reading excerpts and articles independently) and deeper content knowledge, which we could build towards the end of the year or even through vertical alignment with 10th, 11th and 12th grade Humanities courses.
Although taking action is something my students have done in the past (for example, presenting community assessment projects to City Administrators at Oakland City Hall), I was not logistically able to work it out this year. However, exposing students to multiple narratives and providing opportunities for them to grapple with the complexities of social and historical issues is an important precursor to future action. The ability to articulate views with sound evidence and clear reasoning is a critical foundational piece of civic engagement.