Civic Engagement through Academic Conversations by Kaitlin Pierce

As a writing teacher, I found that many students were adept at speaking, but struggled with writing.  Class discussions unearthed interesting ideas, but many of the papers I graded the previous year either parroted my own analysis or came dangerously close to plagiarism.

My initial inquiry was:

Does having a high stakes audience lead to better grammar and ideas in students writing?

I wanted to find a way to help my students write as well as they could speak. I knew that they would need more practice writing and that the writing needs to feel valuable. If students cared about the topic and there was an outside audience, I believed this would push them to produce higher quality work. Since most of my students excelled at expressing themselves verbally, I knew incorporating academic discussion would be an important medium for exchanging ideas.

This work would also support my involvement with the EDDA initiative, Educating for Democracy in the Digital Age and the group’s work to increase student civic engagement.

The plan (civic engagement rationale in parenthesis italicized):

  1. Learn about contemporary civics issues (issue analysis)

  2. Hold academic discussions around contemporary community issue or news items (explore varying viewpoints)

  3. Craft a written response (a component of activism)

  4. Publish responses online for their peers and the world to see (start a national dialogue and ongoing exchange of ideas)

I. Incorporating Academic Conversation

I came into my writing classroom, armed and ready to help launch my students’ writing to the next level. After my firsts few attempt using Philosophical Chairs and Socratic Circles, I quickly realized that students lacked enough evidence and background knowledge to effectively argue and that the topic needed to be highly controversial.  Topics such as “school uniforms” or “off-campus lunch” fell flat. The same few students dominated the conversation and after a few minutes of the same arguments being proposed, the conversation was essentially over. Even the use of sentence starters or participation points failed to support struggling students or engage quieter students. Furthermore, the essay responses I read after the discussion did not incorporate new ideas voiced in the discussion and they were rife with grammar errors.

Then, I was lucky enough to attend a seminar by Diana Hess about Structured Academic Conversations (SAC). The basic process I followed can be found here.

The benefits of the SAC structure are student exposure to multiple pieces of evidence and the small group accountability, making it more likely that all students participate.

When we began our first unit on the topic “Should prostitution be legal?” student engagement increased dramatically. Jenny (all student names are pseudonyms), a student, who had a history of sleeping through class, sat up and proudly shared an example of a young girl she knew who was tricked into prostitution, “This guy kept giving her free things, but she didn’t know he was a pimp. Then he made her feel like she had to hustle for him. That ain’t right.”  James, a struggling ESL student, worked closely with his partner to paraphrase the evidence and clearly explained it to the opposing pair of students.  Students were excited and talking about the topic. The next question I wondered was: did the SAC push their thinking and help their writing?

II. Capturing Growth

As I was primarily interested in the growth of their writing, I began each discussion with a quick survey of what the student’s initial thoughts were.

A sample pre-discussion prompt:


What do I think right now?

Explain your thoughts and feelings about prostitution. Should prostitution be legal?

  • Use any evidence you have to support your position. Evidence can be observations from the real world, facts or statistics you’ve read, or anecdotal stories you’ve heard from someone else.

Pre-Discussion Student Evidence:

Before SAC_ Sample A.JPG

Then, after the discussion I would ask the question again, adding a piece where I asked them to evaluate if they had changed their point of view. At this point, students had been exposed to between eight and twelve pieces of written evidence. All evidence was less than four sentences long and taken from’s Opposing Viewpoints series.

Sample post-discussion prompt:

After the discussion:

What do you think now- should prostitution be legalized in the United States?

  • If you have the same opinion as before, what is some evidence from the discussion that supports your thinking?

  • If you changed your mind, what evidence made you think differently?

Post-Discussion Student Evidence:

After SAC_ Sample A.JPG

After the academic discussions students were able to effectively incorporate the evidence they heard into their written responses, and the use of evidence resulted in a more sophisticated argument.

III. Civic Engagement- Posting on Youth Voices

The final step was for students to craft a three paragraph response online using the student blog Once students posted they were required to read and comment on the work of two classmates. Some students received comments from peers at different high schools, while others did not.



Students reactions to using Youth Voices was largely enthusiastic, but those who did not receive many comments were more skeptical of it.


IV. Ongoing questions, struggles

While the Structured Academic Conversation model was successful at improving the depth of my students arguments, there were several aspects that I will work to improve upon:

  1. Students become disinterested if you use SAC too frequently. My unit applied SAC four times in four weeks. Next time I would space out the use of SAC so it occurred once every two or three weeks while combining it with other forms of discussion.

  2. Accountability. It was tough to keep some groups on task- they would only talk about the evidence when I was within earshot. Requiring students to take notes is a possibility, but slows down the conversations.

  3. Noise level- some students had difficulty hearing each other during SAC. Having multiple groups of students talking at once becomes noisy. It might be worthwhile to arrange the classroom desks so that each group is as far away from one another as possible.

  4. Students could successfully digest the short pieces of evidence I carefully chose for them, but how could I use this model to help students read and understand longer challenging texts?

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