SUMMARY OF KEY FINDINGS
Focusing on the “analyzing issues” aspect of civic engagement, my inquiry explored whether structured academic conversation would help students formulate their positions on an issue as well as improve the clarity with which students were able to articulate their ideas in writing. I experimented with two different models for students to discuss controversial issues in my 10th grade World History/English course. One was a one-lesson Structured Academic Controversy, where students worked together in pairs and then debated and discussed the issue in groups of four; the other was a multiple-lesson, whole class role play simulation, where students worked in small groups to prepare for a whole class debate.
I found that overall, more students were more comfortable participating in the smaller group setting of Structured Academic Controversy, and as a result, were able to clarify their positions quickly; however, the multiple day investigation of the role play, which brought to light multiple perspectives on the issue, enabled students to develop a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the complexity of the issue. While in some cases this made it more challenging for them to decide on their position on the issue, it ultimately enabled them to write a more compelling argumentative piece than previously observed. All students’ writing was more clear and detailed, and it also reflected a more sophisticated analysis by addressing counterarguments. I would recommend using both structures – either independently, or sequentially in the same unit.
I came back from maternity leave in January of 2014 to my sixth year of teaching humanities at MetWest High School, a very small, Independent Study high school in OUSD. I returned to find my dynamic cohort of students I had worked with the previous academic year a bit out of control and a little confused. They were supposed to have been spent the fall exploring the essential question of “Why does global inequity exist?” by studying the history of colonization and learning how to write argumentative essays through multiple Document Based Question units. But at this point, they seemed unclear on how to structure a paragraph and could not identify specific parts of the world where colonization had taken place. My work to get them back on track began.
After reestablishing classroom expectations, I was able to begin thinking about my EDDA project. In previous years of teaching 10th grade, I had structured my year-long, interdisciplinary World History and English curriculum around the essential question of “Why does global inequity exist?”, culminating in May with a White Paper addressed to U.N. leaders analyzing the history and present day causes of global inequity and advocating for specific policy recommendations to address the issue. My original EDDA project involved grand plans to have students really attempt to take action to get their ideas on specific issues of global inequity addressed by actually sending their White Papers to someone this year, starting online campaigns, connecting with activists and organizations around the world tackling these issues, and much more. However, as many parents know, having children can inadvertently derail many of our grand plans. As a new mother, working full-time, and starting back mid-year, I found I needed to significantly reduce the scope of my project to meet my class where they were at and manage my workload. Consequently, I chose to focus on solely the “analyzing issues” aspect of our civic engagement work. Additionally, because I am lucky to work at a school that has a vertical strand for civic action that culminates with students implementing a year long civic action project on a social issue in senior year, I also knew that focusing on the first stage of civic action with my 10th grade students would ultimately help them to take more effective civic actions as seniors.
As I worked with my class to explore complex issues of global inequity, I found students struggling to clearly articulate their ideas – both verbally and in writing. Because I know them well, I had a sense of what they were trying to say but knew an external audience would be confused. Because the point of analyzing an issue within the context of civic engagement is to then be able to clearly express one’s perspective on the issue in order to galvanize others to action, I thought this key starting point was important to delve into. I decided to investigate the question of whether structured academic conversation would help students formulate their positions on an issue as well as improve the clarity with which students were able to articulate their ideas in writing. Within that, I was interested in figuring out how to:
- increase the number of students engaged in discussion
- get students to reference text to backup their points in discussion and writing
- expand students’ use of academic language to engage in discussion
- scaffold students to ask critical questions to get at deeper meaning of an issue
I explored two models of academic discussion on controversial issues; one involved a multiple day, role play simulation, with students working in small groups to gather evidence and craft arguments to prepare for a class debate on key questions about a topic, while the other was a one-lesson Structured Academic Controversy (SAC), where students were provided evidence and worked with a partner to prepare arguments for a mini-debate with another pair of students on both sides of an issue. In both models, following the discussions, students were assigned to articulate their personal positions about the controversy supported by clear reasons in writing.
The first role play simulation was about the indigenous Huaorani people of Ecuador’s fight to keep their land. The role play was adapted from the curriculum in Rethinking Globalization by Bill Bigelow. We spent four days on this unit. The first day involved providing students with a small amount of background information on the controversy, then reviewing the three key questions they would have to address in the debate from the perspective of their assigned group (Huaorani Indian, Christian missionary, oil executive, Ecuadorian oil worker, or environmental activist), and finally, spending the majority of the class period in their assigned small group of 3-5 students to learn about their role for the simulation (information was provided to them). That night’s homework was to write an interior monologue addressing the 3 key questions for debate from their assigned perspective. At the start of day two, we had our first class meeting of the simulation. Each group had a few minutes to meet to review homework and decide the monologue they would deliver to the class to represent their groups’ perspective (or scramble to write something). They took notes on the different groups’ speeches and spent the rest of the class period preparing their statements and rebuttals to counterarguments for the next day’s class debate. Every student in the group was responsible for delivering part of the statement and addressing one counterargument – that night’s homework assignment. (Some students took it upon themselves to find additional information online to use as evidence in their statements or rebuttals.) Day three was the big debate. Round one involved students delivering their statements and other groups asking questions. Round two involved responses to questions and rebuttals to counterarguments. That night’s homework was to write out their personal position on the key questions debated. Day four (optional) included watching some video clips about the fight of the Huaorani against Chevron, an update on the legal battle, and some open class discussion about people’s individual opinions. I assigned students one more time to write or revise their personal position statements on the issue.
The second role play simulation we did was about whether NAFTA should be passed (a little dated, but I contextualized it as similar to current controversies around global trade, e.g. the TPP, etc.). It was adapted from The Line Between Us, also by Bill Bigelow. I used the same basic structure, except on day four of this unit, I used a Structured Academic Controversy (SAC) about whether NAFTA benefited Mexico (posted online by a graduate student in education at the College of William & Mary). I used the SAC structure modeled by Diana Hess, which involved four students sitting at table, each pair facing the other. One pair was assigned to argue the pro side and the other con. Each team was provided with a sheet of evidence for their assigned position and given a few minutes to prepare for the first round of debate. In the second round, pairs had to argue the opposing side of the issue and were provided with a new sheet of evidence that had not yet been used in the debate. Following the two rounds of debate, the table of four students were given time to discuss their individual thoughts on the issue and were challenged to come to consensus, if possible.
Based on classroom observations during discussions, an examination of students’ final written positions, two student interviews, and short written survey of the entire class, both models proved effective in different ways and to different extents at engaging students in academic conversation and helping students to clarify and then express in writing their positions and supporting arguments.
Prior to beginning both models of discussion, I polled the class on the controversial topics to see where everyone stood. For both topics, at least half of the students were undecided. Many of the undecided on both topics are a group of students that are typically quiet in class and when called on to express their opinions, often respond with “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure.” They are all female, Latina, and ELLs. Part of my inquiry was about how to more effectively engage this focal group of students in academic conversation, help them take a position and develop an argument on an issue, and be able to clearly communicate their thinking in writing. When interviewed, all of these students reported “liking” and “feeling more comfortable” participating in the SAC as opposed to the role play because it was a smaller group setting. Another one of these students said she preferred the SAC to the role play because “I got to hear both the pros and cons which was easier for me.” It was not a surprise to find that quieter students, not just those of my focal group, found the smaller setting for discussion of the SAC preferable to the whole class setting of the role play debate. For achieving the goal of engaging more students in academic discussion, the SAC is clearly the preferred model. However, in looking at these students’ writing after both activities, I was struck by the improved quality of their writing after the role play simulation. Specifically, I saw an improvement in the clarity of their writing, amount of elaboration to their reasons, depth of understanding of the complexity of the issue, and overall cohesion of their arguments. I noticed these trends across my class, not just among these students.
While this focal group may have felt more uncomfortable speaking in the whole class debate, and still spoke much less than other students in the open forum for questions and rebuttals, it is clear that the structure of the activity helped them to deeply understand the multiple perspectives on the issue and formulate their own positions. My hypothesis is that having to answer the same key questions in writing, multiple days in a row, and having a small group to discuss them with for extended periods of time, also helped to deepen their understanding of the issue and practice the language needed to articulate their thoughts clearly. I also think that hearing the multiple perspectives communicated in their peers’ own words – and often with a dramatic and engaging delivery, and being forced to express their groups’ perspectives in their own words helped them to understand the information more deeply. This was in contrast to what I saw happening in some groups in the SAC, where many ELL or lower-skilled students simply read the evidence they were given when it was their turn rather than using it to build an argument. I think having a short amount of time to read the evidence, only one partner to discuss with, and little help from the teacher given the time constraint was challenging for these students to achieve a deep comprehension of the evidence they were given. Also, depending on who they were paired with, the short discussion of the issue with peers did not always prove to be very helpful to deepening their comprehension of the issue. In some cases, groups discussions were based on inaccurate or partial understandings of the evidence, which ultimately led to flawed reasoning when expressing their positions in writing. Finding significant and compelling evidence that is accessible to the multiple reading levels present in our classrooms is essential, and a clear challenge, in the SAC model.
From the student survey and interviews I conducted, I found that students who tend to be more outgoing and apt to participate in whole class discussions reported preferring the role play simulation to the debate because it was more “fun” and “engaging.” One student said she preferred it because “it gets us to do activities by learning and I have a personal experience.” Most of those students said they learned more in the role play because they “saw all the different points of view” and “had more information and the freedom and time to come up with our own evidence.”
There was one student whose high quality participation in both role plays really stood out to me. She is a critical thinker and high-skilled writer, but she is typically silent in class unless called on to share. She is often significantly late or absent and rarely completes homework. For both role play units, she showed up close to on time, completed her homework, delivered some of the most persuasive statements, and voluntarily participated in the open question and rebuttal portion of the debate. My interview with her, excerpted below, illustrates well the way I believe the role play simulation model can facilitate students to develop clear positions on controversial topics and lead to more detailed and nuanced argumentative writing.
Interview with Student
Out of everything we did – discussions, lectures, readings, gallery walks, role plays, debates – what activities helped you form an opinion on the essential question about global inequity the most?
The role plays made us gather information and see other viewpoints on NAFTA and the oil role play. The gallery walks gave me visuals about how some of these things were portrayed.
How did talking with your peers help you to form your own opinion?
Being able to get other ideas or opinions helped to add on to what I was thinking. I might have said something and another student may have added on to the point I was making, and that helped me to build my opinion up more.
Why did the role play help you the most?
People took the role play more seriously. Everyone had information they had to review and prepare. We all had an opportunity to speak. It helped me decide what I agreed with. Because, like, I heard from the different people and their experiences, and from that I started to understand and know what I thought about it more.
How did the role play help you develop your opinion?
We had to research counterarguments. First off, I didn’t know anything about this. Here in America they never teach us things that happen in Third World countries. Learning about the environments and working conditions people were facing was all new to me.
Was the role play better than whole group discussion?
Yes, because usually you have the same people in class answer all the questions and share their opinions. With the role play, we were forced to get involved. Everyone had to speak and we had a specific perspective we had to share. Seeing everyone do the role play made me want to engage more.
You are usually quiet and in the role play you were a powerhouse. Why was that?
Sometimes I feel like my point of view needs to be heard. Some parts of the debate weren’t being discussed that were important. I think sharing my opinion might have influenced others’ opinions and might have even changed some.
Was working with a small group more helpful than if you had to work on your own?
Small groups got me motivated because everyone had to show up and do their part of the assignment in order for it to work. Our grade relied on everyone’s work.
Did the role play activity make it easier to write your final position paper?
Yes. It made my answers more elaborate. It added to my opinion.
Given the diversity of student learning styles, skill levels, and personalities in any classroom, I would definitely utilize both models of structured academic conversation again. I would like to try out a unit design that integrates both models in order to facilitate high levels of participation in academic conversation to help students produce clear, detailed, and nuanced argumentative writing on a controversial issue. The basic structure would be a six day unit that begins with a short lecture/handout and gallery walk to build background knowledge and engagement, a SAC on day two, then a three-day role play simulation where students work in small groups to develop their position and rebuttals for a whole class debate, and finally, a short, whole class discussion of individual opinions followed by time to begin writing a two page position paper on the issue. Additional time could be spent using the position paper to work on research or writing skills.