Last week I had great plans for our discussion session in my freshman seminar class. I assigned two recent news reports focusing on cyber-bulling – one resulting in a student death, another involving gay phobia. Since the class is addressing the question, “What does it mean to be American?” I thought these articles provided plenty of fuel for a conversation-discussion about “freedom of speech.”

Much to my surprise, soon after the class split into groups, several went into lulls. When I moved around inquiring, many stated in very strong terms that it is not right to offend or hurt others, thus the kind of behavior seen in these reports was not appropriate. Forget about issues of freedom of speech, or issues of religious tolerance (I tried to fuel more discussion by referring to the recent Supreme Court case involving a dead soldier and Southern religious group, but to no avail). Most kids simply would not challenge their assumptions or beliefs! They were not interested – or did not know how – to push the discussion further.

The experience made me wonder a lot about the level of maturity of 1st year student. To what extent can they question deeply held beliefs at this stage, or perhaps more intriguing, what can I do as a teacher to push them in this direction?!!! What strategies can I use to encourage them to shake/raise awareness of unquestioned views & assumptions? A couple of mature students helped advance their group discussions, but for the most part, the whole exercise seemed unproductive / unfruitful.