Category Archives: Nathan Coates

Researching conspiracy thinking

I’ve never felt super-confident about teaching research. I often feel like it’s a made-up genre, that research manifests itself in so many different ways that teaching it in isolation is a little bit like eating the ingredients of a cookie without mixing them. But when I read a book like On Immunity by Eula Biss that beautifully blends genres as she researches vaccinations, or when I read Eating Animals and follow along as Jonathan Safran Foer breaks into a chicken farm, I’m enthralled. They don’t seem to care about synthesizing sources or MLA formatting, though they do both things. Their content is king, and their structures are malleable. They seem to live and move in the spaces that overlap between narrative, exposition, argument, and analysis. They write with heart and voice and objectivity that creates clarity even while including subjective experiences that add authenticity. So we set about to try some authentic research during second semester, and though our products may not measure up to Biss or Foer, we made steps in their direction. There is nothing new about the topic or process below. I’m just sharing how the puzzle pieces came together this year (we were fully in class from the beginning) because it might spark an idea for your classroom. 

A framework: truthiness v. factfulness

We started the unit by thinking about what Stephen Colbert called “Truthiness” in 2005 (see the original clip from his show or a good article about it), which was his way of describing the kind of information problem that arose when the internet and cable news usurped traditional media. Those issues have only been exacerbated by the rise of social media since then, so we set out to define the difference between truthiness and factfulness (using some of Hans Osling’s Gapminder resources). This gave us a pretty simple lens to use to evaluate sources (is it truthy?), and it gave us a way to talk about what kind of information we’re consuming. 

We used the following essential questions to guide our work:

  • In what ways does “truthiness” interfere with our culture?
  • In what spaces would “factfulness” improve our culture?
  • Are we living in a “post-truth” culture? Do facts matter?

Students did a small team task where they found examples of truthiness in their social media feeds and we discussed the relationship of misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda. It felt like a pretty organic way to begin thinking about research, and it gave me some language to use as they began doing some writing.

Some examples that a group from 4th bell used to illustrate the prevalence of truthiness in their feeds.

I also had them take an argument essay they had written during first semester, choose one body paragraph, and make it more factful. It was fun to see them recognize the truthiness in their own writing, which set up some expectations for our writing later. You can see an example of a student from my 4th bell below:

An angle: conspiracy theories

One of the other challenges about research writing is the topic generation process. I see value in letting students choose a topic. I’ve also seen the frustration of a kid who genuinely doesn’t know what to do and has options paralysis. So I chose conspiracy theories for the class because it’s a place where truthiness and factfulness intersect. I envisioned students reading what conspiracists think and say, and then reading the evaluations and rebuttals of those conspiracies. It’s a natural way to explore several perspectives.

An individual task: choosing a research path

We did a series of Deep Dives to start the research, one that focused on conspiracy theories broadly (why people buy in, what some common and obscure ones are–some sources we used), then students chose one conspiracy to dig deeper into. We never really called it research, which I think made us all feel better. We were just learning about chemtrails and the Denver International Airport. Students built a 2-3 page paper that used the sources to help us understand the conspiracy. We used a section from Eula Biss as a mentor text, then I gave them some structure options, basically a really loose outline, hoping to help us think more like Biss and Foer, more like writers making choices. Some took risks, some played it safe. But our goal was to let what we had found in the deep dives dictate the structure. Topics ranged from celebrity deaths (Michael Jackson, Princess Diana) to QAnon, from assassinations (MLK and JFK) to animals (birds aren’t real).

A team task: defend a conspiracy theory

The final piece was to share out because the topics were so interesting. Each student shared an overview of their research with their table teams, then the teams each picked one and were tasked with convincing the rest of the class that the conspiracy was true. This forced them to think a little bit differently, to do some additional research, and to help us have a little bit of fun before the deluge of spring standardized testing hit us. 

Takeaways

  1. De-emphasizing the research aspects and emphasizing the content questions enabled us to actually do better work on the research aspects. By not frontloading information about MLA format, embedding quotes and citations, or other general research expectations, we were able to better discuss those elements as they more naturally arose and students felt a need for them.
  2. Me choosing a topic is okay if there are still opportunities to personalize the pathways. Student ownership over the subtopic and paper structure seemed enough to keep interest and ownership high. 
  3. Conspiracy theories are a rich opportunity to think about the misinformation epidemic. While some are political, my students veered away from those. With that little bit of distance we could talk about the challenges of navigating our feeds, of considering sources and modes, of being more conscious citizens. They found it to be a topic worthy of researching.

Check out some good posts from TTT on research to kickstart some more ideas:

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. His favorite conspiracies are sports ones, like the NBA suspending Michael Jordan for gambling or fixing the draft for the Knicks to get Ewing.

Using sorts to shake up the routine and move toward student-generated talk

So much of what happens in English class is internal. Students read and think, they think and write, and we work to help them make their thinking visible. When we aren’t reading and writing we’re often talking, which can still feel internal (or less hands-on) as we process what others say and ponder how to respond. Sometimes, especially at the end of the year, I feel the weight of this routine and want to shake things up so we can better enter into into those reading, thinking, and writing times.

One small strategy I’ve been relying on this year to add some hands-on moments in my junior English classes is a simple sort. Basically I gave each group a pile of examples (short texts, images, quotes, etc.), asked them to sort the examples on their tables, and asked them to defend their arrangements. The task is quick, collaborative, somewhat tactile, and it gives me a chance to engage each group with some on-the-spot feedback as groups tend to stand around their tables (you can see this in the second picture below) and try different sorting patterns. We often did this as a bell-ringer to review the previous lesson or as an extension activity. It can be as quick as five minutes or drawn out to fifteen if the discussion is rich and I spend time with each group. This year my room was organized in 7 groups of 4 and we tried the following types of sorts:

  • Spectrum sort: Students sorted these sources on a spectrum between “truthiness” and “factfulness” (our research unit focus was conspiracy theories) and then had to defend the placement. This gave me a chance to ask groups and individuals really specific sourcing questions: “Why is the Flat Earth tweet more factful than the Taylor Swift tweet? Why does your group have the article with a quote closer to truthiness than the NASA piece?” You could easily substitute any two traits on a spectrum to reframe the evaluation of examples.
  • Quadrant sort: Students map pictures of the characters (I usually do this with Of Mice and Men or Gatsby) into four quadrants using two traits like empathy and likability. For example, Curley’s wife may not be likable but we empathize with her. Tables can compare the four quadrants easily since it’s visual which extends the discussion. It also leads to great thinking about the two axis traits (for example, what do you notice about who we tend to empathize with? How does the Fitzgerald render Tom unlikable? Is likability or our ability to empathize with a character more important?). Students could easily re-map using two different traits. And really, after the sort and discussion they’re ready to write about these characters.  
  • Pattern sort: For this I usually tell students: “Choose a way to organize the examples you have.” I’ve used quotes, books, and editorial cartoons (I pull 5-6 from the current week). They usually struggle to think of how to do this, figure something out, explain their logic, and then I tell them, “Great. Now do it a different way.” It forces them to think about the relationships between the texts or ideas in different ways as they generate their own spectrums or quadrants. I like to do this after independent reading when people have a variety of books because the discussion becomes rich as they consider character, plot, structure, setting, and symbols without realizing that’s what they’re doing. When sorting quotes, it’s a good segway into thinking about the structure of an essay (considering the quotes like different examples you might organize).

This is a pre-Covid example of a pattern sort my students did with their summer reading novels.

  • Classification sort: This is a more straight-forward formative check. I can quickly tell if students have the right mode for this collection of short visual texts and coach them on-the-spot.

This is not a magical or earth-shattering strategy, but it’s easily adaptable and I like how it enables opportunities for me to shift from teacher-generated discussion to co-creation and student-generated discussion (see Kallack and Zmuda for more on this).

Teacher Generated

I specify the type of sort and the parameters

ex: create a quadrant sort for these Gatsby characters based on their likability and empathy

Teacher and Student Co-Created

I specify the type of sort and they set the parameter

ex: create a quadrant sort for these Gatsby characters by choosing two traits

Student Generated

Students specify the type of sort they will use and articulate their own parameters

ex: take these examples and organize them in some fashion; be ready to defend how and why they’re organized that way

The liveliness of the discussion makes me keep coming back to this simple strategy. Because it’s hands-on and visual students willingly engage and it adds energy to the room.  I’m able to talk more with students (instead of at them) as they work. By catching each group I can directly question or follow-up with nearly every student during a sort. This lets the lesson start with a conflict or problem to solve so it gives us momentum. Then we’re ready to dive into the next reading, thinking, or writing task, a little more awake, a little more ready to take on the world.

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He’d love to hear what books you’re excited about reading or adding to your class reading lists next year: coatesn@masonohioschools.com

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