I usually let the students choose their own topics because it must be a persuasive research paper, and I want them to pick something that they are interested in so that (hopefully) they’ll do a better job. I’m getting tired of reading papers about abortion and steriods. It makes for a tricky situation sometimes to get students to form an argument that goes beyond the usual platitudes you hear on TV. For example, “When you get an abortion, you are taking a life. Everyone has a right to life.” Whether or not I agree is irrelevant. My job is to try to get students to extend their thinking beyond those soundbites. Sometimes when I do so, I’m misinterpreted as being radical (which there’s nothing wrong with being radical once in awhile) when really all I’m trying to do is get them to think on their own. Once, when I told a student that just because George Bush hunts with his family doesn’t mean that he embodied family values, the kid looked at me as if I had three heads. I was trying to encourage him to connect the dots… to show how hunting = shared values/interests + time with family = family values (in a very simplified form). He thought he had put me in my place when he said, “I told my dad what you said, and he said only a Democrat would say something like that.” Ohhh, no! A [gasp] Democrat??? What could possibly be worse??? [eyes rolling]. Oh what would his dad ever do if he knew that I was an independent? Heaven forbid we actually teach these kids how to think. Honestly, it took a great deal of self control not to laugh. He thought he’d really burned me. And make no mistake, I’m all for family values. I just happen to disagree that hunting makes it a foregone conclusion.
But I digress…. There are those students who write persuasive papers and base their entire argument on stereotypes and genuine ignorance. It takes gentle guidance and a discerning heart to nudge them toward more critical thinking, and I must always be aware of the fact that I might be creating tension for them if I ask them to question something that they hear at home from their parents. One such stereotype I encountered recently was that we should ban homosexuality because “it would be nice to not have to worry about someone of the same sex going too far.” The implication was that we should ban homosexuality so that we would never have to worry about someone of the same sex making an advance toward us. Now, I don’t ever want to step in the place of a parent, but it is a dangerous (and highly offensive) stereotype to characterize homosexuals as sex-crazed beings who try to sleep with anyone and everyone. Not knowing where these ideas came from–his parents, the media, his own misconceptions–what do I say to get him to look at that assumption a little more closely? It can be a slippery slope sometimes.
Of course, if I limited their choices, it would make it easier for me. Everything would be safe with no potential for controversy, and I wouldn’t have to do so much thinking when I read these papers and consider their arguments. But, if it’s thinking that I’m trying to avoid, then I have no business being a teacher. And the bottom line is I don’t require them to write about controversial subjects. But some of them do because these are the issues that they are grappling with or want to learn more about. Isn’t school supposed to be a “safe place” where they can learn and figure out what they think? This is why on many other levels, I love love love my job. I like helping students figure out what they know, what they think, what they believe. I like being an agent for learning and understanding.