This is the latest in a series of blogs from the teacher cohort.
By Kristen Fischer
I’ve started writing and stopped writing this blog post no fewer than five times. I couldn’t come up with a satisfying idea of what to write about. Seeking a spark, I shuffled through my papers and thought about our Fluency readings and trips. I started then dropped ideas. Interestingly enough, while I struggled with a topic for this blog post, my students struggled with topics for their photojournalism projects. This is a reflection, then, on the quest for topics.
For our most recent assignment, the class has spent six days asking questions--generating inquiry. We started with observations of sights, sounds, and smells. Results included sleeping in class, dressing “bummy,” and yelling in the cafeteria. From there, I modeled how any topic could become a subject for inquiry. My observation had been the smell of coffee. In class, we started by generating a list of questions about coffee that could be investigated, and our launching points were the typical ones: who, what, when, where, why, and how. Our first questions were mundane, like “Who drinks coffee?” and “Where is coffee made?” but eventually we generated some that were genuinely interesting: What are the different reasons that people drink coffee? Is is for caffeine or comfort? Is it a habit or a socialization opportunity? How many students habitually drink coffee, and when did they start? How does this coffee consumption--often motivated by sleepiness--perhaps contribute to insomnia at night and then create a problematic cycle of dependence on caffeine sources and sleep aids? This then sparked conversations of social media addiction and its role in student fatigue. (Sidenote: From this conversation, I learned that today’s teens text in the shower.) It was fascinating to see the evolution of the conversation--from a general, mundane topic of coffee, to a variety of specific and relevant real-world issues, spanning from the challenges of small business entrepreneurship to adolescent health.
We then collaboratively workshopped a topic from each student. With a small class size, this was doable. This, however, wasn’t my original plan. I had allotted two days for brainstorming and peer and teacher conferencing. This turned into six days of brainstorming, which included whole-group inquiry, peer conversations, teacher conferencing. This is definitely the most time I’ve ever invested for students to seek out a topic on any single assignment.
Compared to our last project, where the topics were often--but not always--general and inconsequential (“friends,” “my cat,” “basketball”), these new pursuits seem promising. One pitch has the title of “The Languages of Friendship.” Another might investigate the changing landscape of the high school job. Another is looking at what coaches and students view as the purpose of high school sports and how that view might impact participation rates.
However, for our last project, I had also pushed the students to go beyond generalities of friends, cats, and basketball, and they had mapped out more ambitious paths; we had used post-it notes to map out issues and topics of personal importance,however, upon submission, most projects reflected little of that follow-through. So, I’m concerned about the possibility that once again, many will give up on these promising topics and retreat back to their original generalities: “friends,” “jobs,” and “why people play sports,”, and the others like “nature” and “people’s styles.” On our class planning day, I could already see a few of them trying to do this, despite our pages and pages of fresher, edgier, more authentic, more specific, and more relevant ideas collectively generated, and I tried to encourage them to persevere rather than retreat. I think about student voice here, and what my role should be. If I explicitly say NO to their retreats, I have--in a way--silenced and stifled them. But if I never encourage them from those comfort zones, I haven’t fulfilled my role, either, because I’ve let them stifle themselves.
I think they see that some topics are better than others, so I also have thought a lot about why the students tend to retreat, despite these pages of alternative and fresher ideas. I wonder if they feel those ideas aren’t really “theirs.” I wonder if they feel intimidated by the authenticity of the work involved. I wonder if they perceive these topics as “too real,” and beyond their ability to explore. I wonder if they’re just retreating to those general topics out of habit. I wonder if they just get exhausted by the thought of an unfamiliar challenge, and fall back on something that seems more like a “sure thing,” despite its mundanity. I’m familiar with surrendering to constraints.
The quest for a topic often can’t be completed in one day (which I too often allot for my classes, though the curricular constraints are tighter). Even six days might not be the ideal amount of time to complete the job. In my quest for a blog post topic, I definitely have been reminded that the commitment to an idea at the outset isn’t the end of the challenges, and that once engaged in the act of working with a topic, the initial idea must often transform, for better or for worse. Thus, the quest for an idea goes beyond what’s conventionally seen as the planning stage, and deeply permeates the action stage.
It has also made me reflect on my regular English classes, and my own secondary education. I wonder how often high school students are invited to grapple with the challenges involved in generating topics, and I wonder if they see brainstorming and prewriting as something that’s fluid or fixed.
I know the temptation to just “get it done” exists. I know the way real and imagined constraints of time, uncertainty, resources, know-how, motivation, and comfort level can tear away at once-great intentions. These are the constraints we face as educators, and our students face them, too.
I hope the students will pursue some of these riskier and more authentic topics and eventually complete photo essays reflecting the ICMA model that show the level of creativity and engagement operating in their minds, but even if these grand ideas fail to come to fruition, I hope they’ll have seen the potential they have to uncover and investigate relevant and fresh topics. Generating topics and starting points will never be easy, but maybe if this phase of a project becomes more familiar, this phase will no longer be the main barrier; there will be new ones to tackle, but we will have made progress anyway.