“What’s the definition of that word?”

“Well… that’s a tricky question.”

I’ve been working with my basic skills students on an argumentative paper – How do we decide what evidence to use? How do we address counter arguments to our own ideas? How do we organize all those arguments so our essay reads cohesively?

As for a topic, we began with the infamous Gallup International Poll: “What Country Poses the Greatest Threat to World Peace?” As you probably know, the United States won by a wide margin. I picked this topic because there’s plenty of ways to argue it, and the students saw that immediately. After only posing the question (and the results map), the class was animated with responses.

Part of the discussion settled on drone warfare and terrorists and the debate in the room was moving along just fine – we had all sorts of arguments and counterarguments – but then a student asked a question that sent us down a long tangent. She asked me to define the word terrorist.

What happened next was completely unplanned, which is risky, but with this class it turned out to be one of the most exciting discussions of the quarter. I just opened a google search page and started entering students questions, pausing after each to let students discuss among themselves and then as a large group.

First we happened upon the FBI’s legal definition: “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.

Immediately, some students had some examples to fit the description – The Boston Marathon, The Pulse Shooting, The San Bernardino Shooting… But then students started asking about examples of mass violence that seemed to fit the FBI’s description but were never classified as terrorism. Dylan Storm Roof, Robert Dear, Micah Xavier Johnson,The Millers : “Were they terrorists too? It seems like they were trying to further political or social objectives.

Most of the class agreed there was a discrepancy here in the way the word “terrorist” has been used and defined. It seemed if someone used violence in conjunction with muslim extremist ideas, they would readily be labeled a terrorist. But if someone else were to do nearly the exact same thing but claim their motive was Jesus, or the Tea Party, or Black Lives Matter, then at most this person’s actions seem to be labeled a hate crime.

The entire activity reminded me how fruitful it can be to define words. Even more, though, I remembered how exciting it can be some time to drop my whole lesson plan and just go on a web search with my students.


2 thoughts on “Unplanned

  1. I like the spontaneity, and that brought about genuine discussion of a very current topic. On my end, I always feel compelled to cover the material planned out for the day. I can be “spontaneous” for about 5-10 minutes at a time. The weight of the course material seems to hold me back.


  2. graynicole says:

    What a cool example of how following the student’s train of thought can lead to a great discussion. I’m sure my students would find math more interesting if I could figure out a way to do something similar. I’ll have to noodle on that.


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