As an introduction to our persuasion unit (which will lead to the debate unit), my speech classes have been working on group discussions. I taught them the process and then set them to practice. We have spent a week fixing the world's problems, and by "the world," I mean "our school." Discussed topics include the following:
How can we decrease truancy in our school?
What should we do to motivate underachieving students?
What should we do to encourage at-risk students to stay in school?
All of these topics came from newspaper articles I've read in the past two weeks; of course the articles dealt with specific proposals that had already been made: one talked about a Texas school system that uses GPS to track truant students, one talked about several states that are starting to give monetary rewards to students who make good grades, and one talked about schools that are discussing the possibility of allowing at-risk students to transfer to community college after the tenth grade.
After passing out each article, I wrote a discussion outline on the board and asked students to go ahead and write their own answers before the discussion began, so they would have something to contribute once we started. I tried to stress the importance of research and preparation, not just for the discussion, but also for our upcoming speeches ("There is no argument that can be logically won with, 'Because I said so,'" I told them. "Unless you're talking to your mom.")
As the group leader I got to direct the discussion, and I have to tell you, I've been pretty impressed. I don't often get a chance to see my students using their critical thinking skills, and I thought some of their solutions were pretty amazing. Almost every student contributed something, even though I had to coax it out of some of my more reticent kids.
I began each discussion by talking about how the situation we discussed could have major ramifications for our school. I tried to impress upon them that THEY are the ones who are most affected by school policies, and that if they aren't happy with their school, the powers-that-be would be more likely to listen to them (and their parents) than to me.
[If there's one thing that I've learned from teaching world history this year, it's that sometimes change only comes through revolution. I want to be on the front lines of this one.]
In all three discussions, someone suggested that we offer more classes that would appeal to students.
"Why don't we have those classes now?" I asked.
And without hesitating or prompting, they would answer, "No Child Left Behind."
See, when even the students know that a law has a negative effect on schools, the government should take note.