With the conventions now over, the weeks between now and Election Day will be filled with political ads, debates, and plenty of commentary. This is what is happening in the world around us. How can we make it relevant to our students?
In a recent issue of an ASCD Smartbrief, I was directed to an article about a classroom where students were being asked to watch the Republican and Democratic conventions, where Mitt Romney and Barack Obama officially accepted their party’s nominations for President, from a different perspective. These high school students, some old enough to vote and some not, were asked to put themselves in the place of a reporter as they listen to speeches and observe the televised coverage of the conventions. For many students, this would be their first real exposure to the conventions. “Adrianna Escobar said she previously never watched conventions, but by the end of the project she anticipates having a better understanding of them and why ‘people take the election so seriously.'”
By creating this assignment, the teacher sought to “find ways to teach the things we’re supposed to teach in relevant, real-world scenarios,” and he anticipated that students would “see that they could go to a convention one day or be a reporter and envision themselves in the future in something they might be able to do.”
As I read about this assignment and these students, I reflected on the expectation in the Common Core State Standards that students apply their skills and knowledge to relevant, real-world problems and situations. On the surface, this assignment seemed to fit the bill, however, I don’t think it went far enough.
To me, the current political season is the perfect relevant, real-world opportunity to take students to the next level. To take students beyond reporting on what is happening in the world to examining it, researching it, and arguing it based on evidence. The Common Core State Standards have an explicit focus on argumentation based on logic and evidence. In fact, the first standard in writing is, “Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.”
With this in mind, students should not only be reporting what is happening in the political landscape, but they should be engaged in researching the issues, taking a position, and arguing their position based on the evidence they collect. Additionally, students should be analyzing and evaluating the arguments of others. Whether students support Obama or Romney is irrelevant; they should be able to respond with an eye towards critical analysis of the arguments presented. The Common Core speaking and listening standards require students to be able to, “Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally,” and “Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.” Our local and national politicians, and especially the upcoming Presidential debates, provide plenty of opportunity to fact-check and assess the validity of political claims and arguments in speeches, debates, advertisements, commercials, and written works.
Learning to argue has also proven to be effective for student learning and retention. In an Education Week article entitled More Argument, Fewer Standards, Mike Schmoker and Gerald Graff explain that, “Education researchers like Robert Marzano, George Hillocks, and Deanna Kuhn have demonstrated that in-school opportunities to argue and debate about current issues, literary characters, and the pros and cons of a math solution have an astonishing impact on learning—and test scores. Argument not only makes subject matter more interesting; it also dramatically increases our ability to retain, retrieve, apply, and synthesize knowledge.”
The ability to think critically, to independently determine our position, and to be able to defend that position clearly based on evidence are essential skills for career and college readiness, as well as global citizenship. So think about seizing the opportunity in the upcoming weeks to ask students, regardless of age, to explore their ability to argue. Use the current political events to teach them how to argue based on evidence, as well as in a manner which strives to use logic and reason, rather than simple persuasion, to support their position.
In the words of the poet Robert Frost, “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.” The Common Core State Standards seek to educate our students in the world of solid, researched arguments. And the current election season heating up, we have the ability to impart this wisdom onto our students.
Diane Rymer is our Director of Professional Development and is responsible for the overall development and implementation for all of our professional development programs. Diane brings a wealth of professional development experience, including Supervisor of Professional Development at Baltimore County Public Schools and Assistant Director of Professional Development at Maryland Public Television. Diane earned her Master’s of Science/Technology for Educators from John Hopkins University and her Bachelor of Arts in Elementary Education from Loyola University, Maryland.