Seize the Teaching Moment

This week the conversation around campus and the whole Pioneer Valley is the “Blarney Blowout” and its aftermath.  Everyone is talking about it—some are claiming the police are too brutal, some are wondering why the students think it is okay to gather in a large crowd and drink, some are embarrassed by the negative attention this has drawn to our campus, some think everyone is over reacting, some are discussing what the University should have done, should not have done and what the University should do now. Everyone has something to say about this.

As teachers, and especially as teachers of first-year students, this seems like something that we should talk to our students about. But I’m afraid if I bring this up in class the conversation may start out okay, but would take a bad turn, and I would gradually end up sounding like my mother.

Me: “Did any of you go to the Blarney Blowout?”

The students: “It was fun.”

Me: “Fun? What are you talking about? People were arrested.”

The students: “It was fun until the police came and sprayed tear gas and beat people.”

Me: “People were throwing beer cans and ice balls at the police. What did you expect?”

The students: “It was really the police who started everything. It was really about police brutality.”

Me: “You shouldn’t have even been there. With that many people together drinking that early in the day there is bound to be trouble.”

The students: “We have a right to party.”

Me: “Right to party? What are you talking about?”

The students: “We have a right to have fun.”

Me: “What??  You aren’t here for fun. You’re supposed to be studying.  Do you know how much it costs to send you there?”

Okay—maybe not so gradually turning into my mother.

The other day I went to observe Zoe Mungin’s class as she was beginning our “Adding to the Conversation.” This unit asks students to select a conversation (topic), do some research to narrow the topic in order to develop a purpose to communicate to a specific audience.  Zoe began by asking the students about the “Blarney Blowout.” She asked the students what they thought about the weekend and then she let them talk. Her students said the things I’ve heard other students say this week—it wasn’t as bad as the media made it out to be, the police were too violent, if the University hadn’t “warned” students they, as first-year students, never would known about it, etc. She asked questions and more importantly she didn’t turn into my mother. She didn’t judge.

And then Zoe asked the students to think about the “Blarney Blowout” as a conversation.

“What have you read about the blowout?” She asked. “Where did you read it? What was it about? What perspective was it from?”

Again the students talked, but now drawing from a range of online sources. As the students talked, Zoe kept asking questions. She kept pushing. “Remember how we have been talking about credibility? Remember how we have talked about logical and emotional appeals? Is this a logical appeal? How so? Is this credible? How so?”

Soon the class wasn’t just talking about the “Blarney Blowout,” but rather how it was a conversation, a conversation consisting of a range of perspectives, all with different purposes for voicing their opinions.

“There seems to be a lot of different ways of looking at this,” Zoe said. “There also seems to be different issues to focus on here. What’s one issue we can focus on?” Now she was getting the students to narrow the topic.

“Police brutality,” someone said.

“Let’s imagine we would be writing an open letter about ‘Blarney’ focusing on police brutality to a news outlet. Name a news outlet.”

Fox News,” someone called out.

“Okay, who is the audience for Fox News? What tone would you use? What would this audience expect to hear?”

After the students worked through these questions, Zoe said, “Give me another news outlet. One different from Fox News.”

Her Campus,” someone else called.

“Okay,” Zoe said. “Who is the audience? How is this audience different from Fox News? What about tone? How would the tone here be different from Fox News?”

In other words, Zoe used the “Blarney Blowout” as a teaching moment. She was able to take something that all the students had an opinion about and turned it into a lesson about narrowing a research topic and the rhetorical situation.

And she also did something else.  By gradually moving “Blarney” from the main topic of discussion to an example to illustrate audience and purpose, Zoe enabled the students to begin seeing the “Blarney Blowout” from different perspectives.

The conversation about “Blarney” seems to be continuing. The University announced yesterday that they have hired former Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis to conduct a review of the University’s and the town of Amherst’s handling of the event.  I also heard this morning on New England Public Radio a very interesting report about “celebratory rioting” that not only broadens the conversation, but puts it into a different context.  It seems that “Blarney” may provide us with even more teaching moments as we move through the rest of the semester.

Please share how you are using this as a teaching moment in your class.

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