Social studies textbooks present a litany of facts and dates in brief sections that obscure the human element in important events. Although social studies textbooks can serve as useful references, teachers are turning increasingly to powerful young adult novels that may encourage student engagement and critical thinking. Secondary students read and respond to textbooks and novels in distinctly different ways. They approach stories with an open, interpretive stance using their intuition to figure out what Langer (1989) called the underside of the story; conversely, texts seem to induce a more narrow, fact-oriented reader stance.
Contemporary young adult novels recommended in the annual April/May Social Education feature titled "Notable Children's Trade Books ..." offer a wide selection of fiction and nonfiction sources that are likely to enrich secondary students' critical thinking when combined with appropriate teaching and learning strategies. In this article we introduce the young adult novel California Blue (1994) by David Klass. This book was included in last year's list of "Notable Children's Trade Books" (Social Education, April/May 1995). This engaging novel, chronicling a high school student's discovery of a previously unknown blue butterfly in a northern California forest used for logging, introduces a host of issues related to citizenship in a postindustrial age.
Authors of numerous studies have found that social studies teachers believe that citizenship education is a fundamental, curricular goal (Goodlad 1984; Parker 1991; Shaver 1987) and that promoting students' critical thinking skills provides the focus for that education. For example, Fullinwider (1991, 24) viewed "citizenship as the core concept around which social studies is formed, and participation as the key idea for understanding citizenship." Andres's study (1981) found the processes of citizenship transmission to be the most consistent and distinct orientation of social studies teachers when interpreting their goals and purposes. Furthermore, she found that most social studies teachers favored the balanced and thoughtful discussion of controversial issues as a regular part of the social studies curriculum (Leming 1991). Parker's analysis (1991, 345) of social studies curriculum led him to conclude that "at the heart of democratic citizenship is not only the acquisition of information and the construction of knowledge related to social life and public policy but, even more pointed and ambitious than these, ethical decision-making on public and private matters of social concern."
Social studies teachers create activities or assignments, or evaluative tools that ask students to analyze, compare, contrast, evaluate, and/or apply content knowledge to given situations or problems. These tasks may be assigned with the belief that students are already capable critical thinkers. Goodlad (1984), however, found few opportunities in schools for students to exercise or develop the critical thinking skills needed for such activities. In addition, the enormous breadth of content in social studies fosters a factual orientation in social studies teaching (McNeil 1986). Social studies teachers face the difficult challenge of integrating content and opportunities to engage students in critical thinking about concepts related to citizenship.
Some classroom arrangements encourage higher level thinking. For example, Stodolsky (1988) found that, in social studies classrooms where less traditional instructional arrangements prevailed, students were expected to perform more complex intellectual tasks and goals. In the sections that follow, we demonstrate a literature-based teaching and discussion strategy designed to increase opportunities for critical thinking about citizenship in social studies. We introduce an integrated curriculum model in which teacher collaboration across the fields of English and social studies results in the use of powerful young adult literature to stimulate students' critical thinking about citizenship issues related to the environment.
Rationale for Using Young Adult Literature
Phil Mercado teaches English in a suburban high school where he is teamed with Sally Walton, a colleague in social studies.* They co-plan units and lessons as members of a core team responsible for 130 students. Following a summer course in using young adult literature in the content areas, they developed a unit devoted to issues of citizenship in a changing community. They selected David Klass's novel California Blue (1994) as the major reading for this unit. Phil wanted his students to consider some of Thoreau's writings on this issue, and Sally wanted to confront her students with some of the difficult decisions required for active participation in a community. They both felt that this novel would stimulate students' critical thinking, and their experiences proved this assumption correct.
California Blue follows John Rogers on his difficult journey of self-discovery. John's father and brother were football stars in the small northern California logging town of Kiowa. The local lumber mill is the economic engine for the community, and John's father labors in the logging industry along with most of John's neighbors. These hard-working people have little use for environmentalists, perceiving their efforts as attempts to shut down logging.
John is the antithesis of a Kiowa local. He runs track, widely considered a "wimpy" sport compared to football. He gravitates toward science and spends hours collecting insect specimens. These normally soothing pursuits lead John directly into conflict with the town and his family. He inadvertently discovers an unnamed blue butterfly in the forest and teams up with his biology teacher and her mentor, a famous Berkeley entomologist and environmental activist, to restrict logging in the area where this endangered butterfly flourishes. The road that leads John to challenge his family's values is arduous. As the novel unfolds, John's father is stricken with leukemia. John's feelings of concern and confusion collide because he harbors a long-standing resentment for his father's comments on his inability to take first place in any track meet. He feels cut off from the Kiowa High School mainstream, and he becomes increasingly at odds with his friends in the community.
California Blue offers a powerful means for engaging students in critical thinking about citizenship issues. Phil and Sally assigned sections of the novel for students to read before each class. They asked students to jot down in their journals any personal reactions to key episodes where John had to make critical choices and act on these decisions. In essence, students considered what they might do in the same situation. For example, after finding the blue butterfly, John wanted to share his discovery with his father, but decided not to: "I knew he'd react angrily and probably violently. He'd make me take the butterfly and let it go, and force me to promise not ever to mention it again" (51). Phil and Sally engaged small groups of students in discussion of the novel following individual journal responses dealing with critical episodes like the one above. In addition, students were asked to make predictions about upcoming events in the novel (see Shapiro and Fisher 1993, for additional information on this approach). One of the strategies that Phil and Sally used to generate critical thinking was Polar Opposites (Readence, Bean, and Baldwin 1995).
A Polar Opposites discussion guide
consists of descriptive adjectives such as relaxed versus tense that are supported or challenged by events in a novel or text. To develop a Polar Opposites discussion guide:
1.Construct three or four polar opposite statements and their accompanying adjectives for a particular key episode. Place five blanks between the adjectives.
For example, in California Blue, John, the main character, wrestles with numerous fears, some related to his inability to take first place in the 1500-meter track event. Thus, a Polar Opposites statement that requires students to consider the complexity of John's emotional turmoil would be the following:
John's running is _______________
pleasurable ___ _________ ___torture
2.Have students place a check mark (3) closest to the adjective that best describes their critical interpretation for discussion. These varying student viewpoints can be considered in small-group discussion.
3.Have students defend and discuss their interpretations. For example, California Blue opens with John eloquently describing his daily run through the woods. He embraces the solitude of this lonely sport and his special relationship with the forest. On the other hand, as the novel unfolds, we see John struggling as a middle distance runner with no reserve kick to outrace his opponents. He is a consistent second place finisher and an embarrassment to his championship football star father. Thus, students might take the middle ground and discuss the love-hate relationship John has with running and, indeed, with his father.
In order to defend or refute a particular stance on a Polar Opposites statement, students must return to the relevant passages for support. Thus, careful and critical reading is a key element of this strategy. Because this strategy and others lend themselves to small-group discussion, we want to illustrate how this worked in Sally and Phil's classroom.
Using Small Groups to Discuss Young Adult Literature
In addition to Polar Opposites, Phil and Sally adopted a small-group discussion approach from an article on how to use literature circles to discuss fiction (Shapiro and Fisher 1993). They assigned roles and responsibilities to each group member and rotated these roles in subsequent discussion sessions. Each group of three students had a discussion leader, a vocabulary researcher, and a historical researcher. The discussion leader was responsible for gate keeping as students discussed the novel using the Polar Opposites strategy. The vocabulary researcher introduced definitions of new technical and general words in the novel. California Blue includes technical vocabulary related to entomology as well as general words like "foreboding" that may be new to readers. Finally, the historian provided references to other readings that relate to the novel. For example, in their English class, students considered passages from Henry David Thoreau's works dealing with nature and civil disobedience. The following scene demonstrates Phil and Sally's use of small-group discussion using Polar Opposites guide statements on a key episode in the novel.
In the latter part of the novel, Dr. Eggleson, the Berkeley entomologist, tells John that other environmentalists plan to march on the lumber mill to shut down timber logging until the status of the blue butterfly is decided in court. This scene follows a fight in which John is beaten by his former friends for joining the outsiders. At this point in the book, John is a pariah in his home town. He tells Dr. Eggleson, "The people at the mill, and the guys who beat me up ... they all have sides. You can't stop me from choosing a side, too. You can't leave me out in no-man's land" (Klass 1994, 154).
At this point in the novel, three students finished reading a passage from Thoreau in Phil's class that dealt with the difficult choices confronting John.
Leader: Before we look at Ms. Walton's Polar Opposites statements for this episode in the novel, let's review the material Aaron has that we read in Mr. Mercado's class. What would Thoreau say about this part of the novel?
Historian: Way back in 1849, Thoreau said in his essay on civil disobedience that "action from principle, the perception and the performance of right, changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary" (1967a, 1468). That applies here.
Vocabulary Researcher: So each character's perceptions, or how they see events, influences their beliefs.
Historian: I liked the part where John told Dr. Eggleson how he felt. John is definitely a revolutionary in his home town.
Vocabulary Researcher: Well, it's not clear to me that he's siding with the environmentalists out of civic concern or some personal motive. He has problems with his father, and he's a dweeb. He's smart but isolated by his intelligence. He really doesn't fit in Kiowa.
Historian: In a way, he is the future of Kiowa, and the other towns people just haven't come to grips with it. There's a section in Thoreau's essay on Walden where he argues, "One generation abandons the enterprises of another like stranded vessels" (1967b, 1248). John identifies with Dr. Eggleson more than his father and friends.
Leader: I don't know. John can't simply abandon his family like sinking ships. Would you do that?
Historian: Yes, if it meant being true to myself.
V.R.: That seems pretty idealistic.
Leader: Let's look at Ms. Walton's Polar Opposites statements. Let's take the first one. Latoya, what do you think?
V.R.: John's justification is clouded by all his social problems. He has trouble fitting in with his family and the small town. I don't know if he would act this way for another, similar cause. There's so much happening to him; it could just be his age and circumstances.
H.: I think he is justified. He seems like the kind of person who carefully analyzes everything. At this point in the book we see him siding with the environmentalists, but he'd decided to protect the endangered blue butterfly long before that. I don't think it's a snap decision.
Leader: Remember when Mr. Mercado talked about the industrial age versus the post-industrial era? I think John represents this newer era and the painful changes it's bringing to older industrial towns like Kiowa. Lots of towns all over the country are going through this. We've damaged our surroundings, and we need to change our ways. But let's look at that last statement. Would you make the same decision as John to march on the mill?
H.: Yes. I would risk alienating my family to stand up for what I believe. I'm not too far off of John's values when it comes to the environment. The restaurant where I work has responsibility for a one-mile stretch of highway near town. We're volunteering our free time as part of the adopt-a-highway program to go out there and clear away roadside trash. John is acting on his beliefs-not just talking about them.
V.R.: I wouldn't make the same decision as John. This conflict could be resolved other ways. Why do they have to shut down all logging in Kiowa with a restraining order? Why not just close off logging in the butterfly area?
H.: Because the loggers are already cutting down new growth areas and further damaging the environment. They can't be trusted to leave the butterfly area alone.
Leader: We're running out of time. We'll see what happens in the next chapter.
A good Polar Opposites statement generates varying points of view. Latoya felt that John was wrong in his decision to oppose the people he grew up with, but Aaron and Monica seemed to see the value in John's difficult decision. In this dialogue, each member had a particular role. These roles can be rotated in subsequent class discussions. Polar Opposites and literature discussion groups can form the basis for student-generated statements and questions for discussion. Next, we briefly describe other strategies that enhance critical thinking in social studies using young adult literature.
Other Strategies to Explore Citizenship
Tierney, Readence, and Dishner (1995) offered two other strategies, the Discussion Web and Conversational Discussion Groups, which can be used with high school students to promote critical thinking in social studies. Each strategy can actively engage students in thinking about citizenship issues through small-group discussion of a literary work.
The Discussion Web uses a central question to allow students to clarify their thinking by eliminating inconsistencies and contradictions in their thought processes. For instance, a key question from California Blue might be the following: Did John choose the right side? First, in pairs, students are asked to think about the pros and cons of John's decision to side with the environmentalists. They write down as many reasons as possible in two columns, Pro and Con, to ensure that they are looking at both sides of the issue. Next, they compare their reasons with another pair of students, with the goal of trying to work toward a consensus. Once they have achieved consensus, they select one reason that best represents their group's thinking about the issue. Finally, a spokesperson for each group presents its conclusion to the whole class for their consideration. If the group failed to reach consensus, the nature of this disagreement is shared. Appropriate follow-up activities to further refine students' thinking conclude the use of the Discussion Web.
Conversational Discussion Groups, on the other hand, is a strategy designed to present a small group of students with a set of three question types. Once they have addressed the questions, they engage in a conversation concerning their responses. The question types are the following:
1.a background-knowledge question,
2.a transition-to-the-text question, and
3.a beyond-the-text question.
During their conversation, students comment, provide feedback, and challenge each other's conclusions. With California Blue, a teacher might provide the following as representative of the three question types:
1.How do you feel about someone who takes a stand that is opposed to what you believe?
2.Was John's decision to stand against his father and the town a correct one? and
3.What can we learn from this story?
Again, appropriate follow-up activities conclude the use of the strategy. Conversational Discussion Groups allows the teacher to reduce his/her control over the students gradually as they become accustomed to engaging each other's critical thinking processes.
Summary and Conclusion
Our premise has been that high school students need opportunities to engage in higher level thinking if they are to become critical thinkers, particularly about citizenship issues. To this end, we described a teaching/discussion strategy and some alternatives, which provide a classroom atmosphere conducive to critical thinking with literature. We believe that these strategies can help teachers begin to change their classrooms into learning environments for a developing citizenry.
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Thomas W. Bean is Professor of Reading/Literacy, Department of Instructional and Curricular Studies, University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
R. Steven Kile is Assistant Professor of Education, Department of Instructional and Curricular Studies, University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
John E. Readence is Professor of Reading/Literacy, Department of Instructional and Curricular Studies, University of Nevada, Las Vegas.