One of the main things which distinguishes digital stories like those created by Marco Torres and his students, or by Mabry Middle School students the past 7 years in their digital storytelling contests led by the vision of of Dr. Tim Tyson, is TOPIC SELECTION. Most of these topics are compelling because they are real, have personally understandable significance, and are timely. For some examples, check out “tocayo” by Marco or the 2007 entries for “Best Documentary” from Mabryonline. What kinds of topics will you encourage students to tackle in their research projects in 2008? Will you encourage students to effectively utilize digital storytelling communication technologies in their final reports? When selecting topics or guiding students in their selection of topics (an even better idea, since STUDENT CHOICE is a key ingredient for authentic engagement and buy-in for a learning task) you might consider the following suggestions:

  1. Select a topic which isn’t a cut and dry issue: Something which cannot be fully understood on a factual basis by simply reading a single article in WikiPedia.
  2. Select a topic with clear connections / ties to mandated standards and curriculum guidelines for your students.
  3. Select a complex topic which is multi-faceted and you may not completely understand entirely yourself.
  4. Select a topic about which students can interview local experts or other individuals to learn more information as well as solicit different opinions.
  5. Select a topic which can include a “local action” step of what students and other listeners/viewers of the digital story can DO THEMSELVES to get involved and take action on the identified issue.

Doug Johnson posted a very troubling and challenging video to his blog today which suggests several possible topics for social studies-related digital stories by students: A recent interview with Naomi Wolf posted to YouTube about her recent book, “The End of America: Letter of Warning To A Young Patriot.” Some of the topics Naomi discusses which would be worthy issues of inquiry for student research / digital storytelling projects include:

  1. The Guantanamo Bay detention camp
  2. Blackwater Worldwide

For the above links to WikiPedia articles, I challenge you as well as your students to examine the “references” section for each one at the bottom of the articles. Check out the talk/discussion pages of each one as well to gain insight into the factual issues currently being debated which relate to each topic. Note that the talk/discussion pages of WikiPedia articles are NOT a forum for “normative” debate about what is right or wrong in terms of U.S. or other governmental policy. This is reflected in the following header graphic/text at the top of the talk/discussion page for Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

Talk Page Guantanamo Bay detention camp

This clarification of the purpose and content of WikiPedia discussion/talk pages is KEY, since so many of the sources (virtually all of them in some cases) about charged political topics are biased and slanted from a particular perspective. WikiPedia’s emphasis on maintaining neutrality is very important. Using WikiPedia and discussing this idea of “neutrality” in research is a very important element of media literacy development. For more about WikiPedia and it’s neutrality stance, check out the videos of WikiPedia founder Jimmy Wales discussing this and other topics on Fora.tv or from the TED conference in 2005.

For additional topic ideas, check out the Wikipedia:List of controversial issues. According to the page’s explanatory lead paragraph:

This is a list of previously controversial issues among Wikipedia editors. A controversial issue is one where its related articles are constantly being re-edited in a circular manner, or is otherwise the focus of edit warring. This page is conceived as a location for articles that regularly become biased and need to be fixed, or articles that were once the subject of an NPOV dispute and are likely to suffer future disputes. Other articles not yet classified as “controversial” have some edit conflict issues. The divisive nature of disputed subjects have triggered arguments, since opinions on a given issue differ as they are debated. These subjects are responsible for a great deal of tension among Wikipedia editors, reflecting the debates of society as a whole. Perspectives on these subjects are particularly subject to time, place, and culture of the editor.

This is a fascinating list to review, and a worthwhile topic to discuss with students on its own merit. If students actually understand one of these topics, they should be able to explain the different points of view involved in these WikiPedia editing controversies. Some examples are:

Gary Stager shared an observation at Learning 2.0 in Shanghai that a good problem or prompt can be of IMMENSE value to encourage student inquiry, in-depth learning about a topic, and authentic engagement. I agree with him. By starting with one of these controversial issues and not merely asking students to “tell me, tell me, tell me” at the knowledge and comprehension level of Bloom’s Taxonomy, but instead to go BEYOND the facts and explore the perspectives of different people and groups involved in these controversies, teachers can potentially inspire students to go far beyond “the facts in the textbook” when it comes to their studies.

I’ve read and listened to plenty of conspiracy theories about different topics over the years, and some of those I can more easily discount than others. The original video interview with Naomi Wolf which inspired this post alleges some extremely alarming things about the U.S. government which should do more than raise eyebrows. These charges should spark inquiry, research, and investigation. Is Naomi “out to lunch” with her allegations, or is there substance to her ideas? Among other things, she contends:

  • A historical blueprint for despotic leaders who aspire to close down an open society exists.
  • After 200 years, most United States citizens are complacent about the continuance of their democratic government.
  • A process of aggressive subversion of democracy in the United States is underway.

Whether or not you agree with Naomi Wolf, these questions and issues she raises are worth considering, as are many others.

As a classroom teacher, are you still asking students to engage in a research assignment which could have been completed adequately with the information resources available in the 19th or 20th centuries? Are you still essentially asking students to re-write or paraphrase an encyclopedia article “in their own words” for a research assignment? Instead of giving students a research assignment appropriate in the 1800s or 1900s, why not give them a research topic and assignment worthy of passionate and sustained inquiry in the 21st century? Why not invite students to utilize the digital information tools available to everyone connected to the Internet to GO BEYOND THE FACTS in their research, thoroughly explore the alleged “neutrality” of different perspectives, to form an opinion, and encourage action centered around a worthy topic of study?

Are the research assignments you’re giving to students or planning to give students in 2008 so “boring” that you or your students’ parents would be hesitant to join the investigative research team exploring those topics? Perhaps it is time to structure your assignments differently, utilizing digital storytelling communication technologies, and provide students with challenging options for their topics which directly confront contentious issues related to their curriculum and mandated standards?

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  • Doug Johnson alerted me to his post from 1999 “Designing Research Projects Students (and Teachers) Love” which relates / extends / ties into these ideas as well.

  • Abby

    I appreciate that this post provides ideas for incorporating current, controversial, and thought provoking questions into the curriculum. I would agree from personal experience as a student that too often teachers come up with topics and questions that simply ask students to summarize and “regurgitate” what the teacher just said or what they just read.
    Providing a topic that produces passionate opinions works to facilitate learning, spark discussion, and produce better writing. I especially like the idea of incorporating technology in using the Wikipedia controversial pages to spark ideas in students. The Naomi Wolf youtube is very intriguing and brings up excellent points worthy of discussion in the classroom.
    I would agree that it is important to keep students engaged with fresh, current topics that allow them to get interested, investigate, and make connections. If you have any other thought provoking ideas geared towards a high school language arts classroom, I would be happy to hear those as well.

    Thanks for the helpful post!

  • I think encouraging teachers to direct students to Wikipedia for information on controversial topics is a mistake. Since anyone can manipulate content on that site, it can be biased and inaccurate. I think teachers should direct students to trustworthy and unbiased sources as a starting point. For controversial topics in particular, I like http://www.procon.org and not user-generated sites.

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