Busy Break Ahead

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Students gather for a photo with instructor Lee Ferdinand at the end of the Essayistic class. Friday was the last day of Teen Learnng Lab’s Fall Semester.

Teen Learning Lab’s Fall Semester ended Nov. 17, with essays completed, journals turned in, the nature of justice discussed in small groups, a forensics lab of a “crime scene” completed, and an opinion survey taken. The long winter break includes a Science & Justice field trip to the Chicago Botanic Gardens, a TLL-wide field trip to the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, a Science Class & Party, and holiday parties hosted by TLL families. Weekly classes will resume Friday, Jan. 12, 2018!


Argument and Debate for Justice

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M.C. Escher’s Bond of Union. From a picture I took a picture of the cover of Howard Gardner’s Changing Minds.

My dad, who turned 77 last week, loves a good political argument, the louder, the better. To him, a battle of verbal expression, wits and knowledge is one of the most entertaining ways to spend a dinner conversation — the more opposite the views, the better–and the more fun.

I have been thinking about him the last few weeks, as our Teen Learning Lab students wrestle with learning how to debate and argue– and not have hard feelings afterwards.  On Friday, I introduced the students to the work of the Harvard Negotiating Project to help them have difficult, “Learning Discussions” with each other. Our goal is to help them think about these minor clashes in an intellectual way, and as an opportunity to bulldoze their own “Valleys of Ignorance.” (see the Justice Project Blog for more on this.) All our instructors are providing other ways to address the need for open communication, and empathy, while being fair. While being just.

Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School at Penn, has a weekend essay about how arguing actually makes people more creative! “If no one ever argues, you’re not likely to give up on old ways of doing things, let alone try new ones,” Grant writes. He offers four rules to arguing:

  • “Frame it as a debate, rather than a conflict
  • Argue as if you’re right, but listen as if you’re wrong
  • Make the most respectful interpretation of the other person’s perspective
  • Acknowledge where you agree with your critics and what you’ve learned from them. “

At Teen Learning Lab, we have been discussing rules like these all semester. We take seriously the importance of teaching these wonderful young people how to articulate their views, but also honestly and respectfully learn from opposing views. Grant goes on: “Teaching kids to argue is more important than ever. Now we live in a time when voices that might offend are silenced on college campuses… For our society to remain free and open, kids need to learn the value of open disagreement.”

When the TLL board and instructors were planning the curriculum for The Justice Project, I’m not so sure we were all prepared with how deeply these lessons in justice and empathy would resonate with us and with our students. But I can see profound changes happening in these students. They are rising to the challenge, even though it is hard, and they are learning tools that they will need in the future of our society.

Danger! Students Learning!

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Sign by a Justice Project student, taped to the class whiteboard.

We’ve been having a lot of, um, vigorous debates in Justice Project classes this fall, on topics ranging from trans-gender issues to sexism to sexual harassment.  It seems quite fitting that in a program called The Justice Project, we would have a lot of these discussions about kinds of justice. And, it makes sense that these discussions would get emotional for some of our students. These are complicated teens we have. Most of them are just a year or three away from legal adulthood. They are trying to figure out how to be a grown up at a complicated time in our society. Especially for those students who are homeschooling high school, these class discussions are raising for them important questions that they are trying to answer: who am I? What kind of person do I want to be? What do I believe?

Bret Stephens of the New York Times addresses this in his op-ed essay today, about how the University of Chicago stands out as a college that encourages students to embrace debate and discussion to learn more about the world and themselves. UChicago gained some attention in 2016 when the undergraduate dean issued a letter to incoming freshmen: “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odd with their own,” wrote Dean John Ellison.

A year earlier, a UChicago faculty committee had issued a report on free expression at the university: “Concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.”

I want to applaud all our instructors at Teen Learning Lab: Lee Ferdinand, Leslee Dirnberger, and Ruth Kulmala, for plunging into the vast pool of teen angst to challenge these students to face uncomfortable ideas with intellectual rigor. I salute the students for bravely facing their classmates when they state an unpopular position, and I salute the students who are learning to hear these challenges and listen with empathy. For most of these students, I imagine this is the first time they have been challenged in their beliefs– but it is necessary for them to become fully educated individuals. Being educated means being able to understand a variety of different perspectives and views.  To restate Bret Stephen and UChicago faculty and administrators:  the goal of education is to make people think, not make them comfortable.

I am proud that Teen Learning Lab is part of your students’ high school education. Thank you for sharing your students with us.

Week 6: Hot air rises

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Students collect particles in the air on pieces of sticky tape.

Polemics, lawyers and air quality: Week 6 found the Justice Project students examining different kinds of hot air, from heated debate, to courtroom arguments, to collecting air samples on a windy day. We have another dispatch from our student correspondent. Find out what happened in the classroom on Friday in the Justice Project Blog!

TLL guest on podcast Oct. 18

Teen Learning Lab will be the featured topic on the podcast Emerging Micro-Schools, hosted by Jade Ann Rivera. Ms. Rivera started a micro-school in California, wrote a book about the experience, and now supports and encourages the development of micro-schools across the country.  The podcast is TOMORROW! Oct. 18, at 7 p.m. Central. You can register here.



Now it’s getting serious

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Students listen to personal essays written by classmates Friday.

Week 4 of The Justice Project found the students confronting serious topics in all their Justice Project classes: personal essays about the students confronting their fears in the Essayistic class, and in Pre-Law, a consideration of different kinds of murder cases.

Science & Justice students launched into a provocative discussion about the pressures the teens face regarding gender roles. Students raised important viewpoints and a wide variety of perspectives about masculinity, femininity and humanity.

New this week! A Student Dispatch from the Essayistic class! We will feature student writers who will give us the inside view of Justice Project classes as the year proceeds. See more at the Justice Project blog!