My freshmen are reading The Giver this week. We were six chapters in on Wednesday and paused the reading for a day.
After reviewing how to brainstorm correctly, (time yourself and write as many ideas down as possible, not editing or organizing), students were given two minutes to brainstorm the topic “Problems in the World.” Students counted how many ideas they had written and the one with most received a piece of gum. Simple but effective. Gum is like gold at high school!
“The winner in brainstorming is always the person with the most ideas,” I reiterated.
First hour, I began asking students to each name one of their ideas and I began writing them on the board. I realized I would need more instruction when students began saying things like, “Obama.”
“How is Obama a problem? You can’t just say a name,” I said.
“Everything he does is a problem,” the student replied. Many nodded around the room. This wouldn’t work. His thinking was illogical and unorganized.
“A person is not a problem. Some of their behaviors could be a problem,” I stated.
“Obama-care,” another student offered.
“That is the name of a national health care program,” I was getting testy. “Not a problem.”
“But it is!”
“The website is terrible.”
I was getting a headache. You can think through a lesson as much as you want but you don’t really know what will happen, especially in a discussion with teenagers. It can radically change even hour to hour as a different group comes in!
I explained again how to state something as a problem and we moved on.
Second hour, a student said, “discipline of children” was a problem.
“Ok, think about this for a second. Are you really saying that you want no children disciplined for anything? Ever?”
She stared back at me.
“Think of exactly what you mean,” I prodded. She still stared, not speaking.
“Do you mean child abuse?” I asked. She nodded.
By third hour, I had it. After students wrote their lists, I asked them to look at their lists.
“Mark off all the problems that cannot be solved by people.” I had realized I did not want them to list things such as tornadoes or typhoons.
“Now mark off all the problems that are going to go away on their own in five-ten years.” I said this to get rid of all the sketchy Obama comments. If they were thoughtful, they’d realize they could have said his policies would have impact in five-ten years.
“Finally, re-read your list to make sure every idea is stated as a problem.” I gave them the examples from the first two hours when someone said, “Money” and another said, “Education.”
“Do you see how you can’t just say ‘money’ is a problem? Greed? Poverty? That’s a problem.”
It worked. They went to town on their lists and it went much better. The only further prodding I had to do was to get them to think more clearly and be able to state the problem succinctly.
What was the point of this? Originally the point was to list world problems, have them discuss what problems did not exist in The Giver and how the community in the book had “solved” them. I wanted them to consider the “perfect world” Lois Lowry had created in the book before we proceeded to tear it down in the coming chapters. Also, I wanted them to think about what they were not willing to give up to have a “perfect world.”
However, an added benefit was found in making them be clear and thoughtful and logical in a discussion. They had to think about what they said before they said it. For some, it was tough.
The next day they wrote an argument paragraph on one of the world problems, how they’d solve it, how it was solved in The Giver and why their solution was better. After a mini-lesson on how to write good introductions, they knocked it out of the park. Next time we have a discussion I will reinforce thinking before you speak. For some, it will stick and help them in future discussions, not only in high school but as American citizens, future voters, and thoughtful, educated adults.
Kim Blevins teaches language arts at Willard High School in Missouri. Blevins, a National Writing Project Teacher Consultant since 2009, was awarded Most Influential Women in the Ozarks and Secondary Teacher of the Year for the state of Missouri. She is a presenter and published author.