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Unmasking Truth: The Subjectivity Spectrum


In the realm of education, the art of discourse is as vital as any other skill. As an AP Language and Composition teacher, my goal is not just to help students master the mechanics of language but also to cultivate their ability to engage in meaningful conversations. In my class, I explore the significance of fostering discussion over debate in the classroom, while recognizing the subjectivity of truth, and the fallacy that often accompanies extreme thinking or the desire to "win" an argument. Let's delve into why learning should take precedence over winning.


The Importance of Discussion


Discussion is more than just talk; it is a dynamic process that involves the exchange of ideas, perspectives, and experiences. Unlike debates, which often have a winner and loser, discussions encourage students to collaborate and build upon each other's thoughts. Here are a few reasons why discussion is vital in an AP Language and Composition classroom:

  1. Critical Thinking: Discussions stimulate critical thinking by requiring students to analyze and evaluate ideas from multiple angles. This helps them develop their analytical skills, enabling them to discern the strengths and weaknesses of various arguments.

  2. Active Listening: Engaging in discussions promotes active listening. Students learn to respect each other's viewpoints, ask clarifying questions, and seek common ground. These skills are invaluable in fostering empathy and cooperation.

  3. Diverse Perspectives: In a discussion, students have the opportunity to encounter diverse perspectives and worldviews. This exposure helps broaden their horizons and encourages them to think beyond their own preconceived notions.

  4. Encourages Exploration: Discussions allow students to explore topics in depth, as there is no pressure to "win" a point. They can delve into nuanced aspects of a subject, uncovering new layers of understanding.

The Subjectivity of Truth


One of the fundamental principles of AP Language and Composition is the recognition that truth is often subjective. This understanding underscores the importance of discussion as opposed to debate.


Here's why:

  1. Complex Issues: Many topics discussed in an AP Language and Composition class are complex and multifaceted. Recognizing the subjectivity of truth means acknowledging that there may not be a single, absolute answer to a given question. This encourages students to embrace complexity and engage in thoughtful discussions rather than seeking simple, definitive solutions.

  2. Multiple Perspectives: Different individuals bring unique experiences and perspectives to the table. Subjectivity reminds us that what may be true for one person may not hold true for another. This encourages students to appreciate the richness of diverse viewpoints.

  3. Humility and Open-Mindedness: Embracing the subjectivity of truth fosters humility and open-mindedness. Students learn to approach discussions with a willingness to learn from others, rather than aiming to prove their own viewpoint as the only valid one.

The Fallacy of Extreme Thinking


Debate often leads to extreme thinking where winning becomes more important than understanding. In an AP Language and Composition classroom, it is crucial to challenge this fallacy. Here's why:

  1. Oversimplification: Extreme thinking tends to oversimplify complex issues, reducing them to black-and-white perspectives. This hinders meaningful exploration and nuanced understanding.

  2. Polarization: Debates can lead to polarization, where individuals become more entrenched in their own beliefs and less willing to consider alternative viewpoints. This can have negative implications for civil discourse and social cohesion.

  3. Missed Opportunities: Focusing on "winning" an argument can lead students to miss valuable opportunities for personal growth and learning. The goal should be to enrich one's understanding, not to defeat others.

The Importance of Learning vs. Winning


As an AP Language and Composition teacher, my primary aim is to foster an environment where learning takes precedence over winning. Here's how this approach benefits students:

  1. Lifelong Skills: Prioritizing learning equips students with essential skills such as critical thinking, effective communication, and empathy. These skills are valuable not only in academia but also in life beyond the classroom.

  2. Intellectual Growth: Emphasizing learning encourages intellectual growth. Students become more curious, open-minded, and adaptable, enabling them to navigate an increasingly complex world.

  3. Collaboration and Empathy: A focus on learning fosters collaboration and empathy, which are essential for building harmonious communities and addressing pressing global challenges.

AP UNIT: Finding light in a world full of shadows


Yes, this is a play on Plato's Allegory of the Cave, which is how I begin my school year. By explaining that a "desk" may actually be "coffee" I get my students laughing, while also proving to them that everything they "know" is through the lens of someone else. From the earliest ages, parents have picture books to begin their child's journey in language. Thus, I pose the question: does truth create language or does language create truth?


We read Plato's Allegory and watch a Ted-X video about it, and then we begin our journey in finding light in a world full of shadows.


One of my favorite activities includes the following image:


Yes, this basic image holds so much power. I break students into groups of 5-6, and then I ask them to identify the object. The room fills with banter and angry screams "It's a stick!" "No, it's a branch!". I pause the students after just a few minutes. I tell them they are all guilty of extremism - after all, they are arguing from their own isolated narrow perspective without the consideration of others. This is dangerous! I then encourage students to find evidence to support their ideas, and the room turns from anger to curiosity. Students begin brainstorming different ways of thinking about the image. Most importantly, students listen and work together. This simple image, as I said, holds so much power.


We then hear from one selected speaker in each group. Here is an example of one classes work, and the explanation that is voted as "most believable"


When we discuss the winner, students ultimately come to the conclusion that ideas backed with varied and credible evidence seem to be the most believable. Albeit, we also discuss the importance of creativity in responses: Frosty's Hand.


Students quickly learn that the image may have multiple logical labels, and we then start to recognize that truth is subjective to the speaker and audience.


We then begin our quest to QUESTION EVERYTHING! And students love questioning their world.


We begin with the food guidelines created throughout history. We question: why have our needs for fruits, veggies, and bread changed through the years? What caused that? Where are scientists finding these magical numbers? What is the purpose of the changing diagram? And we go on.


We then further our investigation by exploring global guidelines: Why are "soy" and "nuts" lumped together? Why do most countries have no need for soy? Why are there such large variances in fruits and veggies across countries?


We draw the conclusion that perhaps the shadows we live by are culturally, societally, monetarily driven. We when move on to a group project, where students come up with their own societal shadow. Some students consider environmental issues, others think about our educational structures...the list goes on.


As we discuss the shadows, we consider the role of the puppeteers and the puppets and the role that power, ignorance, laziness, and greed play within many constructs of our society.


Language and Truth

At this point, we move on to the relationship between language and truth.


Once we recognize the existence of shadows, we then explore new blind spots. The Arrival, a film created in 2016, explores the possibility of aliens visiting Earth and the necessity for communication. What would happen if we needed to communicate with a non-human living being who didn't have the capability of senses: touch, smell, etc.


We then move on to Lera Boroditsky, a cognitive scientist who seeks to understand how truth varies based on cultural and societal factors. In her Ted Talk Boroditsky explains her research with an aboriginal population in Australia, and she highlights the importance of linguistic relativity. In my class, we discuss the differences in language, and we consider how we often create meaning based on the relativity of our own culture. Examining language, we consider words that are lacking in English that could be useful. For example, why don't we have a word for a feeling of "just right" - the perfect temperature of breeze on a sunny day, the perfect temperature of coffee, or the feeling of getting just the right amount of sleep. The Swedish call this "lagom," which translates to mean the perfect middle balance. It certainly says something about culture, though! Maybe in American culture we lack that feeling due to our focus on ups and downs. We constantly remind ourselves to balance and live in the present, but do we? Language is often a representation of culture, and therefore a "shadow." If we don't have a word to describe the feeling of "just right," then how can we identify that moment? There are so many websites that list fun words that we don't have in the English Language and students love reading through these. You might even turn this into an essay prompt: what word should we add to the English dictionary?


Language and Bias


We then move into the relationship between language and bias. We begin with linguist Dr. John Baugh, in his Ted Talk about linguistic profiling. We consider the construction of truth with our implicit biases that cloud our judgement. We read an excerpt from Biased, by Jennifer Eberhardt, where she uncovers some of the latest research on implicit bias and the brain. We consider the perception in The Invisible Gorilla Experiment, and we read a narrative essay by Amy Tan, "Mother Tongue," where Tan reveals her story about her mother's language barrier. Our purpose is to explore language and perception in its relationship to bias, and our creation of truth.


Writing


At this point, we have collected a decent amount of evidence, and I introduce argumentation. I love using released AP prompts that have students contemplate the power of voice, language, and truth.


This year, I used the most recent prompt, which asks the writer to take a position on the extent to which Kingston's claim is valid. I begin by breaking down the prompt and then brainstorming.




I remind students that an extent is not a side and that they must assess Kingston's validity.


This is our class brainstorm, which they did in small groups and then we move to whole group.


After our brainstorm, this year I added in one more work, excerpts from Rising Out of Hatred written by Eli Saslow. Students then revisit the prompt to add more evidence and ideas to their brainstorm.


Understanding Argument Organization


Students love learning that they no longer have to follow a five paragraph essay and that they can start writing with style and rhetorical choice. To help them understand argumentation, I have students listen to Freakonomics, Episode 454: Should Traffic Lights Be Abolished? I love this episode because it is a topic that students actually have an opinion about but that they often don't think about. As newer drivers, students find a particular interest in the topic. The document I use for them to annotate and read along has notes and learning activities in the margins.



We pause to reflect as we listen, and my notes include learning about: hyperlinks, counterargument, definition, identifying what the author is "doing," types of evidence, ethos, etc.


We then look at a released essay and use my peer edit guide to evaluate.





Students then write the essay. Yes, I allow students to use their notes, but they must use all their own writing. During the first month or two, I am really more focused on students learning "how" to argue effectively rather than for all original thinking. I want students to play with style and think about the logical progression of writing an argument. Plus, it allows for easy feedback, because we have learned so many new writing concepts at this point.


Questions about truth


I conclude with final questions about truth that will guide our year. Here are just a few:


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Conclusion


In the realm of AP Language and Composition, the power of discussion over debate cannot be overstated. By recognizing the subjectivity of truth and challenging the fallacy of extreme thinking, we create an environment where learning thrives and students develop the skills they need to become critical thinkers, effective communicators, and empathetic individuals. As educators, let us prioritize the journey of discovery over the desire to win, shaping future generations that value the richness of discussion and the pursuit of knowledge above all else.

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Hi, thanks for stopping by!

I am a passionate high school English and Digital Media teacher whose lifelong purpose is to ignite creativity and critical thought in young minds. With an unwavering commitment to nurturing imagination and fostering intellectual curiosity, I thrive on embracing each student's unique voice and I hope to inspire other teachers with my own journey.

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