Teaching the ALERT processes
   Ask, Listen, Explore, Reflect, Teach

Students today need to learn to live amid vast amounts of information. They need to learn to construct points of view using reason, evidence, and intelligent emotions. Such skills and understandings are best taught by helping them create original presentations, drawing on original research from primary sources.

Through learning expeditions planned to include the ALERT processes, young researchers can explore and contribute to their cultural heritage.

The Heritage Project encourages teachers to organize learning around expeditions, which are in-depth examinations of topics or time periods in which students are expected to read significant books and articles, interview people with special knowledge, and construct their own original points of view in the form of new cultural artifacts (essays, videos, websites) as gifts of scholarship to their communities.

The best way to plan a learning expedition is to think about each of the ALERT processes. These are the processes we go through when engaged in significant learning—that is, learning that moves us to a new level of understanding.

Here are the processes:

Ask: All of us pose and answer questions every day. We wonder what someone else meant by a comment or what clothes to wear to an event. And we all have deeper questions, wondering how we should act in our relationships, pondering possibilities that worry us, or considering what might be the right thing to do in this or that situation. The more school work can be linked to these deeper questions, the more likely students are to engage. When the questions posed in class echo questions students have in their hearts, school comes to life. It matters.

The quality and depth of our learning is limited by the quality and depth of our questions. We all have questions, but someone who is wondering where her friend bought those new shoes is likely to learn different things than someone who is wondering whether Martin Luther King’s nonviolent approach to change could be adapted to work with a rigid high school principal.

Essential questions—questions about big and enduring concerns—are the critical link between students’ lives and the curriculum. What is justice? How should we respond to injustice? What is the difference between authority and power? When should we obey and when should we rebel?

These are not questions to which young people are strangers. When they believe such questions are being explored for real, and not simply as classroom exercises in which canned answers are foreordained, their interest is likely to perk up.

Listen: Once we have a question, we deepen our understanding of what’s at stake by “listening” to the historical record. “Listening” should be broadly understood to include all the ways we gather knowledge not just from talk but also from books, music, painting, and architecture. Most often we “listen” by reading.

Expedition members can be introduced to fiction or nonfiction texts complicate or simplify their understanding of their questions, that add to their knowledge the detail needed for accurate thinking, or that present them with points of view that differ from their own.

Whenever practicable, readings should include primary documents. By reading primary documents, stundents draw nearer to actual persons whose thoughts and actions shaped and reflected the past. While secondary sources are invaluable for establishing background and context, reading them without also examining primary documents tends to mystify as well as clarify the past. Only by reading both do we develop an accurate sense of how history is written.

Explore: Students can also gather new information. The simplest way to do this is to include an oral history strand in the expedition.

By enlisting as many people as possible in helping with students’ research, teachers can strengthen the relationship between schooling and community, they can increase and deepen members’ relationships to other people, and they develop motivational strategies more powerful than points and grades.

Students can also make observations, taking field notes then, for example, adding their data to a local data base established to track water quality in a local stream or bird populations in a local forest. They can conduct experiments, adding their findings to the local files. They can document with photographs and essays a local event, a person practicing his or her occupation, or a particular place such as main street at a specific moment in time. Obviously, the better established local knowledge gathering and preserving systems are, the easier this will be to do and the more apparent will be its benefits to expedition members. But starting is not hard. A set of file folders in a file cabinet will do.

Reflect: With whom will members discuss their work along the way? What drafts of notes, essays, or scripts will they create, and who will read and respond to them?

To reflect is simply to think about what we are doing. In the end, thinking is the only learning strategy. Few of us, though, can think very complex thoughts without either talking things through with someone else or writing. So every expedition should include lots of chances for expedition members to discuss what they are doing and to make notes or journal entries to order their thoughts and to preserve them for later revision. Through reflection we can (1) resolve anomalies in our thinking, (2) revise our understanding what has happened and is happening, and (3) construct systematic knowledge.

Teach/Tell/Transform: All students should have chances to teach in every class. It is when we teach others, finding out how to tell what needs to be understood, that we transform ourselves by making new knowledge our own. By asking students to create cultural artifacts to be presented to local audiences, we can support the highest quality learning. A cultural artifact might be a research paper presented at a public forum, a video presented to elementary students, a website presented to a local museum, a radio program or podcast presented to the entire town, or a book presented to the local library.

By returning to the local community with newly formed knowledge, students successfully complete their quest and close their expedition with a sense of earned achievement. By creating gifts of scholarship for an audience beyond the classroom, students more readily learn that standards are not the arbitrary assignments of teachers, but that they flow from the real demands of the real world. A slide presentation to a community audience on local history that is not accurate and interesting simply doesn’t work as well as one that is well-researched and well-crafted.

ALERT was developed by Michael L. Umphrey.

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Talking habits that jam reflection
   Recognizing conversational habits that interfere with thinking and learning

Our conversational habits sometimes interfere with our ability to think.

Bellyaching: This is the habit of finding what’s wrong in every situation, not to improve but to be justified in not attempting much.

Few habits interfere more with learning than the habit of complaining. Bellyaching is highly addictive and many people accomplish only a fraction of what they could if their time and attention were not taken by whining. It becomes easier to whine than to plan and act, but it’s planners and actors who win the prize.

Bellyaching allows people to feel superior without much effort. 

One way way to deal with bellyaching is to acknowledge the problem briefly and then to direct attention back to more important questions: What would you like to be different? What can you do to move things in that direction? What did we learn from this? What can we do differently next time?

Gossip: When something like bellyaching is aimed at another person’s failings, it’s important to nudge the complainer away from judging and toward understanding. We have deep instincts that drive us to try to make sense of other people. Unfortunately this instinct leads some people to focus on the weakness or peculiarities of other people.

Most malicious gossip, after all, is not true. Rather it is a fiction: a theory about another person. Gossips report that a person did or said this or that and then weave the facts seamlessly into statements of what the person intended or was “really up to.” But seldom does the gossiper know what someone else intended.

Because making meaning of other people’s behavior comes to us so naturally and so readily, gossips are often not aware when they leap from fact to theory. They even love to bolster wild theories with shrill assertions: “And that’s a fact!”

When we pass on unconfirmed theories about other people’s motives we are gossiping. This is not a minor problem. Serious gossips are attracted to one another, but other people tend to avoid them because it’s not possible to be a gossip without others knowing it.

Since community-centered teaching involves young people in interactions with community members and since the work has a public dimension, it provides lots of opportunities for gossip. Which means it provides lots of opportunities to contemplate the harm done by gossip.

First, it’s unfair to pass judgment on others when they can’t give their side or defend themselves.

Second, it tends to escalate problems. As destructive information about people moves through human communities, distrust and dislike are spread, making the community less able to do the work it needs to do.

And finally, gossip wastes time and energy that could be better spent on other things.

Gossip is best handled by ignoring it, but if it persists a direct approach might be needed: Let’s not say bad things about him. Please don’t tell me bad things about him. There is probably another explanation. You don’t know.

Alternative explanations for behaviors can be suggested. Questions such as “Why do you think he behaved that way?” Or “How can we help her?” can prompt gossipers to move toward a better story, one that might moves things closer to what ought to be.

Record Playing: We all have little scripts that we run from time to time—previously formulated thoughts or stories that we’ve told dozens of times before. Many people perk up when they hear cues to replay these old recordings. Often such tales are amusing or interesting, but just as often they’re a way of avoiding thought.

We like to say things that win approval from our audience, so it’s easy to rely on tried and trusted scripts. But too much reliance is laziness—trying to force new situations into old molds. Instead, we should try to see what new light today’s experiences bring.

Again, such gambits can be met by asking questions that point the speaker toward the new territory at hand. Avoid getting caught up in swapping old tales and re-focus on the details of the current situation.

Skipping: A particularly difficult pattern to break is the habit of jumping to new topics or interrupting to point out trivial or insignificant details. Some people need to report that their pen quits writing or that someone’s eyelash has a speck on it. Skipping around is a common strategy for people who are getting bored or insecure with the direction a conversation is going. It is sometimes an intentional distraction.

Give persons who are skipping the attention and at the same time encourage them to be more serious. “Is this conversation boring you? Are we discussing the wrong questions?” Such responses make the person aware that his disruption is noted at the same time they invite them to reflect on why they are disrupting.

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Evaluating books, primary documents, photographs, movies, websites, songs
   Who made it? How? For what purpose?

When members of learning expeditions have their research question and begin examining texts and other cultural artifacts, it is important that they continue asking questions not just about the topic they are studying but about the cultural artifacts themselves. Who made them? For what purposes? What assumptions did the creators make? How true are the implicit and explicit claims that are made.

As we examine various cultural artifacts--books, primary documents, photographs, videos-- we should continue to ask questions.

Principle: All cultural artifacts are constructed by someone. It’s easy to think of a newspaper clipping as something natural and to accept its message uncritically. But the more we know about how it was constructed, and by whom, and for what purpose, the more we know how to think about it. The same is true for books, television programs, songs, and movies.

Questions: Who created this cultural artifact?
What other people were involved?
What are the various parts that make up the whole?
Is anything missing?

Principle: Every communication medium has its own rules. Newspapers signal a story is important by using large headlines. Movies make a scene feel scary by using dissonance, atonality, and percussive notes to jar the nervous system. A moving camera conveys disorientation or excitement. A cluster of footnotes establishes an air of authority. The more we learn the syntax, grammar and metaphorical systems of the communication medium we are examining, the more we can enjoy them (as well as defend ourselves from manipulation).

Questions: What techniques are used to communicate emotions as well as facts?
What techniques from the arts (visual arts, dance, music, theater) are used.
What emotion does the artifact arouse? How?
What makes the artifact seem to be “real” rather than a work of fiction or imagination?

Principle: Most cultural artifacts are created for some purpose, which means there is some audience the creator intends to influence. Thinking about various audiences and how they interpret various messages can further our understanding.

Questions: How well did this message fit with your view of the world?
What other interpretations are possible or likely?
Who was the intended audience?
What can you learn from how other people interpret this message?

Principle: All messages have embedded assumptions and values.

Questions: What is the cultural context of the creator?
What judgments are made or assumed?
What political or economic views are communicated in the message?
What ideas or values are being “sold.”
What type of person is the recipient of the message invited to admire?
What kinds consequences of conduct are implied, stated, or depicted?

Principle: There is no necessary relationship between who created a cultural artifact and how true it is. Though it is often useful to think about the purposes for which an artifact was created, it is sometimes important not to stop there. Otherwise, critical thought tends to wither away, and people simply take sides based on their perceptions of which group the artifact supports or opposes. Since truth-seeking rather than side-taking is the main point of critical thinking, people who want to think more clearly will also evaluate the accuracy, precision, and truthfulness of cultural artifacts.

What principles are being asserted, either implicitly or explictly.
What evidence is provided in support of those principles?
What reasons are provided or suggested for believing those principles are true?
Is the evidence sufficient for the claims that are made?
Are the reasons logical?

Note: This worksheet heavily revises the five key questions proposed by the Center for Media Literacy. The rationale for this revision is provided in Thinking critically about critical thinking

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Getting ready to be interviewed
   A guide for interview subjects

An explanation of the purpose of the oral history interview to be given to interview subjects before the interview.

Thank you for helping the Heritage Project save our history. The Heritage Project allows young people to help research and write community, family and individual histories. The materials created in the Project are preserved in local libraries and museums as well as in the Montana Historical Society Library-Archives .

To prepare for the interview, you might spark your memory by reviewing any photographs, letters or newspaper clippings you have saved. You might look at any souvenirs or objects you’ve kept. Please consider bringing photos, medals, uniforms, news clippings, or other souvenirs from the time period.

We are interested in your memories and thoughts about your life experiences, so we would like to hear any stories or details that are important to you. The “official” history of the time period with dates and facts and figures is readily available in many published sources, but your interview will help us to go beyond the official record to get a sense of how things felt and seemed to people such as yourself, who were there.

Of course, you do not have to answer any questions that you do not want to answer. Once the interview is completed, you will be offered a chance to review the transcript to make any corrections or revisions you feel are needed. Once you have reviewed the transcript and signed a release form, a copy of the transcript and tape will be made available to the public for research purposes. You can place restrictions on the material if you choose, such requiring your permission before it is used or specifying that it may not be used for a certain number of years. Such restrictions reduce the value of your story for researchers, so we prefer to avoid them, but this is up to you.

Unless otherwise requested all materials will be made available to the public and covered under standard copyright law. More information about copyrights and restrictions are available upon request from your library or the Montana Historical Society. Most interviews last about an hour.

We are grateful for your willingness to help.

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To-do list for public heritage programs
   Planning and executing a successful heritage event

Set a date
Book a space
Form your committee
Create a set of deadlines
Establish assignments
Keep excellent track of all those who help you through the year
Decide on all the event components: sequence, content, presenters, introducers, food, music, greeters, decorating crew, clean-up crew
Prepare a “script� for the event indicating where everyone should be at what time, from greeters to emcees
Invite any outside presenters
Create invitations, press releases, announcements
Write newspaper stories
Participate in radio shows
Do follow-up invitations
Remember your teachers
Make programs and name tags and signs
Make a list of all the supplies you’ll need
Know exactly who is bringing food and how much there should be
Time the rehearsal
Designate a photographer
Create a set-up and clean-up crew

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