For the first time all semester, all my classes are back in my classroom for the whole day. I’ve been getting my exercise going between the library and classroom and multiple computer labs, but at least for a bit, I can stay in my corner of the school and get back to my space. It’s nice.
My AP English juniors have just finished their big research papers (more on that in a later post). This week, I am showing them the synthesis essay on the AP exam and direct teaching the research skills that many of them already know. I like to choose current event editorials to look at how people pull together research to create an argument; inspired by my Facebook newsfeed, today’s topic was the anti-vaccination movement.
I started them off reading this article by Jenny McCarthy (Chicago Sun Times, May 17, 2014). None of them knew any background or even who Jenny McCarthy was. I instructed them to rephrase her claim, any assumptions she was making, and identify rhetorical techniques she used to further her argument.
Unsurprisingly, many focused on the fact that the only two people she quoted were a blogger (who got no other qualifications) and herself. Twice. She argues that she is not an “anti-vaxxer” in that she does not want parents to stop vaccinating their kids, only to educate themselves on what is going into the kids’ bodies (a good idea) and ask questions about why a certain schedule must be followed (fairly sound). Some students felt her ultimate belief system was a valid discussion but that she spent too much time in a “Nuh-UH!” defensive stance that she didn’t adequately argue anything. “She used ‘I‘ way too much.” “‘I embarked on this quest‘ – sounds like the Lord of the Rings.” She asks twice, ‘What happened to critical thinking?’ but never seems to do any of her own.”
Then I showed them this video of her discussing her book on a CNN morning show:
They were perplexed about how she managed to “cure” her son’s autism, which from a medical standpoint is basically impossible. A person learns to cope, but it doesn’t go away. One student in class has an older sister with autism, and she said her mother firmly believes the vaccination was what triggered it. We discussed how this is an anecdote, and how it is nearly impossible to confer any sort of cause-and-effect with correlative events, especially as infants get vaccines so often – virtually every three months. It would be easy to say, “The symptoms started two months after she got vaccinated…” My classes also decided that using the word “frickin'” twice in a 3-minute interview downplayed her academic tone. They felt she contradicted herself, saying she is not encouraging refusal of vaccines, but at the same time suggesting that they caused her son’s autism. They got especially frustrated when she said she – and other mothers in the autism community – would rather take the flu or measles over autism any day. One asked, “Don’t measles kill people? Isn’t that why people are so upset?”
Next they read this piece by Michael Hiltzik for the Los Angeles Times, where Hiltzik claims that the popular media is undermining legitimate science and the scientific institutions are doing little to step up and stop it. Students identified the author’s expert sources (science writer Seth Mnookin, Dartmouth professor Brendan Nyhan…) as strengthening his argument that the anti-vaccination movement was dangerous. He decried McCarthy’s choice of platform – Oprah, Larry King, and People Magazine – and took some cheap shots at her for being a former Playboy bunny and MTV star. My students correctly identified that these low blows meant to discredit her lack of logic were in themselves a fallacy…she has a kid with autism, and therefore an interest in the research. Her being a playmate doesn’t make her argument invalid.
I also drew their attention to how the professional author worked the quoted text of other authors into his article. For example, he smoothly paraphrased and integrates Brenden Nyhan’s words:
What’s the best way to fight the spread of media-spread misinformation? Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan says it’s a mistake to demonize vaccine-doubting parents as “selfish” or “dumb.”
Students used in-text citations in their research papers, and many struggled to adequately paraphrase and integrate other writers. Several just drop quotes into the middle of a paragraph with no transition and left the author’s name in the citation at the end. I liked being able to show them what real-world authors do. Plus, it exposed them to a debate that is raging about them in the new parent world, which many of them will encounter in the next decade. Overall I was quite pleased with the debate. It’s been so long since we’ve had a spirited in-class discussion (over three weeks!) that it was refreshing to get back into texts.
In the meantime…
My American Lit kids are reading The Great Gatsby. My challenging student (he gets more so every day) insisted that Lil’ Wayne was richer than Jay Gatsby. Seriously, how is this relevant?
And I showed my World History kiddos the Spanish Inquisition clip from Mel Brooks’ History of the World. Slightly inappropriate, but Mel Brooks is part of our American culture, plus it emphasized that the Jews were especially targeted by the Spanish Inquisition. When talking about Mel Brooks, one kid asked, “Doesn’t he also write country songs?”
That’s Garth Brooks. But way to be engaged and thinking 🙂