All posts by scottmpetri

Scott Petri has taught social studies for five years at the middle school level and six years at the high school level. He has also served as a coordinator and small school principal in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He holds a Doctorate in Educational Leadership and a Masters in Educational Administration from California State University Northridge, and a B.A. in Political Science from the University of San Diego.

SRSD Writing in History

This post is a follow up to my earlier lecture on SRSD writing instruction. Although, these lectures are meant for course participants in the MOOC Helping History Teachers Become Writing Teachers that will take place between January 12, 2015 – February 24, 2015, feel free to make comments, or join our Twitter conversations under the #HistRW.

Students writing


Studies of history classrooms reveal that writing instruction of any kind is uncommon, even among exemplary teachers. Thus, student essays tend to list facts rather than argue claims, leave arguments unexplained, and only draw on evidence sporadically. A majority of adolescent writers struggle in writing a simple argument in history. Recently, research has focused on the discipline-specific demands of history writing. Most specifically, how students construct a complex argument from smaller arguments from historical documents that reflect how they read, understand and cite evidence from multiple sources.

Previous research suggests that students do not learn to explain quotations or other types of evidence in their papers. Students do not develop interpretations that are supported with evidence. DBQ instruction may help students improve their persuasive essays, but not their ability to write evidence-based arguments. Explicit methods and direct instruction are needed for this. These researchers developed a Self Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD) intervention. This study measured the effectiveness of the intervention on students’ abilities to write evidence-based arguments using a cognitive apprenticeship model for instruction.

Thinking w hist docs


H1 Students who receive instruction in analyzing sources and planning argumentative essays will demonstrate greater use of evidence from documents than students in the comparison group.

H2 Students will write more advanced claims and rebuttals, after instruction.

H3 Students will write longer and qualitatively better essays with greater factual accuracy and overall persuasiveness.


160 11th-grade students received instruction from four US history teachers at two schools. Scores on the written expression subtest of the Wechsler Individual Achievement Test, administered before the study began, were compared to determine whether the two groups differed in initial writing ability. The students initially performed at the same levels. Argumentative essays that involved historical interpretation were used for the writing task in this study.

Instructional Framework

(1) develop background knowledge, (2) describe it, (3) model it, (4) support it, and (5) independent performance (Harris & Graham, 1996).

The mnemonic STOP reminded students to consider and generate ideas on both sides of an argument before deciding which side to support in their essay. The steps of the mnemonic prompted them to Suspend judgment, Take a side, Organize (select and number) ideas, and Plan more as you write. Teachers modeled self-regulatory statements such as, ‘‘Since I decided to put my thesis statement first, I will write it as the beginning of my introductory paragraph.”

Student essays were coded to identify all claims in favor of or against the position. The study counted the total number of claims, but controlled for the length of essay. The researchers counted and analyzed the number of rebuttals that students wrote, then explored their level of development by ranking rebuttals according to degree of sophistication.

Doc Use Means


In comparison to a control group (N = 79), essays written by students who received SRSD instruction (N = 81) were longer, were rated as having greater historical accuracy, were more persuasive, with detailed claims and rebuttals. This study suggests that with explicit instruction, teachers can shape new understandings for what students expect to write and how they perform in history classrooms. Thus, numerous writing from sources assignments, paired with direct instruction in historical thinking processes, appears to move low to average high school writers to demonstrably higher levels of writing proficiency.

The big takeaway is that History instructors now have a framework for how to compare measures of quality in student essays across grade levels. Effective writing instructors will concentrate on one or two elements per assignment, give students regular feedback, and report their growth.


Reading and writing from multiple source documents in history: Effects of strategy instruction with low to average high school writers (2010). By Susan De La Paz, Ph.D., Associate Professor, University of Maryland, College Park 
& Mark Felton, Associate Professor, San Jose State University.

SRSD Instruction

This post describes a writing strategy for course participants in the MOOC Helping History Teachers Become Writing Teachers that will take place between January 12, 2015 – February 24, 2015. Regardless of if you are participating in the course or not, feel free to make comments, or click on the links for the original sources. SRSD Note

Integrating Self Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD) into History/Social Science writing instruction is not taught in many teacher credentialing programs, nor is it offered in professional development seminars. Long used in elementary and middle schools to help students with Learning Disabilities (LD), SRSD is now being used with English Language Learners (ELLs) in some high schools. More than 40 studies have validated SRSD as an instructional model for teaching writing to students with writing deficits. Developed by Harris & Graham (1992), this model integrates writing instruction, self-regulation strategies, and the development of positive student attitudes toward writing. SRSD Writing StratsWriting Strategies All SRSD writing strategies contain mnemonics for learning strategy steps. For instance, the narrative, or storytelling strategy utilizes POW. Each letter represents a step (a) Pick my idea; (b) Organize my notes; and (c) Write and say more. SRSD considers writing a problem-solving task requiring planning, knowledge, and skills. Planning includes pre-writing, drafting, and revising the essay.

Step 1 – Develop background knowledge. Increasing background knowledge. Purpose of writing. What skills are needed to achieve a writing goal?

Step 2 – Discuss it. The role of student effort in learning the strategy. The self-regulation procedures. Self-monitoring. identifying reasonable, measurable, and attainable goals.

Step 3 – Model it. Teachers model is completed. Students are taught how to count all the essay parts to determine whether all aspects of the prompt are answered in the essay. (Deconstructing prompt, Do-What chart).

Step 4 – Memorize it. Students practice the steps of the strategy. Meaning of mnemonics used to reinforce fluency. Teachers provide students with cue cards (described above), common think sheets, planning sheets, and graphic organizers. Reminders of the critical steps involved in writing compositions.

Step 5 – Support it. Teachers provide scaffolding and continuous feedback while students practice writing. Teachers may work collaboratively with the students following all of the planning and organizing steps. As students begin to master the essay writing process, scaffolds are removed. Step 6 – Independent Performance. Students write independently without graphic organizers. They user fewer audible self-statements, because they have internalized the strategy. SRSD Self-Reg Techniques

Self Regulation Strategies

Self-regulation refers to self-initiated thoughts, feelings, and actions that writers use to meet literary goals. When writers use self-regulation, they control their environment and behavior, including the time spent writing and organizing their ideas. Self-regulating writers develop goal-setting strategies, task-analyzing objectives, and self-reinforcement. Additional self-regulation techniques include: self-monitoring, self-instructions, self-reinforcement, metacognition, and self-assessment. Further techniques are embedded into each of the six stages of SRSD writing.

Development of positive attitudes toward writing

Environments that are supportive and pleasant develop students’ passion for writing and increase the odds that they will apply SRSD strategies. A few ways to create an inspiring classroom include: (1) establishing an exciting mood during writing time; (2) encouraging students to take risks when writing; (3) developing writing assignments that reflect students’ interests; (4) allowing students to select their own writing topics or modify assigned topics; (5) having students arrange their own writing space; and (6) encouraging students to help each other as they plan, write, and revise.

Additional Resources An outstanding tutorial on SRSD can be found at the IRIS Center for Training Enhancements. The Power of SRSD SRSD PD Kristy Currie – SRSD Modeling Story Writing TIDE Mnemonic Long Lecture – thinkSRSD Steve Graham bonus video


Regan, K., & Mastropieri, M.A. (2009) Current Practice Alerts: A focus on Self Regulated Strategy Development for Writing. Issue 17, Spring, 2009. Division for Learning Disabilities (DLD) and Division for Research (DR) of the Council for Exceptional Children.

Santangelo, T., Harris, K.R., and Graham, S. (2008). Using Self-Regulated Strategy Development to Support Students Who Have “Trubol Giting Thangs Into Werds”. Remedial and Special Education. Vol. 29, No. 2. March/April 2008. 78-89. DOI: 10.1177/0741932507311636

Detecting Plagiarism

This post summarizes the white paper on Plagiarism and the Web, which will culminate in a lecture for course participants in the MOOC Helping History Teachers Become Writing Teachers that will take place between January 12, 2015 – February 24, 2015. Regardless of if you are participating in the course or not, feel free to make comments, or click on the links for the original sources.

Turnitin Sources

Blum (2011) reported that more than 75 percent of college students have admitted to cheating and 68 percent have admitted cutting and pasting material from the internet without citing it. Over the last 15 years, almost 40 million student papers have been submitted to Turnitin. This study examined and classified 140 million content matches to discover which web sources students rely on for unoriginal content in their written work. The vast majority of students who have matched content in their work do not rely on cheat sites or paper mills. Many use legitimate homework, academic and educational sites as research sources. Students rely on social networks and user-generated content sites such as content sharing and question-and-answer (Q&A) sites to find content for their papers. Turnitin detects patterns of matching text to help instructors determine if plagiarism has occurred. The text in the student’s paper that is found to match a source may be properly cited, making it legitimate academic work. Social and content sharing web sites comprised the highest percentage of all matched content over the course of the study. Legitimate homework and academic help sites were second, followed by cheat sites/paper mills and news and portals a close third and fourth. The fifth most popular category was encyclopedia. The top eight matched sites for matched content were: 1) 2) 3) 4) 5) 6) 7) 8) Only one of the top eight sites is dedicated to helping students cheat by providing unoriginal content. Out of the twenty-five most popular sites, fourteen are legitimate student resources. While close to fifteen percent of unoriginal content comes from cheat sites and paper mills, the majority of students are frequenting legitimate academic or educational web sites. Educators can guide students in proper citation procedures. With digital tools, educators can show students how much of their paper lacks attribution. Showing students a detailed report on the originality of their written work creates a teachable moment. Turnitin offers a collection of white papers on student writing and plagiarism that teachers may find beneficial. Although most students understand that quoting word for word requires a citation, they are often confused about the need to cite someone else’s paraphrased ideas. Professional authors like Stephen Ambrose,  Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Stephen Glass have had problems in this area too. Turnitin claims that academic institutions adopting their service see a reduction in unoriginal content of 30-35% in the first year. By the fourth year, many institutions see levels of unoriginality in student writing falling by 70 percent. This claim, when applied to the assertion that the rate of serious cheating on written work remained stable between 1963 and 1993 (Blum, 2011, p. 2) indicates that electronic plagiarism detection tools could be beneficial to teachers and help increase the amount of writing assigned in high school and college. I am interested in hearing about your experiences using plagiarism detection tools. Do you think students are genuinely confused about the rules of paraphrasing and citing? Or are the vast majority of students deliberately copying other writer’s works? What motivates this? Does cutting and pasting happen from poor research skills or laziness? How can you create assignments that reduce the amount of plagiarism from your students? Please make a comment, or send me your questions via Twitter to @scottmpetri #HistRW. For those interested in experimenting with plagiarism detection tools, there are several free options.


Blum, S., D. (2011). My word: Plagiarism and college culture. Cornell University Press. Ithaca, NY.

Plagiarism and the Web: Myths and Realities. An Analytical Study on Where Students Find Unoriginal Content on the Internet. Retrieved from on November 25, 2014.

College and Career Ready Writing

What does it mean CCR

Educators are familiar with the phrase “college and career ready” but few are able to articulate what determines this readiness. This is because there has been little empirical analysis on the literary skills required in community colleges. Being college and career ready means students are able to communicate clearly—to speak grammatically, write well and read the required materials with understanding. A May 2013 study from the National Center on Education and the Economy asked what kind and level of literacy is required of a high school graduate for success in the first year of a community college program? They collected data from seven community colleges in seven states, serving rural, urban and suburban populations with enrollments from 3,000 to 30,000.


The reading and writing required of students in community colleges is not very complex or cognitively demanding. The reading complexity of college texts is between 11th and 12th grade. Successful readers of information-rich texts should have the ability to read complex texts in unsupported environments. The capacity to process, retain and synthesize large amounts of new information must be increased. Significant reading experiences must occur in a wider range of content areas. The skills in comprehending statistical tables, charts, maps, lists and other documents in college texts need to be improved.

CC Reading Levels_NCEE

Reading for in-depth subject matter comprehension is not formally taught in our high schools. This disconnect between high school and college reading demands suggests a need to reexamine what is taught in high school. What are we asking our students to do with what they read? College students are rarely asked to do complex analyses of texts, except in English Comp classes. One third (33%) of the courses examined used multiple choice or true/false exams and assignments exclusively.


Most introductory college classes demand very little writing; when it is required, instructors have very low expectations. Community College writing typically takes the form of informational writing or collecting evidence for a course of action. Complex writing plays a minor role in community college student exams. Even so, a large number of high school graduates cannot meet the low expectations that community colleges have of them.

Panel Ratings_NCEE

Community College instructors do not expect their students to read at the level of their texts or to write much. The majority of essays were argument or informational, only one college contributed narrative essays. Agreement between scores was significant at the lower end of the grading scale with notable disagreement at the mid-range of the scale One-fifth (20%) of essays that the panel considered college ready were scored not college ready by the instructors. Almost half (48%) of essays considered college ready by the instructors were given scores of 2 or below by the panel.

Over 75% of the essays given a B by the instructors were marked 2 or below by the panel. Argument essays often received Bs without including well-supported claims. No pattern emerged to suggest why the panelists graded the writing aspect of the subject matter essays more harshly than instructors.


Community College students are required to learn college writing in English Comp and then rarely asked to write again. When they are asked to write outside of English class, the acceptable standard is considerably lower. Many of the deficits of HS school ELA instruction are being replicated rather than remedied in community colleges. Students clearly need better instruction in constructing arguments and in laying out their thinking logically and persuasively.

Big Takeaways

We need high schools and community colleges to concurrently raise their standards for reading and writing. This doesn’t just happen in high school, but needs to be a collaborative effort when implementing Common Core State Standards throughout the PK-12 curriculum.


Students must have the ability to read information-rich texts in unsupported environments. Teachers must increase the capacity of students to process, retain and synthesize large amounts of new information. Students must have significant reading experience in a wider range of content areas. Teachers must increase the ability of students in reading and understanding tables, charts, maps, and lists that supplement the prose in many college texts.


We are not teaching our high school and community college students to be proficient writers. The limited writing skills that we do teach, we do so ineffectively. Many high school graduates cannot meet the literacy demands of community college programs. Complex writing tasks need to play a larger role in both high school and community college student exams. History teachers may increase their writing instruction skills by signing up for this free online class.


Tucker, M. (2013). What does it really mean to be college and work ready? The English literacy required of first year community college students. The National Center on Education and the Economy. May 2013. Washington, DC. Retrieved from

NCSS Presentation Resources

Let the live blogging from the 94th annual NCSS conference begin. I took the redeye out of LA last night and ran into an old high school friend whom I hadn’t seen in 29 years on the plane. It’s a small BIG world after all. I have fond memories of Boston’s Logan Airport, because that is where I met my wife due to a snowstorm flight delay back in 1998.

Conf Logo

Tomorrow at 9:00 am EST, I present on Innovative Social Studies Strategies in Room 310 at the Hynes Convention Center. This post will house all of the documents and lessons that I reference in my presentation. Feel free to download and repurpose them. Teachers are the best recyclers. You may view and use the slides to my presentation.

My topics are 1) Goal-setting approaches to student writing; 2) peer review (with or without tech); and 3) using social media as a prewriting strategy. I should probably acknowledge that I have stolen everything here from smarter people.

Goal-setting approaches to student writing

I wrote a paper on the results that happened after implementing this program at two high schools. I give this presentation to inspire teachers to consider alternative grading methods and increase the number of writing assignments they require of their students. I have found that over the course of the year my students can double, if not triple the amount of words they put on a page in one class period. The next trick is to partner with an English teacher, who can help them take the quantity they are now proficient in and turn it into quality writing. I have found that this level of competition really motivates students. This work has borrowed heavily from Chip Brady and the excellent curriculum at The DBQ Project, who provided inspiring professional development and encouraged me along the way.

Peer review with tech

Many high quality studies influenced my decision to start evaluate student writing quantitatively, De La Paz, S. (2005), De La Paz, S., & Felton, M. (2010), Monte-Sano (2008, 2011) and (Monte-Sano & De La Paz, 2012). I strongly feel that History/Social Science departments should report descriptive statistics about their students’ writing in order to derive a common set of writing expectations by age and grade level. Further, recent advances in automated essay scoring may make it possible for students to receive feedback from a computer before approaching the teacher to partner in improving the writing together. See this Lightside Labs Revision Assistant video and feel free to expand on this annotated bibliography tracking the major players in the automated essay scoring market. K12 teachers should provide input to the companies developing these products and the lefty-Liberal in me hopes all of these products will eventually be open source.

Peer review without tech

Most of the work I reference here came from O’Toole (2013), Brookhart (2013), and Bardine and Fulton (2008). Learning by evaluation has long been used by English teachers, it is time for history teachers to embrace the practice. If the CCSS are truly able to get us off the breadth vs. depth Historical coverage treadmill, History/Social Studies teachers are going to need tools and strategies to assess the writing they assigned. Having students read each other’s writing gives them much needed context. Before I wrote my dissertation, I read dozens of others on the same subject. History teachers will need to learn how to use mentor texts and provide general feedback instead of making margin notations on every paper they receive. English teachers have used peer rubrics and criteria charts to help students with their writing. It is time for history teachers to start incorporating those tools into their classrooms.

Social media as a prewriting strategy

Back in August, I gave a full description of the Twittercide of Socrates. My students were extremely motivated by this assignment and turned in an average of 250 words per essay. I also created an assessment where the tweets were mixed up and asked the students to put them back into sequential order by what happened before the trial, during the trial, and after the trial.

Greek Means

Here are the materials for Dr. Margarita Jimenez-Silva & Mrs. Ruth Luevanos’ presentation on Bruce Springsteen’s Sinaloa Cowboys, the lyrics, the directions, and the slides.

Please check back, as I will add more resources to this page as readers share tips and best practices. Lastly, if you would like to serve as a member of the instructional community, please fill out this form.

Close Reading Demo

Coronation of Napoleon

Jacques-Louis David, The Coronation of Napoleon

CA Hist/SS Standard 10.2.4 Explain how the ideology of the French Revolution led France to develop from a constitutional monarchy to democratic despotism to the Napoleonic empire.

Objective: Students select textual evidence of Napoleon’s despotism by selecting quotes from his Account of the Internal Situation of France speech given before the Legislative Body aka The Consulate on December 31, 1804.

CCSS Reading Standard for Literacy in History/Social Studies:
Grades 9 & 10.

1. Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information. 2. Determine the central ideas or information of a primary source and provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.

Student Handout

Students will think/pair share in groups to collaborate on simplifying paragraphs of this speech used as a historical primary source document. Students will present their work to the class via a document camera and projector. Then leave a post-it copy of their work on a master document for the whole class.

Instructor will circulate and ask groups specific questions to assist students in comprehending this college-level primary source reading.

Annotated Instructor copy with questions

Students will be given a chance to turn and talk with an elbow partner to practice academic language in a small group prior to presenting before the class. To enable differentiation for diverse populations, students have been placed in mixed-ability groups by their scores on previous subject-matter quizzes. Each group has a high scoring student, a low scoring student, and two average students.

Each student will be given a chance to display their collaboration and critical thinking skills when presenting their translation-simplification. The teacher will check for understanding during the presentations. Students will complete Do Now & Exit Tweets that demonstrate their understanding.

Twitter Template

At the conclusion of the lesson, the teacher will model a simplified document. Prior to leaving class, students will be asked to provide a thumbs up/thumbs down to reflect their opinion on whether Napoleon was a Dictator or Democrat.

Teacher Master Copy

Students will have handouts of the primary source and be provided with dictionaries to help understand the academic vocabulary. Students with electronic devices may use them to access online resources such as

Close Reading Procedures

Close reading is thoughtful, critical analysis of a text that focuses on significant details or patterns in order to develop a deep, precise understanding of the text’s form, craft, meanings, etc (Burke, 2014). It  includes: Using short passages and excerpts; Diving right into the text with limited pre-reading activities; Focusing on the text itself; Rereading deliberately; Reading with a pencil; Noticing things that are confusing; and Discussing the text with others.

The first read should be without building background; students should be integrating their background knowledge with the text as they read.

Nap IASF 1

After rereading, students discuss the text with partners or in small groups, focusing on the author’s craft and organizational patterns.

Nap AISF 2

The third close reading of a text should go even deeper, requiring students to synthesize and analyze information. They may record their ideas on sticky notes, graphic organizer, or a thinking sheet.

Nap AISF 4

Nap AISF 3


A Close Look at Close Reading: Scaffolding Students with Complex Texts. Beth Burke, NBCT.

Twitter TeachWriting Chat


Tuesday, November 18 at 9:00 pm EST/6 pm PST, please join us on Twitter for a  #TeachWriting chat on Interdisciplinary Writing.  I will be your guest host @scottmpetri .

For tonight’s chat, we will use the following definition for “Interdisciplinary” – applying more than one discipline to examine a central theme, issue, problem, topic, or experience – adapted from (Heidi Hayes-Jacobs, 1989).

Here is an example of an interdisciplinary Mock Trial I did with an English teacher a few years ago with To Kill A Mockingbird. She taught the book, I taught the Jim Crow era and we culminated with an in-class trial judged by real attorneys who had coached the students on making opening and closing statements. The students thought it was…, oh, what’s the word I am looking for… FUN!

I hope you will show up with loads of experiences and examples of interdisciplinary teaching from your school.  This year, I did a great project with two of my English teachers getting students to write an 800 word essay for the Bill of Rights Institute’s We the Students scholarship contest. (My previous three blog posts describe this process.) The students were motivated because they got credit in both classes for doing the same assignment. I feel that if we can get more teachers to integrate instruction and collaborate, we can increase student engagement. Here is a sneak peek at the questions I will be lobbing your way.

Q1 Can you describe a successful interdisciplinary writing project you have participated in?

Q2 What are some barriers to implementing interdisciplinary writing?

Q3 How can non-ELA teachers approach writing in their subjects?

Q4 What types of writing instruction PD should be offered to non-ELA teachers?

Q5 Why should teachers be required to teach argumentative, explanatory, and narrative writing in all subjects?

Q6 How can Math, Science, and other subjects increase the amount of writing in their courses?

Q7 What type of feedback do you give students on their writing?

Q8 How can revision memos and peer review be included in non-ELA classes?

Q9 What are your thoughts on automated essay scoring tools? Could they help increase the amount of writing assigned in K12?

If you want to learn more about interdisciplinary writing, please consider signing up for my MOOC, Helping History Teachers Become Writing Teachers, which starts on January 12, 2015.  

If you are attending NCSS in Boston, I am presenting on Innovative Teaching Strategies in Social Studies, come see me in room 310 of the Hynes Convention Center on Friday, November 21 from 8:30 – 9:30 am.

Providing Effective Feedback

This post will be devoted to reporting the results of my students’ participation in the Bill of Rights Institute’s We The Students Scholarship contest. I focus on providing feedback on the general trends I see in student writing, as opposed to detailed feedback on individual essays. On this assignment, I saw problems in addressing all aspects of the prompt, providing sufficient background on the Declaration, connecting current events to the ideals in the Declaration, and coming up with interesting titles.

After several days of pre-writing activities, 87% of my students turned in first drafts that averaged 229 words in length. These results were 54 words less than the previous assignment, however, the cognitive and organizational skills needed to address this prompt were much more demanding than previous essays. In my previous writing tasks, I gave students a choice between three different writing prompts (argumentative, explanatory, and narrative) I found that students who chose the narrative prompt wrote significantly more than students writing to argumentative or explanatory prompts. The table below displays the word production range from this prompt.

We The Students

Addressing the prompt

In order to fully address the prompt (Since you were born, has America moved closer to or further away from the ideals outlined in the Declaration of Independence?) students needed to separate their answer into three parts (1) explaining the background of and the ideals in the Declaration of Independence; (2) describing their political beliefs; and (3) interpreting events that happened in their lifetime to argue whether the US has moved closer or further from the ideals of the Declaration.

Address Prompt

This student attempts to rephrase the prompt in their own words, which is essential, however, they miss the point of the essay, “Is the United States moving closer to or further from the ideals in the Declaration?”  Instead, this student focuses on his/her political beliefs and does not take a stand that answers the question. The second sentence goes further off track and talks about unfairness in our community instead of our country. Many students have not fully addressed the prompt in their first draft. Failure to do this in the first paragraph or two of their final essay will guarantee elimination from the competition. This correlates with students lacking practice in developing complex thesis statements for written assignments. Teachers can help by asking students to provide three supporting statements for everything. Once students are trained to understand there is more than one correct answer, they will write more thoughtful and layered essays.

Providing background on the Declaration

In order to win this contest, students need to demonstrate not only that they understand why the Declaration was written, but how and when it was written. Here, contest judges look for specifics like: it was written by Thomas Jefferson, fifty-six men signed it, and all of this work was done in Philadelphia. Advanced students might mention that the complaints or grievances in the Declaration have become standards or ideals by which democratic governments are judged. As demonstrated in the writing sample below,

Background Knowledge

many students did not provide sufficient background or history on the Declaration. This student makes a poor word choice with “adopted” instead of “approved” or “ratified” in their first sentence, which may make a judge question whether or not the student has sufficient background knowledge on the Declaration.

Connecting ideals to contemporary issues

Another common mistake was failing to connect an event from the student’s lifetime to the ideals in the Declaration. Students were able to come up with events or issues, but struggled in making a direct link to an ideal in the Declaration.

Connecting Ideals

This student communicates a great deal of knowledge on gun control issues, but fails to connect this issue to a grievance or ideal in the Declaration. Gun control issues could be interpreted as “waging war against us,” “has torn up our towns and killed our people,” or “caused fighting to break out among us.” Making an explicit link and explaining how current issues connect to the ideals in the Declaration will be key to getting an essay into the competition’s final rounds.

Provocative titles

Lastly, students are still failing to create a high quality title that would make a reader want to pick up their essay.The judges for this contest will be reading through hundreds of essays that will essentially make the same basic arguments. One way to make your essay stand out is to give it a funny, clever, interesting, or provocative title. The most popular titles from this project are listed below.

Best Title

The next steps in this project are to take the students through a peer review process and teach them how to use revision memos to plan their second drafts.  To guide them through this, I asked them to consider five recommendations:

  1. Provide background on the Declaration.
  2. Define five ideals in the Declaration.
  3. Interpret three events from your lifetime that argue we are moving closer or further from Declaration.
  4. Explain how these events relate to your personal political beliefs.
  5. Consider what would be needed for the US to realize the ideals of the Declaration.

Engaging All Students

Authentic Writing Tasks continued.

The next step in my We the Students essay contest assignment was to increase my students’ awareness of contemporary problems in the US and their links to the ideals in the Declaration of Independence. I divided the students into groups and gave each group a short article or reading about an issue. They had a day with laptops to research topics on their own, but there were many technical problems and that time was not used wisely.  Groups found short articles on:  (1) Ferguson or other militarized police actions; (2) Marriage equality; (3) Marijuana legalization/decriminalization; (4) Edward Snowden and government surveillance of electronics; (5) Immigration laws; (6) Death penalty; (7) Restrictions on voter IDs; and (8) Obamacare requirements that everyone purchase health insurance. Presenting the Dec

After that, we had class discussions where students argued whether current government actions were in or out of line with the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. A chart was put up on Google Drive, so that students could do more research at home. The purpose of the chart was to help students connect the issue back to the exact wording in the Declaration. After each issue was summarized, students asked a few questions. Extensive modeling was done in showing how issues were tied back to the Declaration.

Students created a T-chart depicting which ideals we were moving closer to and which we were moving further from. Students struggled with this higher level thinking activity. They were required to take notes on each topic, so they all had multiple issues that could be related back to ideals of Declaration.

Declaration House


Next, they had a day to research events that had happened in the US during their lifetime. I was surprised how many students selected events were totally irrelevant and did not happen in the US. I don’t think these students are used to a teacher who reads things and they probably think that as long as they write something down, they will get credit. Boy, are they in the wrong class! I asked them to collect 7-10 events from their life time and relate them to the ideals/grievances. Then they had to pick 3-5 events and explain whether they suggested we were moving toward, or away from the Declaration.

Lastly, students took a political typology quiz to determine where their views on social issues put them on the political spectrum. After finishing these prewriting activities, the students were ready to attack the prompt and write a draft as an in-class timed essay. When I charted all of the first drafts, we would move on to a peer review activity and then the revision process.  More on the results soon.