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Burning Questions of the Year

In the 2016-2017 school year, I noticed a problem: the singleton articles of the week that I was using were not producing the degree of knowledge-building that I wanted. Like Kelly Gallagher, who created the article of the week assignment (in this post, I explain my journey with Gallagher's assignment in-depth), my goal with articles of the week has always been primarily about knowledge-building and secondarily about increasing the volume of reading and writing that my students do. After all, when we don't know things, we can't read things, we can't think critically about things, and we can't learn as quickly. (This knowledge-building emphasis, by the way, is why Gallagher and I spend next to no time grading these assignments — in grading, purpose dictates method.)

That's why I became bothered last year at how poorly my students seemed to be gaining an understanding about the issues presented in the articles I would give them. I gave one article on the Paris Climate Agreement, and on the following Friday I asked my students to conduct a pop-up debate around this question: Is there hope for the planet's environment? The debate was not good — students who were well-versed in pop-up debate by this time put forth indecipherable arguments, and the most cited text was not the article of the week — it was the movie WALL-E. Months later, I gave students an article about the latest North Korea missile test. Again I found myself with spare time on that Friday, and students seemed particularly interested in the topic, so I let them pop-up debate about this question: What should be done about North Korea's steadily improving and internationally condemned missile and nuclear programs? Despite the student interest and despite an even bigger list of pop-up debate experiences and lessons to draw upon, I found again that my students were largely incapable of good argumentative work. There were plenty of “fire and fury” ideas, but there was little evidence of the deep thinking that I'm after.

And then I started doing research for the knowledge-building chapter in the book I'm writing, and I started coming across this concept of topic immersion, particularly in the writing of E. D. Hirsch. As Hirsch explains, “A good way to induce fast vocabulary gain for young children (for whom so much is new and unfamiliar) is to stay on a subject long enough for the general topic to become familiar” (the full article is here). Initially, I thought, “Oh, that's an interesting approach for young children — maybe I could use that with my own kids.” But then I thought back to those pop-up debates, and it hit me: with issues as complex as the planetary environmental issues and the world's roguest nation, my students are like young children for whom so much is new and unfamiliar. To help my students gain a truly working knowledge of these big, contemporary issues, I needed to give topic immersion a spin.

So, that's what this page is about — my first foray into what I'll call Burning Questions of the Year (BQYs). I'll still be keeping my AoW page going because periodically I'm sure I'll want to give my students a singleton article, and I'm sure there will be more than one week when Monday morning will come and I'll frantically head to Kelly Gallagher's article of the week page to grab something I know will be great. Importantly, I plan to dedicate the same minimal amount of time to this initiative — about 15 minutes on Monday to get kids into the article, supporting them as needed with the nine moves, and about one pop-up debate per month on that Pressing Question of the Month series' driving question.

Be in touch with questions, help, or advice: on Twitter, @davestuartjr; on email, dave_at_davestuartjr.com.

Goals of BQY

  1.  Primary objective: Build knowledge and increase curiosity, engagement
  2. Secondary objectives:
    1. Increase amount of writing students do (250 words x 40 weeks in school year = 10,000 words of reflective, responsive, readable writing)
    2. Increase amount of reading students do (2 pp. average per week x 40 weeks in school year = 80 pp. of informative or argumentative writing per year)
    3. Increase amount of debating students do (1 pop-up debate every month = 9 pop-up debates per school year)

Constraints (to keep BQY from taking over my curriculum)

  1. Instructional time costs must be minimal:
    • 15 minutes on Monday to introduce / hook into the week's article (5% of my week)
    • 30 minutes every 4 or so weeks for pop-up debate on pertinent Burning Question
      • I have 60 minutes per day, 180 days per year, so the above time constraints = 8.1% of my school year
      • Time constraints must be adjusted for your specific context!
  2. Prep time must be minimal:
    1. Finding articles: use pre-existing lists of articles / resources (such as the one on this page)
    2. Grading: extremely purposeful and fast

Burning Questions of the Year for 2017-2018, with articles and other resources

Note: For all Google Doc links, please use File > Make a Copy because I am not able to respond to share requests. Also, for any links directly to websites, these are resources I've not formatted or used in my classroom yet. 

1. Which LIFE SKILLS are the most important? How do I own these? How do I build these before I graduate?

  • Academic Mindsets: “Struggle for Smarts,” by Alix Spiegel for NPR (Google Doc; pdf)
  • Sleep: “Teachers, Students, and Sleep,” by Dave Stuart Jr. for DaveStuartJr.com (Google Doc; pdf)
  • Study skills: “Study Smarter,” by Joe Stromberg for Vox (Google Doc; pdf)
  • Financial literacy v. reading, writing, and arithmetic: “Pro/Con: Should All Students Take Personal Finance Classes?”, by K. Alexander Ashe and Wayne Madsen for Tribune News, adapted by Newsela staff. (Google Doc; pdf)
  • Managing the urge to procrastinate: 
    • “Procrastination: Is Your Future Self Getting a Bad Deal?” by Timothy Pychyl for Psychology Today. (Google Drive; pdf)
    • “Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator,” by Tim Urban for TED (Youtube Video)
  • Managing technology / mental health:
    • “How Smartphones Are Making Kids Unhappy,” by Audie Cornish for NPR (Google Doc; pdf)
    • Coloring
  • Writing:
    • “The Writing is on the Wall,” by Esther Cepeda. (Google Doc; pdf)
    • “Writing: Ticket to Work or a Ticket Out,” by The College Board. (Google Doc; pdf)
  • College and Career Readiness: “The Readiness Spectrum: Work, Jobs, Careers, and College,” by Dr. David Conley. (Google Doc; pdf)
  • Overcoming intense hardships: “Superbetter: The game that can give you 10 extra years of life,” by Jane McGonigal. (Google Doc transcript; video)
  • Hygiene, clothing, and more: “10 Life Skills for Teens,” by Sagari Gongala for Mom Junction (Google Doc; pdf)
  • Time management & organization: ________________________

2. What could end the world?

2.5 How should the world respond to North Korea?

3. #DoHardThings

4. Health, Sports, Life

5. School: How Can It Be Better?

  • Chart: “Unemployment Rates and Earnings by Educational Attainment,” by the US Bureau of Labor & Statistics. (Google Doc; pdf)
  • Homework: Should we have it?
  • Online schooling: The solution?
  • School sports: Yay or nay?
  • School security: Should teachers be armed?
  • Citizenship test: Required to graduate? (Jaywalking segment; )
  • Coding: Important or over-rated?
  • Schools and the Future of Work

6. What are the urgent conversations people are having right now?

Rolling Out BQYs

I use BQY #1 (Which life skills are most important?…) during the first month of the school year. At this point, I don't want students to identify the questions we'll explore in the future — I just want them to:

  • Get acquainted to the BQY routines (e.g., those associated with Kelly Gallagher's article of the week) and skills (e.g., purposeful annotation, They Say, I Say writing)
  • Conceive of high school as a self-directed journey — it's up to us to develop the knowledge and skills we'll need for life. These are not guaranteed outcomes of a high school education.

After a month or so of choosing articles that tack toward BQY #1, I “close” the BQY with the following activities:

  1. My students hold a pop-up debate in which they put forward their answer to the burning question: “Which life skills are the most important?” I have one student keep track of profferred life skills on the whiteboard. Students are not limited to putting forward life skills from the articles — our goal is to create a list we agree upon. After the debate, I summarize our list on an anchor chart: 
  2. I ask my students to brainstorm what other burning questions they would like to pursue. They answer this question in a quickwrite warm-up, and then we think-pair-share on their responses, and then I ask them to submit their responses to a simple Google Form. From this, I create the rest of our school year's burning questions.

Thank you to Maxwell Anderson, whose Weekend Reader helped inspire BQYs. As Max says in his newsletter, “Read widely; read wisely.”