Category Archives: Informative/Explanatory Writing

Writing in Social Studies

Integrating Listening, Speaking & Writing in the Social Studies Classroom
Los Angeles County of Education
Day Two: Friday, February 23, 2018

Workshop Slides

8:30 – Reading in Social Studies

  • Loop Writing
  • Bob Bain video
  • Increasing Student Reading in class
  • text sets
  • historical fiction & non-fiction

9:00 – Daily Writing Tasks

  • Calendar Conversations
  • SEL Quickwrites & Student Reflections
  • Summarizing & Paraphrasing
  • Corroborating
  • Annotated Bibliographies (mini-research projs)
  • Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD)

9:45 – 10:00 Break

10:00 – Narrative Writing

  • The Power of Narrative
  • First Person Research Papers
  • Vietnam Veteran Interviews

11:00 – Informative/Explanatory Writing

  • Timeline Transitions
  • Twitter as a pre-writing summarization tool
  • RAFT writing

11:30 – 12:30 Lunch

12:30 – Argumentative Writing

  • LOOP Writing
  • Believing & Doubting Game
  • MEAL paragraphs

1:45 – 2:00 Break

2:00 – Giving Feedback on Student Writing

  • Self-Review
  • Peer Review
  • Rubric Calibration
  • Road test the Robo-readers

Other Resources

Workshop materials posted on www.HistoryRewriter.com Collaborative Notes:  

So Cal Social Science Association events http://www.socalsocialscience.org/events.html

CCSS Spring Conference https://ccss.org/page-1861180

Final Research Papers

A study from The Concord Review found that 62% of teachers never assign a paper of 3,000-5,000 words in length, and 81% never assign a paper of over 5,000 words.

Cold War Research Paper

For this project, students combine three of their in-class writing assignments into a five-page (1,250 word) paper that argues: (1) which side was most responsible for the Cold War, (the Soviets, or the West); (2) elaborates on which events defined the Cold War; and (3) describes how the Cold War should be remembered in textbooks. Students will support their positions with evidence from the documents provided and independent research.

Imprtnce of Rsrh Ppr

Use parenthetical citations, i.e., (Cold War Causes, Handout 1), (Soviet Textbooks DBQ, BGE), or (Containment DBQ, Doc. A), and include a Works Cited page at the end of your paper. For your final grade, you will provide a one-page revision memo, a typed final draft on top of the original drafts, and four www.PaperRater.com reports all stapled together. Save this project in your Google Drive and use it for your senior portfolio.

Fitzhugh_Sources

Section One

Which side was most responsible for the Cold War, the Soviets or the West? Include an introductory paragraph that contains background on the Cold War and a thesis statement that takes a position. Explain the three main underlying causes of the Cold War and who was most responsible for the Cold War. Justify this decision by explaining who was least responsible. Include evidence from at least three documents to support your ideas and explain how the evidence proves your point. Lastly, provide a concluding thought that reconnects with your thesis.

Section Two

How did the United States prevent the Soviet Union from expanding communism? After reading about multiple Cold War events (Long Telegram, Berlin Airlift, Korean War, and Cuban Missile Crisis), define the US Cold War foreign policy and describe three instances where containment was used. Choose which example was the most significant and explain your reasoning.

Section Three

Describe how the Cold War should be remembered in future textbooks. Which Soviet accomplishments and which US accomplishments should be included in future history textbooks? Explain your reasoning. Conclude the paper with some final thoughts on what lessons the global community should learn from the Cold War between the US and the Soviets.

Revision Memo

The one-page revision memo should explicitly report how you addressed the feedback from your PaperRater reports. For example, “PaperRater gave me a 63% on Academic Vocabulary. I went back to the background essay, found five more vocabulary words and defined them in my introductory paragraph and my next PaperRater Academic Vocabulary score was a 71%.”

Next it should highlight significant changes and point out where the final essay improved from the first drafts. The purpose of revision memos is to help you become better at revising your writing. When you write a revision memo, the following points must be included:

  1. It is addressed to me.
  2. It points out what your focus was on this draft.
  3. It lists the strengths and weaknesses in your previous drafts.
  4. It details the changes you’ve made from one draft to the next.
  5. It describes your overall impression of the revision (strengths and weakness).

Each of these points must be in the memo. Typically, memos run anywhere from one to three pages in length.

The final paper should include page numbers on the bottom right-hand side of the page, be formatted in Times New Roman 12 point font, double-spaced with one-inch margins. The final document should contain a cover page and be turned in before the end of school on Friday, May 15, 2015. This entire project, which began on March 20th is worth 700 points of your final grade.

CA State Standard: 10.9.2 Students analyze international developments in the post-WWII world. Analyze the causes of the Cold War with the free world and Soviet states on opposing sides. Describe the competition for influence in Germany, Korea, and Vietnam.

Common Core Writing Standards: 1. Students will write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence. 5. Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach. 10. Write routinely over extended time frames with time for research, reflection, and revision.

Sample Paper

Sample Revision Memo

Grading Rubric

Video Game Review

Extra-Credit History-based Video Game Review

Valiant Hearts, Mission-US, Call of Duty, Civilization, Age of Empires, Medal of Honor, Soldiers: Heroes of WWII, Axis and Allies, and The Calm and The Storm: these games have sold millions of copies, yet most History teachers have never played even one of them. Are video games a waste of time and energy? Can video games teach us History? Niall Ferguson, a prominent historian thinks so, read his argument, however, please understand that other researchers urge caution about the appropriateness of video games for certain ages and purposes.

Next, identify the state standard involved in the game you have selected. Then review a history-based video game in at least 500 words. Argue that the experience has taught you something meaningful about history. Your review should describe the story at the heart of the game, link the historical content in the game to your textbook, and describe how it confirms or contradicts what we have studied in class.

family-playing-video-game-console

Other ideas to put in your review

  1. Comment on the historical accuracy, or inaccuracies in the game as well as the level of difficulty in playing it.
  2. How many hours did you spend playing it? How many hours will it take to become a good player?
  3. Who would benefit from playing this game? Age? Demographics?
  4. How could the author target that audience?
  5. Report on who published the game. What other games have they made? How many copies have been sold?
  6. How much does the game retail for?  Where can you get the best deal on it?

Make sure this review follows the traditional essay format. Your teacher will submit the best reviews for publication in the school newspaper.

Outline of traditional essay format to use in your review

  1. Catchy title
    1. Grabber
    2. Background
    3. Definition of key terms
    4. Grand Thesis & roadmap
  2. Mini-thesis #1 (The best part about this game is…)
    1. evidence
    2. argument – explain
    3. link back to thesis
  3. Mini-thesis #2 (The worst part about this game is…)
    1. evidence
    2. argument – explain
    3. link back to thesis
  4. Mini-thesis # 3
    1. evidence
    2. argument – explain
    3. link back to thesis
  5. Conclusion
    1. Restate main idea
    2. Summarize key points.

You have between April 8 – May 1, 2015 to submit your review to http://www.PaperRater.com and you can improve it as many times as you want.

I will review your final draft along with the PaperRater report. You may submit them electronically to scottmpetri@gmail.com or print them out and hand them in during class.

Speech Non-Completers

After reading through all of the reflections my students wrote after their WW2 speech projects, I found their responses fell into three general categories: (1) falling on my sword, (2) recognizing our class culture, and (3) the laziness factor. Although an alarming number of student refused to read their speech in class, approximately, two-thirds of my students delivered in front of an audience. They saw good speakers, they saw nervous speakers, and they saw several awe-inspiring, incredibly charismatic speakers.

All students were asked to complete a 30-minute reflection describing how they approached the project.  A colleague, Bill Chapman (@classroomtools), asked me to analyze the reflections of the students who did not complete their speeches. I did not want to do this. I was ready to move on. After conducting this exercise, I am so grateful that Bill nudged me because I was ready to give up on some of these students. However, the act of reading and classifying the reflections pushed my thinking and I am ready to double-down on engaging these students (and parents) over the last few months of the school year.

Falling On My Sword

Deserve a 0

The “I deserve a zero” appeal was utilized by many students who had completed all of necessary the components for the speech, but then lacked the confidence to go up and perform it.  Quite a few of my students fell into this category. Many openly stated that they would rather earn the 100 extra-credit points for a Courage to Care essay assignment than go up and deliver their speech. In retrospect, perhaps these students deserve an A for cost-benefit analysis skills.

Falling on my sword

This student utilized what I call the “falling on my sword” approach. Perhaps by accepting blame, the teacher will have mercy on me? This brown-nosing skill will no doubt prove valuable later in life, but it is unlikely to help the student pass classes with firm deadlines. I am glad the student recognizes that it is still not too late to improve his grade. The consequence for not delivering the speech in class means that students now have to deliver the speech to me outside of classroom hours (at lunch or after school). At some point, this 9th grader will learn that it is easier to finish his work on time than to chase me all over campus.

Recognizing Our Class Culture

Partial Credit

This student has listened to my mantra of… turn in something, anything… most teachers will be forgiving and allow you to revise a poor assignment, but they will not allow you to do that if you miss the deadline and turn NOTHING in.  I have experienced this many times in my academic career. Teachers don’t want to hear excuses why you couldn’t do it, but show us you cared enough to put in some effort and we may just give you the benefit of extra time.

Acknowledging Time Factor

This student gets some bonus points for recognizing that we spent three weeks of class time on this project. They acknowledge that the assignment was important to everyone’s grade, yet despite this keen insight, they still didn’t do it. I guess admitting you have a problem is always the first step. This brings us to our next category.

The Laziness Factor

Laziness Cont

“Laziness is something that I am trying to permanently remove from my system” leapt off the page. A cogent thought from an articulate student capable of doing thoughtful, grade-level work.  A couple of things haunt me about this statement: (1) I have sat across from failing students and their parents countless times over the last decade of my teaching career. “He’s lazy,” say the parents, hoping I know the cure. The student nods “I’m lazy,” and adds a smile as if he’s now got an excuse for never doing any work. He has met and exceeded the parents’ low expectations. In truth, neither party knows how to solve the laziness question, which as it turns out is simply poor time management skills.  (2) Both the student and their parents seem to be equally powerless in solving the laziness problem. How can students learn that hard work leads to opportunity if the parents have not committed themselves to addressing this issue?

Procrastination

Here, the procrastination proclivity pops up again and reminds me that teaching time management is just as vital as teaching content. Assigning project-based work where the students have a degree of control over what and when they produce may do this type of student a disservice. Explicitly showing students (and some parents) how to use a calendar, how to block out time, and how to reward oneself with cell phone, computer, and/or video game time after steps in a project have been completed may be a starting point. Sending home phone call/text reminders through an automated service like Remind may reinforce time management skills and create habits that students could use for the rest of their lives. Does anyone else have ideas for solving this vexing problem?

Outstanding Speech

1389.8 Holocaust C

The speech below was one of 126 delivered in my World History class this spring. The student gave a forceful and emotional reading that enthralled the audience and effectively placed them at the scene of Kristallnacht. At 487-words, this speech took the student 3:47 to deliver. It was a tour de force. I wish more than 40 people had been in my class to witness it.

The Night of Broken Hearts

We went out into the street. The crowd of people became the street, all tripping over each other towards a nearby synagogue, all shouting angrily. We had followed. As we reached the synagogue and halted, silent and angry, we could see at the end of the building, flames rise. The crowd rushed forward and their greedy hands tore seats and woodwork from the building to feed the flames coming from the east of them.

Behind us we heard more shouts. We turned, and saw a part of the mob start along the road to Israel stores. During the days the store’s held granite cubes ostensibly used for repairing roads. Youths, men, and women, screaming deliriously, hurled these blocks of granite through anything glass. Within a few minutes the doors gave away and the indignant mob rushed inside to pillage and loot.

By then the streets were chaotic, filled with bloodthirsty people screaming for the death of Jewish people. A man tried to protect an aged Jewess who had been dragged from her home by a gang. Provided, I pushed my way through to help him and, between us, we managed to heave her through the crowd to a side street and safety.

The center of their hate was a hospital for sick Jewish children, many of them cripples or immobilized. In minutes the windows had been smashed and the doors forced. We arrived when, the swine were driving the wee mites out over the broken glass, bare-footed. The nurses, doctors, and others were being kicked and beaten by the mob leaders.

This was the personal story of Michael Bruce, a non-Jewish Englishman. He had watched this horrid act along with many others would had stood by while it occurred. This event is known as “Kristallnacht,” where Nazis and their supporters in Germany engulfed synagogues in flames, vandalized Jewish homes, schools and businesses, in addition to killing close to 100 Jews, but what had caused this event?

In 1938, Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old Polish Jew learned that the Nazis had exiled his parents to Poland from Hanover, Germany. As retaliation, on November 7, the teenager shot Ernst Vom Rath, a German diplomat in Paris. Rath died two days later, and Hitler attended his funeral. Joseph Goebbels, who was the Nazi minister for public enlightenment and propaganda, immediately seized on the assassination to rile Hitler’s supporters into a rage that would cause a terrifying wrath.

The Night of Broken Glass was the result of that rage. After all these atrocities, little action was taken by neither Europe nor the United States. Even if President Roosevelt instructed that refugees already in the U.S. could stay, that does not excuse the fact that we did NOTHING to stop it.

Therefore, we must honor the people who died. We must honor the people we did not save. We must remember the innocent people whose lives were stolen.

kristallnacht-burning-380

Works Cited

“Kristallnacht Eyewitness Accounts and Reminiscences – Simon Wiesenthal Center Multimedia Learning Center.” Kristallnacht Eyewitness Accounts and Reminiscences – Simon Wiesenthal Center Multimedia Learning Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Feb. 2015. <http://motlc.wiesenthal.com/site/pp.asp?c=gvKVLcMVIuG&b=394831&gt;.

Ballastk, Angela. “Kristallnacht: Background & Overview.” Background & Overview of Kristallnacht. The Holocaust Shoah Page, 2000. Web. 03 Feb. 2015. <http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/kristallnacht.html&gt;.

Shirvanian, Armen. “The History Place – World War II in Europe Timeline: November 9/10 1938 – Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass.” The History Place – World War II in Europe Timeline: November 9/10 1938 – Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. The History Place, 1997. Web. 05 Feb. 2015. <http://www.historyplace.com/worldwar2/timeline/knacht.htm&gt;.

Feedback

I have been experimenting with a robo-grader called PaperRater.  It gives the students immediate feedback on (1) originality, (2) spelling, (3) grammar,  (4) word choice,  (5) transitional phrases, (6) sentence length, and (7) academic vocabulary. This enables the students to shore up any weaknesses in their writing before they give it to me. You can read the report on this speech HERE.

WWII Speech Project

PalmerThanks to a challenge from @erikpalmer, author of Teaching the Core Skills of Listening and Speaking, I was motivated to give my students a speech assignment instead of a research paper when I finished my unit on WWII.  The assignment was fairly straightforward.  Students were allowed to select a topic from a list of 75 WWII topics. Their research was limited to five online sites from within the LAUSD Digital Library. They also needed at least five books in their research. They used http://www.easybib.com/ to create a bibliography. I explained that Google & Wikipedia ARE NOT ACADEMIC SOURCES and could not be cited. After they gathered all 10 sources, they could draft an outline or create note cards of their speech. The first draft of their speech was run through http://www.paperrater.com/ and the report was printed out or emailed to me prior to delivering the speech. The final speech was to be graded by the class based on the following rubric:

Point Structure

  1. Bibliography                  50 pts
  2. Notecards/Outline    50 pts
  3. First Draft                       50 pts
  4. Paper Rater report   100 pts (grades given ranged from 68-92)
  5. Delivering Speech     100 pts (50 pts from me & 50 points from their peers

Students who did not want to deliver their speech in class were given the option to video themselves giving the speech and post it on YouTube so we could grade the speech in class for a reduced number of points (max 80 pts). Students were given three weeks to complete their speeches and then we spent one week listening to all of them.

Interspersed throughout instruction were mini-lectures and examples on giving speeches. I had students stand up and read the first 30 seconds of their speech to see if they had a “hook” and gave them feedback on how they could improve. Additionally, they viewed the following videos:

How to write a speech outline

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M4BkVmA0p6Y

Speech Opening

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XAaSZ64P8pA

Speech Attention Getter

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HK0U0bIN-cw

Components of a Speech

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-aFEgoOEXQ

Speech Closing

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YSi7aPR1-pg

Intro to Easybib

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SL_ddUHSYC4

Finding Sources

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4CHIRzlF40

The Final Numbers

Out of 197 students, only 126 (64%) completed their speeches and delivered them in front of the class. Of the 71 students who elected not to deliver their speeches in front of the class, not one chose to video themselves making the speech privately. The speeches ranged from a low of 42 seconds and a high of 5:45 (before I stopped the student, who clearly could have talked for another ten minutes). The average time of all the speeches (N=126) given was 2:59. What I found particularly astonishing was that in one of my classes 24 out of 38, or 63% of the students chose not to give their speech. Whereas in another class, only one student out of 40, or 2% elected not to perform the speech. What a difference classroom culture makes.

I was not sure whether to be happy or sad with these results. My next post will discuss how I provided feedback and how the students reflected on the process. I used this great handout from Edutopia, which contained 40 reflection questions for students.

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.

Reading

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.

Writing

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.

Dist_Grades_Essays_NCEE

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.

Reading

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.

Writing

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.

Reference

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 http://www.ncee.org/college-and-work-ready/

Twitter TeachWriting Chat

interdisciplinary

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.

Evaluating Intro Paragraphs

This post is the third in a series on how to assign student writing and provide feedback without infringing on instructional time. In my flipped classroom, I am able to put content lectures online and spend class time conferencing with my students on improving their writing. These samples are introductory paragraphs to informative and explanatory and historical narrative prompts I assigned students on the ancient Greek philosophers.

PROMPT #2:

Write an informative/explanatory essay about the lives of the big three Ancient Greek philosophers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Include biographical facts as well as the contributions each philosopher made to Western political thought.

SAMPLE A

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were three great philosophers. All three of them were connected in some sort of way. There lives were very different in many ways.

SAMPLE B

The three subjects I will talk about are Aristotle, Plato’s and Socartes. They are all greek philosophers. Aristotles, plato’s and Socartes are all very similar. They all play a part of the economic structure and culture like laws and citizenship.

SAMPLE C

One of these famous philosophers name was Socretes. He was a stone mason and philosopher. All the things we know about him comes from Plato. Plato was Socrates’s famous student. Socretes was also known for asking questions around Athens. But, the people of Athens got fed up and put him on trial when he was 70 years old. 280 people voted Socrates guilty and sentenced him to death. Socrates thought they should be paying him. But, unfortunately he died by drinking poison.

PROMPT #3:

Write a historical narrative retelling the Suicide of Socrates from one character’s point of view (Socrates, Apollodorus, or Crito). Tell the story of why Socrates was put on trial, what happened at the trial, and what happened at the end of the trial.

SAMPLE A

When Socrates was 70 years old, he was put on trial. He was accused of corrupting the city’s youth and failing to respect the gods. In the jury there was 501 citizens. The jurors condemned him to death.

SAMPLE B

I am Socrates, I was an Athenian stonemason and philosopher. Most of what people know about me comes from my most famous student Plato. I didn’t write any books instead. I went to the marketplace and questioned citizens about their beliefs. I often ask the question “What is the greatest good?” To me this exam of questions was a way to help others seek truth and self knowledge, but to Athenians such questions threatened accepted traditions.

SAMPLE C

The year was 399, I had to stand in front of 500 of my fellow Athenians. I was trialed for supposedly “corrupting the youth.” How outrages! All I did was spread my thoughts and teachings! Anyways, I knew, if I were to be guilty, I might be given the death penalty. The trial took place in the heart of Athens. Many people knew who I was. I am 70 years old. I had many anti-democratic points of view, that might have brought me here.

As I conference with each student, I will employ rubrics from the Literacy Design Collaborative that evaluate argumentative, informative, and narrative writing. Students will assess themselves first, before I comment on their work. Adhering to Mike Schmoker’s advice from Write More, Grade Less – I will only provide feedback on improving introductory paragraphs and will ask them to revise and complete this assignment.