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When is a circle more than just a circle? Middle school students can memorize the formal definition of a circle: the set of all points equidistant from a single point. But what happens when that single point is my middle school, and I need to figure out how far I need to walk in each direction to find the closest healthy grocery store option? Or when I compare my circle to the circles for schools located in neighborhoods with different socioeconomic and racial demographics?
By framing the definition of a circle within the controversial but relatable issue of community food deserts, we enhance student opportunities for deeper learning. But reframing your existing curriculum can seem unrealistic for those days when overwhelmed, under-resourced educators feel even more overwhelmed and under-resourced than usual.
For the last 7 years of leading thinkLaw, my team has been obsessed with solving this problem — helping teachers embed culturally responsive critical thinking into their existing curriculum so it doesn’t feel like one more thing. Through this journey, we’ve developed a toolbox of powerful but practical methods to leverage what we call the “funk” – the emotional, thought-provoking connection that comes from relating academic content to issues involving drama, controversy, surprise, humor and conflict — to generate more critical thinking in the classroom. It feels obvious that this type of construct can improve authentic connections for learners, deepen learning outcomes, and have all sorts of other achievement-based benefits in the classroom. The benefits of finding the funk beyond the classroom, however, are a little less obvious.
Any time we give students the opportunity to not just analyze the world as it is, but use their knowledge to grapple with how the world ought to be, we explicitly permit them to not just be problem solvers, but to embrace their identity as problem finders. This is the fundamental premise of my second book, Tangible Equity: A Guide for Leveraging Student Identity, Culture, and Power to Unlock Excellence In and Beyond the Classroom (Amazon | Bookshop.org). Student success must include the academic achievement necessary for accountability metrics, but that success means very little if students do not also have the tools to lead, innovate, and break what needs to be broken, and to use what they learn in the classroom to impact the world beyond the classroom.
But enough about the why, let’s get to the how!
3 Strategies for Finding the Funk
You do not need to be the most creative or innovative educator to find the funk in your instruction, and it doesn’t have to be one more thing added to your list of things to do. Instead, regularly integrate culturally responsive critical thinking into the content you’re already teaching with the following three strategies. Use these strategies to create provocative essential questions to start a new unit, integrate powerful class discussions partway through a unit, wrap up a day’s lesson, or help students review at the end of a unit, just to name a few.
Strategy 1: Making the Rules
Across disciplines, almost every new concept involves some set of rules, algorithms, procedures, or definitions. And when you introduce rules, you also introduce an opportunity for students to define that rule, break it, prove it wrong, extend it to the point of absurdity, evaluate it, or revise it.
Making a rule seems natural for patterns in math class. But how often do world language teachers allow students to create a rule for irregular verb conjugations based on those type of patterns? There is nothing stopping third graders from designing their own rubrics for what makes a good paragraph “good” based on their analysis of paragraphs written at various levels of quality. China recently banned children from playing video games during the week and drastically limited their access during the weekends. What might a rule need to look like in the United States to address the issue of video game addiction? Whether Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” is a country song depends on the rule for what makes a country song a country song. Similar lines of inquiry apply to the rules for what makes art or fossils part of a particular time period or what makes some words have long or short vowel sounds.
This is not limited to the learning happening in our schools. In the work thinkLaw leads to support families in nurturing and developing critical thinking at home, it has been awe-inspiring to watch parents lead students through our discussion cards to create potential rules for addressing the issue of pets who get petrified by 4th of July fireworks or develop a rule in response to the real-life scenario of an aunt who charged her family $30 a person for attending her Thanksgiving dinner!
Rulemaking is an inherently funky process where the lesson goes far beyond developing the “right” rule. The true value comes from helping students hold a mirror up to themselves so they can see their own power to make sense of the world within and beyond the classroom. Just imagine your students in front of your mayor sharing a rule they developed for what they believe is the maximum justifiable radius for how far away a community’s healthy grocery store can be.
Strategy 2: Breaking and Shaking the Rules
Breaking and shaking rules is equally — if not more — powerful. One of the easiest ways to do this is to use incomplete rules. A great example from Thinking Like a Lawyer: A Framework for Teaching Critical Thinking to All Students (Amazon | Bookshop.org) involves an elementary school example of students learning the difference between prime and composite numbers. If I tell you 3, 5, 7, and 11 are prime numbers and asked students to define “prime,” it seems likely they might say prime numbers are odd numbers. It does not take much to break and shake that initial rule by introducing 9, 15, 21 and 23, and informing students that 9, 15, and 21 are composite and 23 is prime. When they redefine this rule, they may now conclude that not all odd numbers are prime, but composite numbers are odd numbers that are divisible by three. When you add in 10, 18, 25, and 31, they again find themselves breaking and shaking their rules. They realize that even numbers can also be composite. They see that not all composite, odd numbers are divisible by 3. And just imagine the funk when we give them 0, 1 and 2 and tell them that 0 and 1 are neither prime nor composite and that 2 is actually prime!
Is there a more intuitive way to organize the periodic table of elements? Six Flags amusement parks had a decent set of rules for their unlimited meal plan until the arrival of ridiculous TikTok shenanigans. How could your students update these rules so that park guests do not abuse the all-you-can-eat option? You can do wonders in creating a classroom culture where students feel safe as advocates and leaders if you encourage students to suggest updates for classroom rules or improvements to the way you explain rules relating to academic content.
Throughout history, a lot of very bad things have happened because people were simply following orders. Breaking and shaking the rules helps students hone their ability to be disruptive on purpose and to be disruptive with a purpose.
Strategy 3: The Most, Least, Best or Worst
You see a social media post listing the definitive list of the top ten movies of all time. Why do you click on it? You know you won’t agree with it, at least not with all of it. But every time you see lists like this, you cannot help but invoke your own beliefs, identity, values, experiences, education in school, and education outside of school.
This is why finding the funk with The Most, Least, Best or Worst is a highly practical tool for embedding culturally responsive critical thinking into your classroom. Reading a novel? Rich character analysis comes through so much more seamlessly if students need to rank the main characters from the most shady to the least shady. If my Algebra I students recently learned how to solve systems of equations by the substitution, elimination, and graphing methods, there’s no need to do a played-out Jeopardy game for test review. Instead, I can have students work in groups as lobbyists for each method, competing for an exclusive contract for math teachers across the country to teach only their method and explaining in detail why their method is superior and why the other two fall short.
And as I wrote for this blog before, The Most, Least, Best or Worst can also be a powerful way to leverage the magic of mistakes. Even standardized test prep practice questions can be enhanced by having students go beyond “What is the right answer?” by asking “What is the MOST wrong answer?” (the one that is the most off-base from what the question was asking for) and “What is the BEST wrong answer?” (the one most students would likely select as the wrong answer).
A word of caution: asking students to rank the most significant dates of The Revolutionary War – or to use any of these subjective ranking activities discussed above – can sometimes be a huge challenge for students who are used to questions with clear right and wrong answers. You can make the funk less funky by intentionally hooking the funk to our students’ world. Who is the most significant person in your household? In our school? What is the most significant location in your community? What date is the most significant date of your life? When students can use who they are and how they are to deepen their connection to learning, it builds their ability to make these connections as a habit.
We Need the Funk. Gotta Have the Funk.
Content mastery will always be important for educators. So will effective formative assessment, purposeful academic vocabulary integration and all the other tools of the trade. But finding the funk provides so much value to students in a wide range of achievement levels. Students who excel in traditional measures of academic achievement benefit from the nuance, depth, and complexity of integrated funk. Struggling learners often surprise their teachers with their ability to navigate these critical thinking challenges because their struggles built their often-overlooked expertise in learning how to learn. Engaging students who are academically behind their peers with rigorous critical thinking prompts is a much better strategy than drill-and-kill remediation and intervention.
Lastly, consider what instruction grounded in funk, drama, controversy and conflict does for students who frequently get the “behavior problem” label. This is personal, because I was one of those students. I was never student of the month. But I graduated top of my law school class because it turns out that a lifetime of telling my teachers some version of “well, what had happened was” whenever I got into trouble was an essential foundation for the critical thinking necessary for me to slay achievement in law school. We have the power to create classrooms where funk is so welcomed that asking lots of questions is not disrespectful but is instead expected for what it means to be curious and inquisitive. We have the power to create classrooms where students telling teachers “they shouldn’t do it this way; they should do it that way” is not defiance but an exemplar for what it means to be a leader, an advocate, and a well-educated person. Finding the funk in your day-to-day instruction gives you a sustainable pathway to help students go beyond studying the world as it is to a place where they are frequently thinking critically about the world as it ought to be.