As to Bs: A Beginning

This is about curriculum. Arguably, the most important curriculum there is to the future of a human and his/her society.

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A quiet boy, no more than fourteen.

The walls peel inward while classmates eyeball the boy, in the rear corner, and me, in the front. Dry October leaves pile in the corners of the school’s courtyard. Our reading of Elie Wiesel’s Night is complete and the boy’s proclamation precedes any question from me.

It is the mid-1990s and this public high school sits within a blended northwest side neighborhood of Chicago. As a “lottery” school, this school abides by a consent decree between the Chicago public school system and the federal courts that, in effect, mandates the school’s population approximate one-quarter each Hispanic, Asian-American, Black, and White. Of course, religion does not figure into the quota: in one of our world’s most blended communities, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Christians, among others, sit side-by-side. The struggles of immigrant parents direct the ambitions of at least a fifth of the school’s students. The richness of the school’s environment has a profound influence on me. I do not share the histories of most of my students. I was raised Catholic and white suburban.

“…In this story, Allah punishes the Jews for all that they have done to Muslims in the Middle East.” His voice angers the silence.

Including his own, twenty-eight pairs of eyes turn toward me. Throughout our exploration of Night, the boy has offered little. Today, he offers much, and as his teacher I must decide what to do next.

In that moment, I understand that the narrative truth of the boy — the tenacious veracity of his personal story in this world — is fortified by the histories and beliefs of his parents and grandparents, by their ethnic, religious, and social communities, even by their ideas on love for neighbor. His own history emerges within these contexts, and, as a freshman, he guards his understanding of that history.

For me, the moment feels quintessentially American, perhaps not possible anywhere else in the world in the same way. America, a complex mix of races, ethnicities, socioeconomic levels, religions, languages, and, certainly, personal histories. Although anger sharpens our group at that moment, the room is also limned by the curiosity and tolerance unique to younger adolescents.

Through our close reading of Night, journaling, and a steady Socratic-style dialogue, the curricular aim is to honor each student’s humanity, ending by each student’s writing an argument in response to the question “What role does one’s personal history play in society’s history?”

As with anyone who teaches Night, my hope is to help further develop each student’s humanity through a wider understanding of others’. Of course, a skill-based curriculum and instruction (such as the correct verb tenses when writing about past events) and the assessment of those skills are embedded within this larger humanist construct of tolerance.

The hands of several Jewish students, some Orthodox and many with personal ties to the Holocaust and Israel, shoot into the air. Others, too.

It’s funny how that moment sits so prominently in my memory. A moment like this — unannounced and unforgiving — emerges in every teaching life, searing its artifacts into our memory. Every classroom has moments of colliding narratives, where the truth of one student negates that of another, turning the moment into a potential coliseum.

The performance of those narratives can glue the corners of a classroom together, binding the humanity of one young person to the other.

Or unglue.

One thing is certain: the moment defines all subsequent moments in that classroom. For me, colliding narratives of race and socioeconomic status are more tangible, more easily negotiated; students tend to more easily articulate causes and effects. Collisions of Yahweh, Allah, and God are murkier.

Gathering the room, I risk upon a student to respond, a Muslim student.

Later during the school year, as trees bloom in the courtyard, the corners of the room seem to round toward a center. Narratives continue to emerge while curiosity and tolerance deepen.

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Always, ideas emerge within a context.

As to Bs is such an idea, a model.

I am like so many teachers. Reflective and often creative, to me the paradigm of As to Bs emerged within mid-1990s moments like this profound Night moment. I loved that any book, like Night, could stir one student, and then his class, to such emotion. To an expression of personal histories and beliefs, and perhaps, most especially for a freshman, to the desire to speak.

Lacking in that moment, I thought, was his text-based critical thinking. With all respect to his personal history and understanding of others’ histories, he was not offering a critical thinking based in the text, Night.

As a personal expression, his opinion was valued in our classroom, despite the obvious conflict that moment catalyzed. To me, such spontaneous expressions enliven classrooms with the authenticity of the young humans who fill those rooms, helping them to feel safe in the classroom as a place to express, not a place to be indoctrinated. Wild opinions, emerging ideas, and well-reasoned arguments course through teenage brains with unparalleled speed and disjointedness. I welcome these unpredictable moments.

Knowing this, my job is to balance a classroom environment of emotional authenticity with one of emotional safety — for all, not just one. This is not easy. Nevertheless, I have enjoyed this complex challenge, working toward an environment of inclusion, one that honors and attempts to work through the conflict young people naturally bring to a classroom, rather than toward one of exclusion, one that fears the messiness that conflict may bring and veers away. Students are able to sense “fear and veer,” which can lead to an inauthentic classroom, one where students implicitly understand the conflicts of the real world are not permitted.

To build that inclusion and, of course, clear and cogent critical thinking skills, for me, the how of a student’s thinking is far more important than the what.

I do not teach students to express sanitized, politically correct thoughts; most teens think our world is far too messy for simple, clean, politically correct thoughts about it. I do teach students a sturdy flexibility to their critical thinking process: “Ok, young person, whatever your claim is on whatever the topic, lets learn how to express it clearly, cogently.”

Moments like the Night moment taught me to understand my role better: students can and must opine what they wish — as long as the opinion is not deliberately disrespectful.

And, effective (i.e., clear and cogent) critical thinking requires that students connect their evidence to the their reasons and their reasons to their big ideas, what we call claims. Claims such as “In this story, Allah punishes the Jews for all that they have done to Muslims in the Middle East.”

Students begin to learn that when the text does not provide evidence for their reasons, the critical thinking is jeopardized. Thus, what a student believed was a claim was not so; it was an opinion. After I had selected her to respond, the second Muslim student explained to the Muslim boy: “Your opinion is strong and I understand why you might have that opinion, but Night doesn’t support that.” She then explained why he needed evidence, first offering compassion for why he might have such an opinion. He had no claim, ready with reasons and necessary evidence; he had an opinion.

Those of us who teach writing call this connecting of evidence to reasons to claims logos, or logic. In one way or another, all academic thinking requires some form of this logic, I understood better and better from 1986 through the mid-1990s.

In middle and high school language arts classes, whether a sixth grade class or an Honors, AP, or IB-level twelfth grade class, students are required to explain/argue/persuade how something smaller is related to something bigger. And, if one believes as expansively as Angela Lunsford* does, that everything we humans do is an argument of some sort or another, then those arguments certainly must have their supports, their evidence.

But was there a way to simplify the teaching of critical thinking? I need to step further backward a moment.

I began the extraordinary life of teaching in 1986. Like many teachers, after ten years of teaching, I had been exposed to probably fifteen to twenty different models of critical thinking, some offered by professors and theorists, some by textbook companies and specialized academic programs, and still others by folks such as me, teachers. Invariably, my students found that these critical thinking models lacked resonance. I suppose that somehow via grading practices I could have “forced” students to learn whatever critical thinking model we were employing, but the common thread through student resistance was that the models were not intuitive.

My students found that even the more promising models were

  • Too complex. “Mr. McRaith, why do we have to learn a new language in order to think?”
  • Too context specific. “Mr. McRaith, why do we have to learn a new way to think for every genre of writing or medium of art or type of standardized test?”
  • Too disconnected from their stage of cognitive development. “Mr. McRaith, I’m not in college yet. Why do I have to learn to think and talk like a graduate student?”

I’m resourceful, but over those ten years, I ran out of answers.

By the mid-1990s, clearly understanding the logos necessary to academic thinking, I began to teach that, effectively, “critical thinking is the identifying and explaining the relationship of something smaller to something bigger,” labeling the model “As to Bs.”

I chose the term As to Bs thinking that, of course, nothing implies simple as does the learning of one’s ABCs. (Nonetheless, the term As to Bs can be replaced by just about any two suitable terms, e.g., engine parts to the car, hair to the head [or not!], etc. — whatever two terms the local community privileges.) As to Bs is about simplifying the critical thinking process, not using new and complex terminology.

My experience across very different schools and demographics has been common and overwhelming: As to Bs works. As to Bs possesses a simplicity that makes it easy for teachers to teach critical thinking and students to learn it — within any subject!

If you are like I was during my first ten years as a teacher  — and consequently my students, you and your students struggle to understand what critical thinking really is and how to teach and learn it.

And, why shouldn’t you and they?

Over the years, I’ve asked perhaps hundreds of teachers from around the country. I’ve asked around alot. Either through teacher preparation programs or subsequently while teaching in a school, not one teacher, so far, has testified to having been taught an explicit, cohesive, and effective approach to teaching critical thinking. Much less an approach that remains simple and cohesive to infinite applications across an entire school or district.

Lets take this in for a moment.

This is critical thinking, the most important and student-empowering endgame to all K-12 education?

Yes.

And, all reputable K-12 standards, including The Common Core State Standards (CCSS), scaffold critical thinking as the endgame? The various non-CCSS state standards? College and Career Readiness Standards (CCRS, for ACT)? College Board Standards for College Success™ (for SAT)? Advanced Placement (AP)?

Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

And a large sampling of teachers, including myself, admit that they have not been taught a explicit, cohesive, and effective approach to teaching critical thinking?

Yes.

From the mid-1990s through 1999, I implemented As to Bs within my classes at the Night school, gathering input from students, refining, and testing the application of As to Bs across all sorts of reading and writing genres, media, and contexts. Heck, if everything is an argument, then a simple critical thinking model should work with everything, right?

By 1999, I was finding that As to Bs did work with everything.

And, at that time an opportunity emerged for me to try As to Bs out with a different student population: the soon-to-be highest-taking high school students in the state of Illinois.

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In 1999, I was invited to become the first English chair at a newly built selective enrollment (i.e., competitive, test-based admissions) Chicago public high school. Chicago opened this $55 million educational investment to be the flagship of the soon-to-be nine in the city. The architecture of this school truly inspires. Generous sunlight pours through floor to ceiling windows in the bi-level library, lunchroom, atria, and hallways – as well as in lots of classrooms. Technology quietly regulates the temperature and humidity in each room. The theater boasts the size and production quality of a small college’s. The well apportioned gym and pool ensure that the physical development of the learner does not lag behind the cognitive and social/emotional. Throughout, polished terrazzo floors reflect the solid promise upon which society builds the future of these young people.

I began the 1999-2000 school year wondering, “Will such bright, high-achieving students even need a model for critical thinking — or, as their test scores for admission might imply, do they understand high-level critical thinking already? And, if there is a need for critical thinking development, will As to Bs be helpful to such high fliers?”

Hansel and Gretel’s next post, “As to Bs Travels, Evolves,” will answer that question.

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* Lunsford’s oft-cited and best-selling work, Everything’s an Argument, shows students how to analyze all kinds of arguments — not just essays and editorials, but clothes, cars, ads, and even website designs.

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As to Bs ™ will occupy the theoretical center of the The Purple Pen, a unique and powerful educational technology. The Purple Pen’s mission is (1) to empower local educators and schools (2) to design and provide blended, authentic learning for their students. The author, now designer and builder, is grateful to be assisted by the exceptional skills and abundant generosity of many. Stay tuned . . .