As we begin reading 12 Angry Men, I invited my students into a debate and put the following claim on the floor: the U.S. justice system is the best in the world. Given that my kids have direct experience with the American juvenile justice system, I knew this would be relevant and look forward to hearing what they think of the play, which I consider to be a powerful look at human weaknesses and biases, as well as human courage and integrity.
I think I was most impressed with the balance many students brought to the discussion. Many students thought that, while certainly not perfect, the U.S. justice system offers much that some other countries don't. One student raised the point of an article we'd read earlier on a woman in Saudi Arabia who was sentenced to 200 lashes for being raped. Another noted that when U.S. soldiers commit abuses or war crimes, they are (usually) charged. Certainly, students brought up the racial and class prejudices that weaken our justice system. If they hadn't, I would have. One student even noted that he sentence, he felt, was lighter that someone elses might have been since his family had the money to hire an excellent lawyer. But I was impressed with the ability to see both the positive and negative aspects of such a complicated and, for many students, personally painful subject. Not every student--or every person--has that ability. Not every student is willing to make a claim of what she or he really thinks and try to back it up; that takes some real mental courage. It's a risk to be real. But building critical thinking skills cannot happen otherwise. Growing as a writer, reader and as a person can't happen otherwise. This is the heart of why I give so much time in my classroom to discussion and debate, even though the "product" is results in is intangible.