One of the many unique features of my new school, Harvest Collegiate, is that our humanities courses are one-semester theme-based courses that, for the most part, are electives. This means I completely wrapped up courses last month, and started a new term with a new course and students a couple weeks ago.
Last semester, I taught two courses. I wrote about my Build Your Own Civilization class a few weeks ago. My other class, which I co-taught with a brilliant and promising novice co-teacher, was Looking for an Argument, and it might be the best class I’ve ever taught, and undoubtedly yielded the most student growth I have seen.
The class was created by Avram Barlowe and Herb Mack of Urban Academy, and you can buy a book about it here. At Harvest, Looking for an Argument gives a government credit, and all 9th graders take it during the year. The structure is relatively simple. Each week focuses on a different controversial issue. Ours’ ranged from the NYC Soda Tax to the presidential election to Stop and Frisk. The week starts with two teachers debating the issue. The students choose who has which side, establishing that the class is not about being right, but rather about constructing the best possible argument. Students then join in to debate and discuss the issue for the rest of the period, all the while taking notes. Each week ends with the students writing a timed argumentative essay on the topic. In between, student read from a packet on the topic, composed of a variety of news and blog articles, as well as critiquing students notes, highlighting, and essays from the pervious week. And that’s it.
Part of the genius of the course is its simplicity. While provocative topics keep the students engaged week to week, students are practicing only four core academic skills — note-taking, reading with annotation, self-reflection, and timed argumentative writing — over and over again. While students do gain a tremendous amount of knowledge about the world through a variety of topics, that knowledge is never assessed; it’s all about the skills.
My class was tremendously successful in improving these skills. Harvest has a Common Core aligned six-point writing rubric we use in all classes. A 1 on the rubric corresponds to a middle school level performance, a 3 on the rubric means a student has met the Common Core standards for 9-10 grades and a 5 means the students has met the Common Core standards for 11-12 grades. Each point is then roughly one year of growth. We focused on measuring students’ improvement in Perspective (developing claims and counterclaims) and Evidence (supporting those claims with a variety of the strongest possible evidence).
In my class, students averaged a gain of .82 in Perspective, and 1.25 in evidence. In other words, students averaged a full year gain in skills from only a semester. At the start of the class, 5 students were meeting the 9-10 Common Core standard in Perspective, and none were in Evidence. By the end of the one semester class 9th grade class, 16 of 26 students were meeting or exceeded the standard in Perspective,