Although I completed my inquiry in the context of a mixed grade Beginning Drama course, because of my background as a History teacher, I was particularly interested in developing my Educating for Democracy in the Digital Age (EDDA) inquiry around student construction of argument. My selected inquiry reflects the value I have placed on supporting young people in learning to articulate their ideas and perspectives so that they might be heard, understood and respected by a variety of audiences. In an attempt to insure that the three components of civic engagement would be addressed in my inquiry project, I decided to design a video project that would ask students to engage in issue analysis by selecting a social issue that is important to them, to take action with the message their video makes by entering the video into the Adobe Youth Voices program website where thousands of people can view their work as well as to upload their videos to their individual blogs (created through tumblr), and I also included in the design of the project several opportunities for student reflection including video rough-cut reviews and independent written reflection assignments. With the support of my EDDA peers and advisor, my inquiry took the form of the following question: How do we support students in not only acknowledging alternate perspectives but to do so with compassion? One answer to this question is to engage students in the process of peer-assessment. In completing this inquiry, what I found to be most effective in getting students to meet set standards was to engage in peer-assessment activities. As educators we are constantly in search of authentic assessments, creatively crafting opportunities for our students to engage with “experts”; but students, especially adolescent students, value what their peers believe. It is therefore at the very least equally necessary for adolescents to engage in and receive peer feedback and assessments as well as “expert” or teacher assessments.
This year I taught a mixed-grade level, though predominantly 9th and 10th grade, Beginning Drama course. While some students elected to participate in this course, the vast majority of my students had no drama experience and had not elected to take Beginning Drama.
One of my biggest challenges throughout this year was attempting to balance the expectations of a Drama course with my interest in developing student’s ability to craft counterarguments. My solution to this challenge was to create a video project that asked students to create a dramatic video about a social issue. Students were asked to develop a thesis statement that would articulate the purpose or message of their video. Students were also asked to identify a counterargument that would be presented within the video.
Motivation Behind My Inquiry
So often students wonder how what they learn in school can be applied in “the real world.” In an effort to support students in authentic civic engagement, it is imperative that students share their perspectives on social issues. But how will they be heard? With ever increasing access to digital media, young people are gaining access to platforms that allow their perspectives to be heard. While these new platforms are allowing students to connect with a worldwide audience, without acknowledging alternate arguments, students may be limiting their message to those who already agree with their perspective, and no transformation takes place. However, if students begin to create a habit of acknowledging alternative perspectives and thus validating and humanizing, rather than discounting or demonizing these perspectives, perhaps transformation of thought is possible. It is for this reason that I was motivated to center my inquiry around this topic.
In order to address the inquiry question, I wanted to give students multiple opportunities to understand the term counterargument as a way to talk about and acknowledge alternative perspectives. In the first semester, students engaged in formal essay writing where they were introduced to documents and were asked to answer the question: Is the death penalty just? Direct instruction was given on what is counterargument and why it is necessary to include acknowledgement of the counterargument in an essay. Despite this instruction, most essays lacked coherent counterarguments or any counterargument at all. These findings were similar to previous findings in years past – that students do not seem to understand the value and purpose of counterargument. A common mistake was that many students simply stated the counterargument and provided evidence to support the counterargument but then did not refute the counterargument by attempting to discredit the evidence. I must note that during this process, partly in the interest of time, I did not incorporate any peer-assessment opportunities.
In order to address the lack of understanding about what a counterargument is supposed to do, when beginning our video project I asked students to write and include in their videos, a monologue delivered by the protagonist that would articulate the video’s thesis and a monologue delivered by the antagonist that would articulate the counterargument. This component of the video project was somewhat successful. It allowed me to clearly identify which students understood the function of a thesis and counterargument and which did not. I was thus able to direct my attention to specific groups so that all groups were able to articulate a thesis and counterargument. However, while many groups included these monologues in their videos, several groups deleted these monologues from the rough-cut versions of their videos. It was not until these students received peer feedback that many groups actually included multiple perspectives into their videos and could articulate the value of alternate perspectives in their reflections. Here is an excerpt from one of my student’s reflections:
I chose to present this topic [bullying] for my media work because I believe this is a very common topic in the social world today. I believe that the commercials and other videos about bullying is somewhat one sided. I, along with my group members , have thought of the thesis of this video to show two sides of the story of what we believed came with bullying. We chose to do this video and present it as is because it shows that, there isn’t always one victim when it comes to bullying. Everything has two sides. And that is the main reason we chose film this story.
Our perspective on this subject is unique because we aren’t showing just one side of the story of a person getting bullied like most videos are. We are showing two points of views into one. Thus showing that you always have to look at both sides of a story. Everything isn’t always what it seems. Our video shows the cause, problem, and solution from two perspectives.
This reflection suggests to me that students actually began to internalize the lessons surrounding the value of addressing alternate perspectives with compassion. I am suggesting that this improvement of student work and the growth I observed in student articulation of the value or necessity of showing and having compassion for multiple perspectives can be attributed to the feedback students received from their peers and not from the feedback I offered. Throughout the year, I facilitated conversations about the value of acknowledging alternative perspectives. However, it was not until students gave feedback aloud during our rough-cut reviews did I really begin to hear students internalizing the ideas we had discussed. Students critiqued peer videos by citing an absence of the alternate perspective: ‘why didn’t you include a monologue from the perspective of the drug dealer?’ ‘What was the bully’s reason for bullying?’ Comments such as these suggest an understanding that without acknowledging the alternate perspective, one may lose the opportunity to alter the thinking of those who hold different perspectives than our own. One cannot convince a man to change by telling the man he is vile, evil, and wrong. This method generally breeds defensiveness. To lower these defenses, one must acknowledge and show compassion for the choices that that man has made. In conclusion, valuing alternative perspectives was a point of learning for many of my students and seems to have come as a result of the peer-assessment opportunities provided.
POSSIBLE NEXT STEPS
Because of this inquiry, I am suggesting that what makes authentic assessment valuable is the opportunity for our students to hear from their peers, that is, to hear the perspectives that they value. Therefore, I am interested in re-examining my curriculum so that I can build in more opportunities for peer assessment, and I am encouraging other educators to do the same. In reference to the three components of the civic engagement framework, peer assessment is an essential tool in guiding students in issue analysis. Activities that support this process include debates, Structured Academic Controversies, screenplay writing. Peer-assessment to play a large role in the taking action component of civic engagement through activities such as creating videos or blogs, and in reflection through reflective group discussions such as Socratic Seminars or formal critiques.