Semester 1 Reflection: Looking for an Argument

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,


2 thoughts on “Semester 1 Reflection: Looking for an Argument

  1. “Part of the genius of the course is its simplicity.”
    Maybe all of it. I am thrilled to hear it went so well for your students.

    This model of repeated practice of a handful of skills (using high-interest content as the vehicle) is what students need in Social Studies. Seeing your success with the 4 skills makes me wish I had chosen to do fewer this term in my Modern World History course. Seven has proved to be a couple too many. Too hard to repeat each one as many times as I’d like and still give timely feedback. What was your feedback cycle like, in a typical week?

    How about spiraling? I bet that in planning the scope and sequence for this course, it felt liberating not to have to “foresee” how long coverage of topics 1-99 will take. The key factor in deciding what’s next should always be where kids’ performance is right now relative to the rubric. Level 6 on the rubric is always the destination. That’s true on Day One and then throughout. Teachers can choose an appropriately challenging topic to debate next. And repeat after the next set of essays comes in. Planning should be more like orienteering, using as one’s compass the strengths and weaknesses evident in essays, and less like booking a trip by reserving all rooms and tickets ahead of time.

    Thank you for inspiring me to keep grading on a Friday afternoon!


    1. Thanks for the kind words and deep thoughts.
      We’d typically give feedback on one or two items each week. We’d look at a couple of examples as a class, have students self-assess, and then share our assessments. On writing, we always focused on one or two elements of the writing at a time, differentiating for different students as the class went on.
      I am with you that spiraling is important for more complex skills, like research. That’s our focus in the more traditional history course we’re teaching this semester: we come back to research at the end of each unit, though with less supports each time.


Comments are closed.