Chapter 7: Developing New Materials
The START course materials have been selected to provide an overview of social, cultural, economic, environmental, and political problems in society and of various ways of bringing about positive change that are consistent with traditional values of honesty, democracy, freedom, liberty, morality, tolerance, compassion, cooperation, rationality, fairness, and nonviolence. These materials also conform to the many principles enumerated in Chapter 4.
Moreover, we have chosen materials that are easily accessible and freely available on the Internet. We have tried to choose materials that are timeless (so they do not become quickly outdated) and located on stable websites (so they do not disappear after a time). Of course, despite our efforts, many of these materials will grow outdated, become less relevant, or disappear from the web. Moreover, other new, important topics and issues will arise over time.
Consequently, the reading list must be continually updated and changed. If you are interested, we would greatly appreciate your help in locating new materials, in replacing or supplementing the ones we currently have, or in developing completely new areas. In particular, at the end of a standard START course, your group might choose to locate new materials for the course or to find materials specific to a particular topic that your group and others may want to pursue. If you live in a country other than the United States, you might want to find materials that are more relevant to your country and region.
Please send us your suggestions for new readings. We place readings that we are considering for inclusion on the Possible Readings pages.
Below are the criteria we have used in choosing materials and the format that we have used to present the materials. Please consider using these as guidelines for your efforts.
A. Criteria for Choosing START Reading Materials
Note: in this chapter we have chosen to use the terms “reading materials” and “articles” since most of the items are likely to be written materials. But the list might also include suitable audio or video recordings of various sorts. Be sure that any recordings are easily accessible using the (possibly older) computers that participants may have and the slow Internet connections they may use.
To be valuable in educating participants and helping them to bring about positive change, the materials should have these characteristics:
- Overall, convey a big-picture analysis of important issue areas
- Generally promote values consistent with the Golden Rule (i.e., honesty, openness, democracy, cooperation, justice, and nonviolence)
- Generally, promote change strategies that are consistent with a vision of a society based on these values, that is, strategies that rely on honest education, rational persuasion, inclusive democracy, and nonviolent action (rather than propaganda, manipulation, bullying, or exclusion)
- Contain articles that can succinctly and effectively convey critical information so that participants can quickly and easily learn a great deal
- Present a variety of perspectives — including at least one progressive perspective plus a well-argued mainstream or conservative perspective, so participants are challenged to evaluate differing ideas
- Present sensible solutions to problems (not just convey how bad things are)
- In particular, present solutions that get to the roots of problems, not palliatives or limited reforms
The standard START course as a whole provides an overview of the big picture, and the readings are divided into major topic groups (such as Meeting Basic Human Needs — Physical Systems) that address particular aspects of this overall topic. These major topic groups are divided into more specific topics (such as Environment and Sustainability). Each set of readings for a particular session (meeting) addresses one aspect of that specific topic (such as Global Warming).
Each set of readings should address one facet of a topic, so that report presentations and group discussion at that session can thoroughly probe that topic from many sides. And each individual set should have a single theme or perspective so that the person presenting it to the group has some chance of summarizing it in a short report.
Also, at least one reading in each session (and usually, several) should provide each of these:
- A broad, historical, sweeping understanding of the situation
- Information and analysis of a specific situation (a typical or exemplary example)
- A possible solution or way forward
For each session, there should also be a single short summary article that everyone in the group reads — enabling everyone to have some basic common understanding of the topic. This article should take the average reader no more than 15 minutes to read.
Each set of readings should take the average person about 60–90 minutes to read (50 pages at 250 words/page) and have the following additional characteristics:
- Coherent — addresses one topic or one particular aspect of a topic
- Varied — addresses the topic or aspect from several angles
- Diverse — includes perspectives from a wide variety of sources, especially those traditionally ignored (such as from women, minority groups, young people, people in Third World nations, farmers, etc.)
A set of readings might consist of just a single article or chapter of a book, but a set of readings written by different authors is more likely to address different aspects of the topic and do so from a variety of perspectives.
Good articles (or resources) are:
- Topical — address the core essence of an issue
- Timely — not out of date
- Significant — address an important issue or topic or offer a valuable perspective
- Informative/enlightening/instructive — provide useful information in a digestible form
- Well-written — written in simple, forthright, understandable language with a minimum of jargon
- Succinct — readable (or viewable/hearable) in less than half an hour — articles should generally be no more than 25 pages long — and 2-3 pages is much better
- Information dense — convey a great deal of information in a few words, charts, or diagrams so that participants can quickly and efficiently grasp essential concepts
- Factual — grounded in reality and reported accurately (ideally including citations of authoritative references)
- Secure — reside on a stable website so that the information is accessible for many years (see Section 7.C for a list of some potential sites)
- Free — reside on a website that can be accessed without charge
Any good readings beyond those that can be included in reading sets can be listed as Additional Resources, making them available for those who are especially interested in further pursuing a particular topic. Participants might also decide to use a supplementary reading as a substitute for a regular reading if it provides a unique perspective or is more accessible.
Each collection of reading sets should have a few study questions that can spur group discussion and stimulate creative thinking about the issues raised. Study questions should challenge participants to:
- Think about issues from a variety of perspectives
- Compare various sources of information and evaluate their validity and value
- Understand why people holding various perspectives (progressives, liberals, centrists, conservatives, etc.) hold the perspectives they do — the values and assumptions that support their perspectives
- Think of creative solutions to problems
- Consider how society might be different and/or how they might bring about positive change
B. How to Format START Readings
For every reading there should be a link to a stable website where it can be accessed. The listing for each article should include the article’s title and enough bibliographic information to determine who wrote it, when it was published, and its approximate length — number of pages (at 250 words/page) or viewing/listening minutes for audio and video files. Each listing should also include a one-sentence description so prospective readers have a sense of what it is about. For examples of format, see the START reading list.
C. Sources for Readings
To give a flavor of the many good sites that regularly post articles suitable for a START course, here are a few:
- Yes! Magazine: http://www.yesmagazine.org
- The Nation: http://www.thenation.com
- Dollars & Sense: http://www.dollarsandsense.org
- Z Magazine: http://www.zmag.org
- In These Times: http://www.inthesetimes.com
- Mother Jones: http://www.motherjones.com
- The American Prospect: http://www.prospect.org
- Common Dreams: http://www.CommonDreams.org
- Working for Change: http://www.WorkingForChange.org
- Tom Paine: http://www.TomPaine.org
- AlterNet: http://alternet.org
- Truth Out: http://www.TruthOut.org
- Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org — note that these pages are constantly updated and modified
- New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com
- Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com
- Los Angeles Times: http://www.latimes.com
- Nonviolence.org: http://www.nonviolence.org
- Global Issues: http://www.globalissues.org
- Third World Traveler: http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com
For more, see the hundreds of newspapers, news services, periodicals, radio shows, TV shows, and opinion columnists listed on the Common Dreams home page:
Newspaper opinion columns are sometimes a good resource since they are succinct and often explore a unique political perspective. Book reviews are another good resource since they also are usually succinct and summarize the essence of a book.
- New York Review of Books: http://www.nybooks.com
The websites of many change organizations offer articles or leaflets that explore an important topic. For example, Peace Action lists several well-researched factsheets here:
And United for a Fair Economy has a number of research reports here:
Here is a list of several hundred organizations working for positive change, organized according to issue:
Organizations Working for Positive Change
D. Criteria for Choosing Experiential Exercises
Experiential exercises should have these characteristics:
- Engaging — designed to encourage direct, active participation and engender a profound connection to new ideas
- Educational — designed to convey information, challenge assumptions, or rehearse useful practices
- Easily carried out — with explicit instructions that would make them usable by people who are previously unfamiliar with the particular exercise or even with exercises in general
- Broadly usable by all kinds of people and groups (or with enough variations to cover many kinds of groups)