Tag Archives: We the Students Scholarship Contest

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.

Authentic Writing Tasks

As a 9th and 10th grade World History teacher, sometimes I struggle with making history relevant to my students.  This year, thanks to the Bill of Rights Institute’s We the Students Scholarship Contest, I didn’t have to, the $5,000 top prize was more than enough to motivate my students. They were eager to struggle with questions like: What are the ideals in the Declaration of Independence? What are the ideals of America? What are some of your personal ideals? The vast majority of my students wrote two hand-written drafts before typing three pages double-spaced to meet the early bird deadline of November 15.

BOR Inst

The essay prompt: In 800 words or fewer, please answer the following question: “Since you were born, has America moved closer to or further away from the ideals outlined in the Declaration of Independence.”

Dr. Strojny helped me brainstorm some prewriting tasks that would make this assignment easier for students. First, what are the ideals outlined in the Declaration of Independence? For this class activity students were split into 13 groups of three or four where they had to close read the Declaration and translate what it actually said. Each group then brought their “translation” up to the document camera, projected it to the class and explained it. Then we compared them to a simplified list of grievances. The students copied the 22 grievances into their binders before leaving class.

For homework, I asked the students do a 15 minute quick write about which ideals, or grievances they thought would be most important, or easy to relate to issues today.  We had a quick discussion that went like this:  Life, liberty and pursuit of happiness – they have all heard about this —but don’t  know what it means? Examples to think about: Right to Life: Death penalty, abortion rights/right to life, food assistance for poor families, access to healthcare aka Obamacare.

Liberty:  Civil rights, such as right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure, freedom of movement and freedom from government surveillance (think about Edward Snowden, the internet), incarceration rates and three-strikes laws for non-violent offenders such as drug users, freedom to vote and new voter ID laws.

Right to Happiness: What does it mean to be happy? Access to employment, secure jobs, student loans, drug laws, expansion of marriage laws to same-sex couples.

Writing the Dec

That government derives its powers from the just consent of the governed: Do our voter turnout numbers suggest that we consent to being governed by today’s leaders? What about Scotland’s recent referendum? What would happen if people in the U.S. wanted to secede, like the anti-Obama secession petitions in Texas?

Do students understand that the framers were morally compelled to violent revolution because all men have the moral duty—the OBLIGATION– to rebel against governments that do not fulfill these natural laws—the Occupy movement, School Walkouts in CO, acts of civil disobedience.  Do we have a moral duty to rebel against bad laws? What does it mean when we don’t vote? When we don’t attend protests? Etc. Do young people today feel this obligation?

It was an exhilarating assignment. Could I keep the excitement going through numerous drafts?  More in my next post.