Sunday, March 17, 2013

Teaching the "Letter to an Elected Official"

Capitol by Abby_B
One way for students to learn how to become productive citizens is to craft a piece of argumentative writing for an authentic audience – a letter to their elected officials. The challenge is how to make sense of all the information on controversial issue. To make this proces manageable for my students, I've been using the gun control resources on the KQED Lowdown and the KQED DoNow websites, which have provided a good springboard for more sustained research writing and discussion. Here's how last week looked in my classroom.

Day One: As of March 2013, KQED has seven resources under the gun control topic.
  1. Randomly assign students to read one of the seven articles in the collection of articles from the KQED. 
  2. Individual students list the most important points of the article they were assigned; they write a brief summary of that article and cite the source using MLA format. Remind students that the most significant information might not only be in the story’s text (like facts or expert opinions) but might also be found in an image or graphic. Note: Although citing sources isn’t a typical part of a letter, in this case it is important for at least three reasons: 1) they are representing themselves as serious students to their elected officials and should demonstrate their academic skills, 2) citing the source might help educate the reader of the letter, and 3) the citation provides concrete support for their opinions.
  3. Divide students into seven groups and have them share their summaries with others who read the same article. 
  4. Once students read their individual summaries, the group agrees on the most important five points from the article and creates a collaborative one-paragraph summary that best represents the ideas of the group. Here’s an example summary from my class
  5. Groups present facts and summaries to the whole class while the other students organize the information into facts and opinions that could be used to support more gun control and those arguments that could be used to oppose more gun control (see page 1 of the resource packet “Pro/Con information sheet.”) Although gun control is the issue I'm focusing for this lesson, the handouts in the lesson are more open-ended and can be used for any controversial issue

Day Two: Using the information found in their reading and note taking from Day One, students will complete a draft of a letter to an elected official in today’s class. In doing so, students must synthesize information from at least two sources

  1. Individual students review their notes from Day One where they categorized the facts and opinions into two columns – one column for the information that could be used to support the argument for more gun control, and another column that includes all the information that could be used to oppose the argument for more gun control. 
  2. Students rank (in order of importance) the top ideas or facts in each column. This is also a good time to discuss how some facts can be used to support both sides of the argument (example: “Gun manufacturing in the U.S. increased from 3.7 million in 2007 to 6.1 million in 2011” could be combined with other information from this graphic to support either side of the argument). 
  3. Research your local elected officials stance on the topic by reading information on their government website as well as information gleaned from news stories. Based on the official’s views, choose one to write the letter to. If the students aren’t sure who their elected officials are, look them up on the Common Cause website
  4. Write a draft of the letter using the activities found on page 2, “Writing the Draft.” Tell the students not to worry too much about formatting issues right now, the important thing is to try to get the gist of their thoughts based on their reading and note taking so far.  
  5. Revise the letter using the activities found on page 3, “Revision Guide.”
If you want more details, here's a link to the actual lesson plan.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Teaching curation in the classroom

Cowboy by me
My media students have been using some KQED Lowdown resources lately to try to understand the gun control debate. As my students and I have studied this issue for the past few weeks, a couple of things have occurred to me. My first observation is how complex many issues are today. It can be difficult for students to write a simple thing like a piece of argumentative writing, or participate in a classroom debate, when there's so much information on the topic. Trying to get a handle on an multifaceted issue can be overwhelming for all of us. This leads me to my second observation – researching wicked problems like gun violence in America might be better undertaken in collaborative groups not only in classrooms but also in larger connected learning environments.

Here's how it went in my class.

Currently KQED has seven resources under the gun violence topic. I started off by dividing students into seven groups and had them examine one of the resources. Individual students first wrote a summary of their article's main points. Next they shared their summaries with their group members. In the end the group was responsible for one summary that best represents the ideas of the group and then presented to the rest of the class. Here's an example summary from one of the groups in my class.

To make doing these activities more manageable, I've always appreciated objective educational resources that have been assembled by experts, for example EBSCO Host Connection gun control resources and ProCon's concealed gun fact sheet. These are packaged to make researching more efficient for students and teachers, but I've also begun to realize that the act of searching for articles and discussing the merits of sources is an integral part of learning how to thrive in a knowledge economy. That's why I'm doing more collaborative research projects in my classes now on sites like Diigo, Delicious, and Gooru. One project that gets at what I'm moving toward is this shared Gooru collection that has been added to by Paul Allison's students in New York City and my students in Utah.

I've found that the most effective groups consist of informed individuals. Once we go through the process of collaboration and curation, we're much better able to articulate a stance on complex issues.