Managing and Monitoring Student Growth – Teaching Reasoning through Writing

INSTRUCTIONAL CONTEXT

For this study, I selected two (2) students out of a possible 93 across four class sections.  The students are both age 13 and in 7th grade Civics and Economics at a middle school in Virginia.  Student A, Alexis, is a female student selected from my 6th period class, while Student B, Hunter, is a male chosen from period 3.

The vast majority of my students are middle-class and white.  Out of a total of 93 students, three are African American, three are Asian American, and two are Latino.  The student population across the entire school is more ethnically diverse than those on my team, but regarding socio-economic status, my students provide a fairly accurate representation of the geographic area from which the school draws.  Most are middle class, a much smaller number would be considered lower class, and very few, if any, would be considered upper class.  Based on the teachers that I have encountered during my placement, it would not be a stretch to say that the political leanings of the population as a whole tend toward the conservative side of the political spectrum.

PLANNING AND INSTRUCTION

The instructional sequence that I created is entitled “Government, Economy, and Power.”  The first writing prompt is titled “Civic Awareness and the Courts,” and connects to the NCSS themes of Power, Authority, and Governance and Civic Ideals and Practices.  It also connects to SOL standard 10a (using 2008 SOL framework).  The students responded to the prompt “Do you think it is important for citizens to understand what judges do and how courts work?”  The second prompt is titled “Economic Systems and the Government.”  The students constructed a persuasive response to the question “Which type of economy (free market, mixed, or command) gives citizens in a society the best chance to meet their needs and wants?”  This assignment connects to the NCSS themes of Power, Authority, and Governance and Production, Consumption, and Distribution.  It also connects to SOL standards 11b-c.  In the third assignment, titled “The Role of Government in the U.S. Economy,” students were assigned a stance in response to the following question: “Should the U.S. government have the power to regulate private businesses?”  With their position already determined, students then constructed a persuasive response by sorting through a set of fact cards to determine which information would be most relevant and supportive of their position.  The third prompt connects to the NCSS themes of Power, Authority, and Governance and Production, Distribution, and Consumption, and to SOL standards 11c and 13b.

In creating this instructional sequence, I took into account the fact that the government’s role in the economy is quickly becoming one of the dominant themes in contemporary political discourse in the United States.  Understanding the typical political leanings of the population of the region in general, I thought it was appropriate to create a sequence that would allow students to explore multiple viewpoints related to this issue.  As a social studies teacher, it is not my place to promote one or another political view, but it is my job to make sure that multiple perspectives are presented, and to help my students better understand how to critically evaluate the arguments of all sides in such a discussion, so that they may make an informed decision as to which one they support.

With the first prompt, I wanted students to seriously consider whether the average citizen needs to understand the complexities and purposes of the judicial system in the U.S. – or whether these things should just be left to those who enter that sphere of society (lawyers, judges, etc.)  In class, we had engaged in a discussion based upon a video we watched on the topic of “judicial independence.”  In the video, three Supreme Court justices held a round-table discussion with a student audience on the topic, and responded to some specific questions from the students in attendance.  At one point during the video, one of the justices made a statement that the greatest threat to judicial independence was a citizenry that was ignorant of the role of the Supreme Court and the judicial branch in general.  I used that statement as a jumping off point into the first prompt.  In terms of process-based learning goals, I wanted students to provide an opinion on the topic and to offer reasons as to why they held that view.  This assignment relates back to the overall instructional sequence in that I wanted students to begin thinking about power within a society.  Who holds it – individuals or the state?  Is civic ignorance a danger to a society?

In terms of process, the learning goals of the second prompt build upon those of the first.  I wanted to push further with building students’ skills regarding the development of a well-constructed, persuasive writing piece.  I decided to provide students with more scaffolding within the process by using my first instructional strategy to teach students about the elements of a persuasive piece.  I created an online writing tutorial which we viewed together in class and which students could access outside of class.  I also required students to create an outline prior to crafting their second writing response.  In terms of the course content, my goal was to help students understand the different types of economic systems.  In order to choose a viewpoint to respond to the prompt, students needed to evaluate each type of system in order to determine which one they thought was most effective for the private citizen.  The second assignment mirrors the overall instructional sequence in that the content goals relate directly to government, economic organization, and power within a given society.

The third assignment continues the process of developing students’ abilities to construct a persuasive writing piece by helping them distinguish relevant from irrelevant information.  I decided to construct the overall sequence using all persuasive pieces in order to give students multiple opportunities to practice the same skill, which I believe will help them tremendously at the next academic level.  For my second instructional strategy, I presented students with several fact cards that could be used to create a response to the second writing prompt.  We then worked together to build a response that contained a topic sentence, supporting details, and a conclusion.  I then presented students with a similar task, but in response to the new, third prompt.  Students then individually evaluated each fact card to determine its relevance/irrelevance and where it would best be suited within their response.  Students then composed their response by piecing together the information from the fact cards in the order they thought best presented their argument.  The content goal for the third prompt was to understand the role of government in the U.S. economy.  This relates back to the overall goals of the sequence in that we explored how the government exerts power within a society and how government and economy are related both to each other and to the more abstract concept of power.

fact cards

fact cards 2

In evaluating student responses, I used grading rubrics that broke down the grading schema into categories, based on what each response demanded.  For the first prompt, I deliberately did not provide students with a rubric, so as to better gauge the baseline for student writing ability.  In return for not giving the students a rubric, I weighted the first assignment much less than the second and third response in terms of the students’ six-weeks grade.  For the second response, I evaluated student work for evidence of using an outline, accuracy of information, use of supporting facts, composition, and grammar/usage/mechanics.  For the third response, the categories changed based on the nature of the assignment.  The categories were topic sentence, relevant supporting details, and logical flow of information.  Rubrics for the second and third prompts are included with student work.

The connections I wanted students to make within these assignments were largely intradisciplinary.  I wanted students to see the relationships between politics, economics, and power within a society and to observe the interrelatedness of all different branches of social studies.  Students at the middle school level tend to see the subjects in their overall curriculum as being entirely independent and separately categorized, but in reality, everything is connected in ways that are not entirely visible to a 7th grader on the surface.

ANALYSIS OF STUDENT RESPONSES

Student A – Alexis

Alexis is the type of who student who does not speak during class unless called upon.  She will certainly speak to the students around her when the opportunity presents itself, but she will very rarely ever offer to volunteer an answer or opinion unless I directly call on her.  This has made it difficult for me to informally assess the degree of her understanding.

In Prompt 1, Alexis responded to the prompt by telling her opinion.  However, she demonstrated minimal ability to support her opinion with facts.  In saying that “It’s important because citizens should be aware of the purpose of the court system,” Alexis essentially repeated the prompt question as a statement, but did not proceed to give any substantial reason(s) for why she felt that way.  In total, she wrote three sentences to “support” her original argument, but none of the three addressed the question of “why” she felt that way or “why” that idea supported the original argument.

In response to Prompt 2, Alexis begins with a clear topic sentence that states her argument – “A mixed economy gives the citizens of a society the best chance to meet their needs and wants.”  This indicates to me that she has grasped the concept of using an outline to setup her response.  She then offers some background information on what a mixed economy entails and explains how that relates to individual citizens.  By making that second step, Alexis has begun to show an ability to go beyond description and move into explanation.  She continues by adding some more background information about government involvement in a mixed economy – “Government involvement for a mixed economy lies between the amount of government involvement in a free market economy and a command economy.”  While this is a true statement, she does not go on to explain how this affects the ability of a citizen to meet their needs and wants.  In the context of Prompt 2, the previous excerpt could be considered irrelevant information, unless she then explained how it relates.

(For Prompt 2 materials and artifacts, please click here)

In Prompt 3, Alexis demonstrated significant growth in her ability to distinguish relevant from irrelevant information.  Using the fact cards to build her response, she pieced together a well-structured response that directly addressed the issue in the prompt.  Her topic sentence clearly states her position (albeit assigned, she still distinguished the best topic sentence from the available choices): “The U.S. government should have the power to regulate private businesses.”  Her next sentence choice builds directly onto her argument: “Without regulation, one company can gain a monopoly on the market for their product.”  This tells me that the outline activity has helped her grow in determining how to transition from argument into the supporting details.  Though her response to Prompt 3 could have been made more robust by including more supporting details from the available selections, her complete response is succinct, direct, and well-structured, with no erroneous information.

The best example from Alexis’ work that shows her ability to make intradisciplinary connections comes from Prompt 2.  In reference to a mixed economy, she states “it lets individuals and the government own factors of production and make their own decision.”  This statement indicates that Alexis has recognized the relationship between all three major concepts – government, power and economics – in terms of resource ownership and decision-making ability.

I provided Alexis with comments on each writing assignment and additionally provided a rubric for Prompts 2 and 3.  On Prompt 1, I stated that “you have presented the argument, but you still need to tell me your reasons why you think people should know what judges do and how courts work.”  Her Prompt 2 response indicates that she had begun to grow in her ability to address the question of “why,” but had not made the complete jump.  On Prompt 2, I indicated to her that she still needed to focus on explaining her supporting details, but that she had done well to offer more background information.  For Prompt 3, I noted that “all details related to each other and to argument,” which conveyed that she had shown growth in determining relevant from irrelevant information.

Student B – Hunter

Hunter is an entirely different entity in the classroom than Alexis.  He will constantly offer his opinion during class and his contributions are often heavily sarcastic or patronizing, to both me and other students.  These factors make it difficult to assess his understanding, since his use of sarcasm could shield my view of any potential gains he has made – does he really know it or is he putting on a show?  Perhaps the best description of Hunter would be “too cool for school.”  This trait shows up in his brief, simplistic response to Prompt 1.

Hunter’s response to Prompt 1 demonstrated a better ability to support an argument with factual evidence than did Alexis’, but his grammar, mechanics, and clarity were not as good.  Consider the following sentence: “Like when you are in the court room if you don’t know what your (sic) talking about then it was just a wast (sic) of time and you will lose.”  To me, this sentence demonstrates reasoning as Hunter is able to offer an explanation for why people should know about how courts work.  His clarity and grammar, however, leave much to be desired.

In Prompt 2, Hunter continues to demonstrate the ability to use supporting details to reinforce his argument, but also continues to struggle in explaining his thoughts clearly.  For example, he writes “In a free market economy it is based on supply & demand so you get a good deal.”  What exactly is based on supply and demand and what getting a good deal means are left to my imagination.  However unclear his explanation, the sentence still demonstrates Hunter’s ability to reason by providing evidence to support his argument.  In addition to spelling and grammar errors, Hunter also includes a sentence of what I would consider irrelevant information: “A free market economy is a system for orginizing (sic) goods within a society or where ever you live.”  While this sentence describes what an economic system does, it doesn’t add anything new to the response or explain how a free market economy helps citizens meet their needs and wants.

(Click here for Prompt 2 materials)

Going into the Prompt 3, I hoped that the fact card strategy would help Hunter in determining relevant from irrelevant information.  His response indicated to me that he had experienced growth in this area.  Hunter’s transition from topic sentence to supporting details was the same that Alexis had used, and demonstrated growth in the area of determining the proper structure of a good persuasive writing piece.  As with Alexis’ response, Hunter could have included some more details from the fact card set to make his response more thorough, but overall his selection of supporting details indicated growth in his ability to distinguish relevant from irrelevant information.

As with Alexis, Hunter’s best example of making intradisciplinary connections comes from his Prompt 2 response.  In stating that “In a free market economy it is based on supply & demand so you get a better deal,” Hunter shows that he recognizes the power role(s) that government can play in the economic sphere.  Whereas Alexis chose mixed economy because the government can offer a measure of regulation and oversight, Hunter chose free market economy because of the absence of government interference in a private citizen’s decision making.

Hunter received the same volume and format of feedback as Alexis.  On Prompt 1, I instructed Hunter to avoid writing in the first person, but he continued to do so on Prompt 2.  On Prompt 1, I also wrote “you have begun to answer ‘why’ but you need to get a little more specific.”  In regard to this feedback, his response on Prompt 2 showed that he had taken this advice into consideration, as his response clearly showed he had grown in this respect, though had not mastered it.  For his Prompt 2 response, I told him that he needed to explain some of his details a little bit more and to watch out for including irrelevant information, unless he proceeded to explain why he included it.  In his Prompt 3 response, Hunter demonstrated growth in his ability to distinguish relevant from irrelevant information.

REFLECTION

In terms of process, the student samples that I collected indicate that my learning goals were met.  Both students demonstrated growth in their ability to construct a persuasive writing piece by clearly stating their argument in a topic sentence, supporting the argument with factual details, and summarizing with a concluding sentence.  Both students, however, have room to improve in terms of explaining how the supporting details specifically back up their argument.  Regarding content, I believe that the learning goals were met satisfactorily.  Both students showed that they grasped the relationships between government, economic organization, and power within a society.  In doing so, they each achieved the more basic knowledge requirements that map to the specific SOL standards for each response prompt.

For both Alexis and Hunter, the next step is to work on explaining their supporting details.  They have shown that they can identify which information will help them to back up their arguments, but they each struggled with taking the next step and expanding upon the facts to offer their own analysis and interpretation.  When Alexis says “It’s important because citizens should be aware of the purpose of the court system,” she then needs to take another step and explain why citizens should be aware of the court system’s purpose.  What dangers are involved if we don’t know about it?  How does knowledge of the judicial system affect individuals in our society?  Likewise, when Hunter states “With free market economy it is has (sic) barly (sic) anything to do with the gov.,” he needs to explain what he is referring to.  If a free market is characterized by an absence of government involvement, how does that affect individual citizens and their ability to meet their needs and wants?

The student samples I collected reveal that I made an impact on my students’ abilities to construct a persuasive writing piece.  After analyzing the first responses, I realized that the overall baseline was relatively low.  Looking at Prompts 2 and 3, however, I see growth across the board, which gives me a measure of validation in choosing this instructional sequence.  My students have begun to develop a skill set that they did not previously possess, and along the way they learned quite a bit about government and economics.

If I had the opportunity to use these prompts again, I would make the third response more open-ended.  I decided to provide the students with a specific bank of factual evidence to use in constructing their responses, which shifted the focus more squarely on process rather than content.  By leaving the responses more open-ended, it would challenge the students to engage more individually with the actual content.  At this point in their academic careers, however, I felt it more appropriate to provide a higher degree of scaffolding as they worked to manipulate the content into a structured and persuasive response.

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