Context, Goals, and Lessons
I teach Eleventh Grade U.S. History and Tenth Grade World History at Oakland Technical High School. Our school now has over 2,000 students. My classes are generally about 32 students by the end of the first month. I have a relatively small classroom, but know the importance of small group learning, so I joined the Education for Democracy in the Digital Age (EDDA) program hoping to develop a range of more engaging lessons and work on encouraging students to participate in Civic Engagement.
I’ve found as part of EDDA for the last two years that I always have multiple goals. For students this year, these were working with understanding different points of view, and arguing a position on an historical event from particular point of view. I wanted students to practice as pairs and groups debating using a particular protocol. I wanted to develop an academic conversation routine in my classroom, I wanted clear process and a way to make sure each student participated. I also wanted to assess writing over time to see if students became more articulate writers. I decided to focus on the use of Structured Academic Controversies (SACs) this year. Using SACs I’ve been able to make real strides towards the above goals, and I’ve seen student success.
This year my fourth period U.S. History class was my Focal Group. They are a diverse group of students racially and in terms of skill level. They were and are a mix of opinionated, confident, insecure, chatty, and shy. They became a highly supportive community of learners as the year progressed.
My students did many SACs on a range of topics. Initially, I found that content on the subject matter was learned, but that there was uneven depth of ability to answer questions with sufficient and clear evidence. With practice by this spring students were better able to articulately debate issues using the SAC format. My findings from the final lesson illustrate this.
The final SAC was connected to the District Historical Writing Task. The question students had to answer was, “Were the United States policies and actions (1945-1975) toward Vietnam in the best interests of our country?” To analyze student participation and understanding, I did audio recordings, and interviewed two focal students. For the purposes of this blog I will call them Lily and Alberto.
Findings and Conclusions
The audio recordings I did showed me that students will work cooperatively clarify for each other more than I’d realized, and that they engage in the activity as a group once it becomes the norm. Listening to the recordings I heard a high level of participation from all members of most groups. I heard students asking and answering each others questions about how the protocol works and which part they were up to was restated to less clear/ focused group members in several cases. The sense of classroom community seemed deepened.
The student interviews showed an understanding of the SACs and of the need to use evidence to argue points. When asked what they learned about Structured Academic Controversy over the course of the year, about learning surprises, and the purpose of the SAC Lily answered, “That to have a structural conversation make sure to start small and end big. You must have really good evidence, and always stand by your point when you make it… like a debate and the purpose of structured controversy is to hear views on events in history.” Alberto stated, “I understand about structured conversation that be affirmative and consistent in what you are talking about, and I didn’t understand that you have to keep stating your point. I learned that in history class you sometimes have to debate opinions on the topic. I’d tell other teachers that they need people to interact and participate in open conversations…to lead students into journalism, and historical evidence, and a history researcher…I’ve gained more knowledge about U.S. history and gotten to be more confident in talking in a class discussion or debates. ”
The interviews and recordings helped show me what’s working. Students are having more academic conversations in class in small groups. It’s connected to the content and they seem more engaged this way. They are doing critical thinking on historical issues and points of view. They are engaging with each other more.
One challenge I still face is the need for more follow through with the civic engagement component. For the final SAC I did not they didn’t create and publish a book of student work as I’d originally intended. Students did read other groups’ work in addition to theirs. I think that being able to more cogently present evidence based persuasive arguments to their peers makes the students more capable and become accountable community leaders. Students learning that to convince others you must give them palpable reasons backed up by evidence should further a sense of both the need to make educated decisions about civic engagement and to convince others to participate. This, however, is the subject of future inquiry. I look forward to pursing this and other goals over the course of the next school year.