Carrie Robledo, MATTHEW WITT
American History, Civics and Economics, World History
Material Type:
High School
  • NCEngineers
  • US History
  • World History
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    Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike

    Education Standards

    Essay and Whole Group Debate Framework

    Essay and Whole Group Debate Framework


    The ability to express yourself well through writing and speaking are important skills that you will use throughout your life. We will be conducting historical inquiry and research while we develop these skills together. This way we will not simply be passive participants in absorbing information, but active participants in cooperatively learning how to process complex information to develop conclusions. We will typically do four projects involving short essays and one Topical Presentation project each nine weeks grading period. These will contain both individual and group components.

    Instructor Directions


    Essay and Whole Group Debate Framework

    Submitted by Matthew Witt

    Henderson County Public Schools


    Driving Question / ScenarioThe ability to express yourself well through writing and speaking are important skills that you will use throughout your life. We will be conducting historical inquiry and research while we develop these skills together. This way we will not simply be passive participants in absorbing information, but active participants in cooperatively learning how to process complex information to develop conclusions. We will typically do four projects involving short essays and one Topical Presentation project each nine weeks grading period. These will contain both individual and group components.
    Project Summary   None of these students have been identified with any specific learning disabilities, but I have noticed from engaging this group in discussions, and reading their essays one instructional challenge is that they need practice in critical thinking strategies and logical discourse in a whole group setting. There is great variation in the students’ academic abilities. They have excelled at performing on standardized tests that emphasize rote memorization of facts, but I wanted to activate higher order thinking processes through a whole group classroom debate. These students can be anxious and want to sound intelligent when speaking in front of their peers so some will prefer to remain quiet rather than say something that might be embarrassing. Therefore, I assigned positions, broke up the teams into sub groups to collaborate, and required that each student speak at least once during the lesson. I encouraged students to support one another so more confident students assisted those who were anxious with their statements.    All students have laptops allowing for digital scaffolding, and evaluation of projects. Class periods are arranged in block format with classes lasting for eighty minutes, which allowed me a longer period for students to research, discuss, and plan a whole group debate.   This year I have made it a priority to emphasize the importance of developing critical thinking skills, and strategies that my students can use to become more engaged and active citizens as adults. I want my students to gain experience working with their peers and collaborating to solve problems. My students need to be able to communicate in public clearly and effectively both through writing and public discourse.    This lesson was designed to help students acquire the background knowledge independently and then prepare for their debate collectively and exchange views on important issues publicly and persuasively in a whole group, in preparation for a one page persuasive essay on the subject. My courses are built around driving questions related to the topics that we are studying. The focus on each question lasts three weeks and culminates with the submission of their essay. Leading up to that they do independent research, then collaborative discussion, and finally evaluate their positions in an essay. The methods vary within this but the structure remains consistent in all of the classes I teach. Since we're a small school these kids will have had 3 or 4 classes with me using this framework by the time they are seniors.   My students needed support gathering background information and analyzing primary source documents prior to discussion of a significant issue. My students needed to understand the issues in the Harper’s Ferry Incident, and have a formal debate with one group supporting the actions of John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, and one group arguing that he was a terrorist. I wanted to facilitate my students’ understandings and spark an interest in the sectional disputes relating to slavery that inevitably led to the American Civil War through a whole group classroom debate. Once they took notes and completed document analysis, I assigned my students to come up with three arguments for and three against whether or not John Brown was a terrorist. Before we began the debate, it was important for my students to understand both sides of the issue.    My students were particularly interested in this topic because it was a case of someone taking it upon themselves to effect a change that they felt was right outside of the democratic process. I found a webquest that helped students to gain background information on the Harper’s Ferry Incident and required them to analyze relevant primary sources. I assigned this in preparation for an essay on the same topic prior to the debate. The webquest even provided guidelines for the analysis that the students needed to conduct in their webquest and essay. In Zach’s primary source analysis on the webquest he wrote: “I believe that it did not help the cause of abolition in any major way as it mainly just drove the wedge between the North and the South further.” Other students saw the issue differently; like Brooklyn who wrote: “I have learned that John Brown was just and was just trying to help the slaves because everyone was equal in his mind. This was a very helpful insight.” I’m glad that student whiteboards are available in discussions. I decided to use these into the debate in lieu of encouraging digital tools. Whiteboards encouraged verbal collaboration and discourse particularly during the work sessions.
    Estimated Time3 weeks for each essay which includes an activating assignment, a whole or small group debate/discussion, rough draft with instructor and peer review elements, and a final essay.
    Materials / ResourcesIdeally students will have access to a chromebook/laptop and reliable internet access
    Subject(s)U.S. History, Civics/Economics, World History (though it could be used in any humanities class)
    Educational StandardsEssential Standard AH1.H.1Apply the four interconnected dimensions of historical thinking to the United States History Essential Standards in order to understand the creation and development of the United States over time.
    Classifying ObjectiveClarifying Objective AH1.H.1.3Use Historical Analysis and Interpretation to: 1 Identify issues and problems in the past 2 Consider multiple perspectives of various peoples in the past 3 Analyze cause-and-effect relationships and multiple causation. 4 Evaluate competing historical narratives and debates among historians.
    Project Outline
    AskWhat’s the problem?My students evaluated whether or not the Mexican American War was justified. #1 Activation, Analysis, and Evaluation of the war between the United States and Mexico. I want my students to be able to form a thesis in response to the question, three supporting arguments with evidence, and a rebuttal. For this first prompt, students will lean heavily on a template with a great deal of whole group and individual instruction and support. What are the constraints?Since students are studying particular cases that happened many years ago they can’t interview the people involved so instead I’ve collected primary sources relevant to the question that students will evaluate and use to support their points in the debate and essay. I’ve linked the primary sources for this assignment in the folder. What have others done?Students are encouraged to each other’s work and give one another constructive feedback and work with their small groups throughout the debate and writing process.
    ImagineWhat are some solutions?Students work in their groups to review the case, develop their own personal opinion on the issue. Since they are researching these cases to prepare persuasive/analytical essays they need to be able to understand both sides of each case. In order to facilitate this understanding I assign a perspective for each group. Brainstorm ideasStudents work in groups for 5 class days to prepare for the debate. At this time they are also preparing for how they will write their own essays and in particular developing supporting points for their thesis and finding supporting evidence from the primary sources that supports their points. Choose the best oneGroups then begin to develop their arguments for their assigned position.
    PlanDraw a diagramWithin their groups I have the students complete the essay template with their assigned position. I uploaded the template for the Mexican American War Essay. Gather needed materialsThe template will help them outline their supporting points, organize evidence, and prepare a rebuttal.
    CreateFollow the planStudents engage in the debate. I linked a video of a whole group debate lesson that I did with my students on the Mexican American War Essay project. The whole lesson went on for 45 minutes but I included the most relevant 15 minutes in the folder.Students create a prototype by writing their rough drafts of the essay for individual submission, a completed prototype also includes a scale recreation of Matamoros showing where it is in relation to the 1846 U.S. Mexico border. This prototype will help students visualize and demonstrate the validity of Senator Lincoln’s Spot Resolution. Test it out!Groups engage in several rounds in the debate. This allows them to test their points against a panel that represents the opposite point of view. Students receive whole group feedback during the debate from the teacher and their peers. Students test and evaluate their prototype by reviewing individual formative written and verbal feedback from their teacher. Here is an example of some of the verbal rubric based feedback that I provide to students: Transcript of verbal formative feedback for student to help revise prototype. Here is an example of some of the written rubric based feedback that I provide to students: Written Rubric Based Feedback for students to help revise prototypeStudents will test their prototypes of the scale model of Matamoros by using Arch GIS or other cartography software to insure that their placements of significant landmarks are to the correct scale to effectively test the efficacy of Senator Lincoln’s claim that Matamoros was in fact in Mexico at the time of the incident there involving the deaths of 12 American soldiers that prompted President Polk to falsely claim ‘American blood on American soil’.
    ImproveDiscuss what can work betterAfter the debate we reflect as a class and discuss how they felt about their arguments and which group made the stronger case. Modify your designAt this point students are reviewing the rubric based feedback that I provided on their rough drafts and are in the process of peer reviewing each other’s work as they revise their essays in preparation for the final draft. The class will then review their scale models and the cartography software that they used to test the accuracy of the location of their model in relation to the real 1846 borders. Students will then use Arc GIS to research Matamoros today and note any significant changes in the border or proximate landmarks.Repeat steps 1-5 to make changesSometimes I even go back and repeat the debate either in the same whole group format, socratic seminar, or small group discussions. I also frame a lot of my warmup discussion activities around the essay topic going on to make that 3 week series about a driving essential question.
    Closure / Student ReflectionsStudents submit the final draft of their essays and receive summative feedback. I’ve included an analysis of student work over the course of three of these essays in a 9 week period.
    Possible Modifications / ExtensionsDuring Covid I’m not penalizing late work but putting missing assignments in as zeros until they are submitted. As students turn in work late I’m re-grading those assignments for them and giving them full credit. During a normal school year my school has a no late work policy and students are allowed up to 3 late work passes. To accommodate students who may be struggling writers or who may have  learning disability I provide templates for each of my essays. These are digital but can be printed if students do not have access to technology. Here is an example of one of these templates: Mexican American War Template. If students do not have a laptop or internet at home I provide a printed packet of all instructional materials. Here is an example of one of these packets: Mexican American War Essay Printable Scaffolding Materials.