When Inquiry Hits a Nerve

I recently read Isabel Wilkerson’s bestselling book, Caste: The Origins of our Discontents. I found Wilkerson’s argument intellectually stimulating and began to think about how I could incorporate her book into social studies curriculum in central Kentucky.

There are many challenges to incorporating modern scholarship into secondary social studies. Will my students be able to comprehend the argument and supporting evidence? Will I experience resistance if I teach scholarship which challenges a dominant narrative? How can I teach in a way which fosters hard, but fruitful, conversations? How can I support a classroom culture around investigation, not indoctrination? With these questions in mind, I set out to create an inquiry which explores Wilkerson’s Caste in a way that feels appropriately scaffolded while authentically exploring Wilkerson’s central argument in Caste.

Staging the Question

This inquiry begins with students viewing Margaret Bourke-White’s photograph, The Louisville Flood. Picked for the strong imagery (and nondescript name), this photo allows students to begin to think about the how American society has historically framed ideas of social mobility around narratives like the “American Dream.” Students are asked to rename the picture as an exercise in examining the dichotomy between American ideals and American reality.

Supporting Questions and Tasks

Now, students will begin working through the supporting questions and tasks. The first task is designed to scaffold the rest of the inquiry by grounding in students in the central message in Caste. Students’ finished work may look like the following:

In the following two tasks, students will define and explain what Wilkerson means by arguing that America has a caste system in place. This allows students to break down Wilkerson’s claims, evidence, and warrants. Students’ work may look like the following:

Supporting Question 3 has students add to their chart with examples of each pillar. The sources highlight examples given in the book in addition to adding more current examples like the 2020 video of Amy Cooper calling the police on a Black man in Central Park.

The final supporting question asks students to examine the response to Wilkerson’s work through reviews. The sources selected represent positive and negative reviews of the book and each critic brings a unique perspective to their review (for example, reviewer Yashica Dutt identifies as someone from the Dalit class and can speak to Wilkerson’s comparison between Black American’s experiences and Dalit Indian’s experiences). This student example focuses on one review which agrees with Wilkerson’s thesis and one which disagrees. One side note, exposing students to how others disagree allows us opportunities to discuss what good discourse should look like through examples or non-examples.

Summative Performance Task

After completing the Supporting Tasks, students will then be able to engage in the Summative Performance Task in which they construct an argument addressing the compelling question. Student’s may produce an argument like the following:

Ultimately, this inquiry makes space for argumentation by having students examine and analyze the response to Wilkerson’s work rather than asking students if they agree or disagree with her work. This lifts classroom conversation out of the weeds of whether individual students agree or disagree with Wilkerson’s central thesis (which is certainly something students will do once they have examined the argument) and walks them through thoughtful examination of an argument free from initial pressure to prematurely put a stake in the ground.

Interested in viewing the full inquiry? Click here!