In the past couple months, I’ve lost some faith in the world. An anti-vaccination movement sparked by one doctor’s now refuted research paper proliferated one of the largest outbreaks of measles in the United States. Over half the country is still debating whether climate change exists, even though it has been confirmed by 99 percent of the scientific community.
At least the two front-runners of the 2016 presidential race are fresh faces, ready to make a change. Oh wait. It’s Bush and Clinton, two names we’ve heard in the major political offices since 1989.
But more upsetting to me than all that, which, for the record, is a high bar to surpass, is that not many people seemed to care.
My parents didn’t talk about them, rather, we spent hours debating whether I should take the ACT or SAT. My teachers made no attempt to discuss them in class; instead, we sped ahead to complete the curriculum before AP tests. My fellow peers and I spent more time discussing whether we wanted to choose two-day express shipping for our prom dresses than concern themselves with, I don’t know, the possibility that human activity is destroying the planet on which we currently reside.
But alas, my faith has been restored in humanity. All it took was a middle school English class. I was supposed to help with their debate project, which was to pick a controversial topic, research and have a four-minute debate with a partner.
I walked in with the expectation of helping students outline arguments from research articles they had found, about such topics as longer school hours, standardized testing, maybe even college debt.
Instead, I walked into a classroom of students with coherent outlines, written opening statements and contentions, each backed with at least one piece of evidence. I walked into a classroom of students who had written out anticipated opposition arguments and begun to refute them. Even more impressive, I walked into a classroom of students talking about topics that are currently being debated: the ethics of animal testing and capital punishment, the significance of the gender wage gap, the costs and benefits of a minimum wage increase and the use of drones in combat.
There is something absolutely mesmerizing about talking through the impacts of drone usage on citizen privacy with a seventh grader. It’s not the fact that they can understand the concerns surrounding drones that amazes me, it’s that they understand the central arguments that frame the debate better than the average American.
And get this: not only do they understand, they care. These twelve or thirteen-year-olds went home and researched on their own time, often surpassing the required number of articles. And then they came to school the next day, eager to share knowledge, eager to teach and be taught.
After spending the day helping with the project, I began to wonder how exactly the three language arts teachers, Zack Prout, Diana Tisdale and Caroline Steig, managed to take weeks off their curriculum to pursue this.
They told me, well, they didn’t. Instead of teaching the basic curriculum or cramming the curriculum to fit in a lengthy off-curriculum project, they combined the two. The curriculum standard is that seventh graders learn research skills and be able to write a research paper.
They said, what better way to learn to research and form arguments than a debate?
Thus, the project was born.
And that’s when I realized: This is what learning is. This is what school should be like. This was three teachers coming together to meet curriculum standards while educating their students on important current events and encouraging the discoveries of students’ individual views. And this was students actively and passionately participating in class work outside of their requirements because they had a project that was intellectually stimulating.