From April, 2014

A Case for Community Action Projects: A Piece by Pete Planisek

I have been teaching seniors English for over 10 years now. I’ve met a variety of unique, interesting, sometimes challenging individuals and weathered numerous shifts in curriculum with them. One of the joys of my job is getting to know my students over the course of the year (sometimes over the course of multiple years if I had them earlier in their high school careers). Understanding their goals, dreams, pasts, concerns, struggles, and triumphs not only enriches our time together but helps to shape my instructional goals as well. Over time I began to realize that many were unaware or uninvolved in addressing some of the needs and issues within our community. I decided to work to change that.


Several years ago I was teaching Honors English 9 and I decided to try an experiment. I asked for volunteers to help aid in a short term community action project. We arranged a day to go to a nearby storage facility that then housed the Pickerington Food Pantry’s unsorted canned and boxed donations. It was pouring down rain that day and freezing cold but we dived in and worked together to get two entire storage containers sorted. The kids felt a great sense of accomplishment and talked about how they’d love an outlet to become more involved.


I decided to build off this experience by introducing a Cause and Effect Community Action Project in my senior classes about three years ago. The idea was simple: have the kids pick a social issue they genuinely care about, research both the issue and existing resources that address it, and then design some type of group action project that has them actively going out into the communities of Central Ohio to try to help make a positive change, document their projects (the good and the bad), and report the details of their project from start to finish back to the class.


The assignment continues to evolve each year and is embraced by the students because it allows them to design and implement it. I view my role as an advisor and I’ve been humbled by what they’ve been able to accomplish. Some projects are successful beyond the wildest dreams of the students. Some fail to come together as planned but even then they learn from the experience. These real world experiences are invaluable in broadening students horizons, working through team dynamics, setting shared goals, interacting with a variety of people in the community from very different backgrounds but with shared agendas, in teaching coping skills, self-directed learning, creative thinking, building positive community relations, problem solution reasoning, reflection, and in building self-esteem. It also re-enforces the thematic ideas present in so many of the literature we teach. Additionally, it allows me an opportunity for professional collaboration both in the building and with the larger community outside the school.


This year alone students worked with such organizations as: Children’s Hospital, The Ronald McDonald House, several different area humane societies and even a horse rescue facility in Athens, OH, worked with Risen Son and camped out in the school courtyard for a week to raise awareness of homelessness (I camped out with them as well), donated to local food pantries such as the Mid-Ohio Food Bank and Pickerington Food Pantry, volunteered at a Columbus Recreation Center, Wesley Ridge Retirement Community, cleaned up trash in local parks, raised greater awareness about eating disorders, e-waste recycling, animal abuse and adoption, raised donations and goods for military care packages for troops overseas, and volunteered to help serve food at local churches.


My dream is that one day soon such community action projects will become the norm in secondary education. I think the more lives such projects touch the more people will begin to realize what amazing learning opportunities these projects are. I was so pleased when one of my groups mentioned that a volunteer at Children’s Hospital, who happens to also teach in the Columbus Public School District, was excited to hear about their project and expressed interest in providing a similar opportunity to her students next year. Many groups have stated that they plan to become regular volunteers with the groups/organizations they worked with and have begun to encourage others to do so as well.


“Do not be bound by limits you place on yourself. It is only when you reach beyond what you think you can do that you will surely do far more than you thought you could.”

Chiungalla foster father of Tecumseh


This piece was written by English teacher and writer Pete Planisek.  Follow his blog at Enceladus Literary.  Also, see what his students accomplished through their projects this year in the article “Students go Homeless to Raise Awareness, Money” in the Pickerington Sun Times and check out the fundraising his students did for the homeless on this FundRzr page.

Evaluating the Effectiveness of Sources on Grit and Growth

Susan Turley and I are considering expanding the scope of incorporating grit and growth through the use of this book by Malcolm Gladwell.

Susan Turley and I are considering expanding the scope of incorporating grit and growth through the use of this book by Malcolm Gladwell.


Susan and I worked together on a three-day lesson for her senior Thematic Studies class on grit and growth where students examined different types of sources that could be used for the senior presentations.  The lesson began the in the same way as the lesson I collaborated on with Melissa Larisch, Changing Your Brain: A Lesson on Grit, Growth and Neuroplasticity.  However, instead of using the “one important point, one surprising point and a lingering question” strategy, students identified the following (available as a handout at the end of this post):

  • Author/Creator Purpose
  • Language and Diction Choices (particularly the use of analogy)
  • Facts
  • Examples
  • Appeals (ethos- credibility, pathos- emotion and logos- logic)

Then answered the following questions:

  • EVALUATE: Was this mode of presentation effective? What were the benefits of this mode of information delivery? What were the deficits?
  • PERSONAL RESPONSE: How did you connect to the author’s intended message? Give an example to support your answer.

The first source students watched was the two-minutes video on neuroplasticity posted here. The second source was this article from The New York Times entitled “If You’re Open to Growth, You Tend to Grow.”  The third source was a TEDTalk by Angela Lee Duckworth called “The Key to Success?  Grit.”

For each source, students were asked to do the following:

  1. While watching the video/reading, write down any language/diction choices, facts, examples or appeals used in the source
  2. When completed, write out the author’s purpose- 1 minute
  3. Pair and share the information written down thus far and, with your partner, answer the “Evaluate” and “Personal Response” Questions- 3 minutes
  4. Discuss the source as a class, sharing out what was found and evaluating the source in total

At the end of class, we discussed which source was most effective overall and shared out the personal responses and connections to the content.  Students identified Duckworth’s delivery and tone as a strength and found her to be most engaging.  However, they also identified the importance of multiple examples from The New York Times article and they use of a visual cue from the video.  Ultimately, they felt as though all of these sources would be best combined into a multimedia presentation.

In regards to content, a majority of students found the content to be personally relevant.  While many admitted they are “not there yet” in regards to grit, they found the information to be aspirational.

Turley and I plan on continuing this work into next year, perhaps expanding it to include the importance of defining one’s passion when establishing “grit.”  In addition, we are both going to read the Malcolm Gladwell book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and Battling Giants as a potential text to use with students to support these ideas further next year.

Additional Resources:

Changing Your Brain: A Lesson on Grit, Growth and Neuroplasticity Continued

“People who believe in the power of talent tend to not fulfill their potential because they are so concerned with looking smart and not making mistakes.  But people who believe that talent can be developed are the ones who really push, stretch, confront their own mistakes and learn from them.”

-Carol Dweck, “If You’re Open to Growth, You Tend to Grow” by Janet Rae-Dupree from the New York Times

Continuing with the work outlined in the posts about neuroplasticity and grit, over the last couple of weeks, I worked with Melissa Larisch and Susan Turley on lessons intended to help students discover their own ability to grow and develop.

Larisch’s goal was to have a meaningful discussion about her students growth via an examination of their Annual Growth Report from STAR.  To this end, the two-day lesson began with students taking the 12 Item Grit Scale and the growth versus fixed mindset quiz.

Day One

After the quiz data was recorded on this Grit and Growth Versus Fixed Mindset Student Data Sheet, we had students listen to and paraphrase the following definition from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Technology’s report on “Promoting Grit, Tenacity and Perseverance”:

“Perseverance to accomplish long-term or higher-order goals in the face of challenges and setbacks, engaging the student’s psychological resources, such as their academic mindsets, effortful control, and strategies and tactics” (vii).

Students were easily able to identify that “grit” was about overcoming in order to achieve goals, but they struggled to identify the fact that grit is also about strategically planning and utilizing specific resources, so this was something we discussed after students shared out the paraphrases.

I think it would be a good idea to break down and discuss the following parts of the definition in a class discussion:

  • Psychological resources
  • Academic mindsets
  • Effortful control
  • Strategies and Tactics

I then asked students the following two questions:

  • How many of you have ever done something you did not want to do?
  • How many of you have ever chosen to do something you did not want to do?
  • Why did you do it even when every part of you didn’t want to?

Some of the answers were based upon extrinsic factors (such as a punishment or sense of being indebted), but some of the answers were because of long-term goals.  A good example of this brought up in most classes was practicing in the heat of the summer for marching band because students were interested in becoming better performers and musicians.

Once we had at least one example of grit, we did a personalized visualization activity as follows:

  1. Imagine a long-term goal you have accomplished or are currently trying to accomplish.  Write it down.
  2. Share out some of the goals
  3. Imagine the most difficult moment during the process of accomplishing that goal.  This should be a point at which you doubted you would be able to continue working.  Write this point down.
  4. Share out difficult points
  5. Now, put yourself back in that most difficult moment.  What are you thinking?  What are you feeling?  What are you doing that helps you to continue?  In other words, how did you get through this moment and keep going?
  6. Share out the “strategies and resources” students used to continue moving forward despite challenges

The last part of the lesson was defining growth and fixed mindset.  I shared the following two pieces of information with students:

  • Growth mindset is the belief that ability grows with effort and intelligence and talent are not fixed
  • “…research suggest that these factors (grit, tenacity and perseverance) can have just as strong an influence on academic performance and professional attainment as intellectual factors” (1 U.S. Department of Education)

Students ended the lesson by answering the personal reflection questions on their “Grit and Growth Versus Fixed Mindset Student Data Sheet” and turning it in to Larisch and I before they left as an exit ticket.

Day Two

We began the lesson by having students watch the following video about Neuroplasticity:

It is a very short video (two minutes), so students watched it twice and focused on identifying the following items:

  • * – Note one thing that you felt was important
  • ! – Note one thing that was surprising
  • ? – Note one question you have after hearing the information (a point of curiosity, something you wonder about etc.)

This note-taking strategy resulted in some really good classroom discussion, especially regarding thought-provoking questions.  Here were some of the points students made:

  • It is important that: we can change our own brains and have control over how they develop
  •  It was surprising: how recent this information is, how scientists believed that the brain was fully developed and static by adulthood, and how much humans are capable of changing their brains
  • Students questioned: how easy it is to change a habit or reaction, if some habits or paths were harder to change, how much they could change about themselves, and if they changed too much were they really being themselves anymore

Mrs. Larisch and I were impressed by the level of engagement and deep thinking resulting from the discussion.  We ended this part of the lesson with the following question:

  • What does growth have to do with grit?
  • Answers included: You can grow in your ability to be gritty; if you are gritty you can change anything about yourself; and if you believe in the science of grit, you are more likely to persevere when difficulty arises (the last answer was mine)

Students were then given their STAR Annual Growth reports and this SGP Reflection Sheet.  We explained ATOS levels and Independent Reading Levels to students and asked them to examine the changes STAR reported over the course of the year.  Afterward we discussed:

  • Is this an accurate measure of your growth this year in reading?
  • Why or why not?
  • What could you do to improve your growth?

Many students did not feel STAR was an accurate measure of growth.   We discussed and addressed those concerns when possible, making sure to focus the discussion on the fact that STAR measures reading comprehension which is a very specific measure.

In some classes, we had a productive discussion about what STAR measured and how to use ATOS levels to provide “challenge” that would help students to grow as readers.  We also discussed the importance of “grit” in reading difficult material, particularly in non-fiction texts (for example in science classes) where the level of vocabulary and the academic language used might be unfamiliar.  We also discussed the value of this type of reading to help one understand the world.

In other classes, Larisch and I struggled to mend the students discontent with STAR as a valuable measure.  In these cases, I felt as though linking something as important as a students ability to grow to his/her STAR scores might have minimized the importance of the larger lesson: humans are capable of growth and change in ways once thought unlikely or impossible.

Susan Turley and I used parts of this lesson but developed it into a three-day activity where students compared types of information presented in different mediums to explore venues of information presentation for their senior projects.  That lesson can be viewed in this post, Evaluating the Effectiveness of Sources on Grit and Growth.

Debates Incorporating Students-Coaching-Students Model


Renee Jackson and I worked together on the students-coaching-students model of Socratic seminar, and she incorporated elements of the process into her team debates to positive effect.

Here is an overview of her general debate format:

Debate Format

Opening Speech by the Pro Side  3-4 minutes

Opening Speech by the Con Side  3-4 minutes

  •  6 minutes work period for the two sides

Cross Examination of the Pro Side by the Con Side    2-3 minutes

Cross Examination of the Con Side by the Pro Side    2-3 minutes

  •  6 minutes work period for the two sides

Rebuttals by the Pro Side    2-3 minutes

Rebuttals by the Con Side     2-3 minutes

Closing Argument by the Pro Side  3-4 minutes

Closing Argument by the Con Side  3-4 minutes

To incorporate more formative feedback and emphasize the use of cited evidence in the debates, Jackson incorporated the following:

  • Tally Keeper: A student who was not debating for the day stood at the white board and put a mark next to each students name when they used and cited evidence while debating
  • Coaching: The students who were not debating used the work periods to gather specific feedback for the team on their side of the room and shared that feedback with them before the team began the next phase of the debate
  • Sharing Out Formative Feedback: In the last couple of minutes of the work periods, all students were asked to share feedback and suggestions to the teams debating

Students also received and shared formative feedback when Jackson and I co-taught a lesson where students had mini-debates over solitary confinement following this lesson on about identifying claims, reasoning and evidence in an argument.

After the mini-debates, classes reflected on the process identifying strengths and weaknesses.  Students also gave suggestions for what they might do differently during the actual debates.

Additional Resource:

  • Debate Format and Roles– This handout was given to students to help them plan for the individual roles to be filled for the debate


Rhetorical Term Face Off: Anecdote Versus Pathos

Rhetorical Showdown copy


Ben Baptist was inspired by Dave Burgess, the writer of Teach like a Pirate who presented on waiver day, to use brackets in his classroom during March Madness to review rhetorical terms in his AP Language courses.

Filling Out Brackets

Every day his students voted on the rhetorical terms that would advance in the bracket, eventually resulting in the final four.  Although each class voted and created brackets independently, both classes eventually resulted in these four terms:

  • Ethos
  • Pathos
  • Logos
  • Anecdote

Here is a link to create bracket handouts for students.

Final Four-Corners Debate

On the day of the final four, Baptist had a “four corners” debate.  Students were instructed to choose one of the four terms of choice and go to that corner.  Then, after five minutes of preparation, they engaged in an informal debate over the merits of their term where students participated in the discussion by raising hands and each side could speak at any point.  At halftime, groups were given a second five minute planning period.

In one class, the groups were split fairly evenly on four sides, but students were allowed to change positions during the discussion, which eventually led to one side’s imminent demise.  The second class began the debate with almost all students on the side of pathos and anecdote and only two students each in ethos and logos.  However, the two small teams presented strong arguments and kept up the lively discussion.

At the end of class, each student voted on who they wanted to see in the final two.  The results in the classes were as follows:

  • Third period: ETHOS VERSUS PATHOS

Baptist texted students the winner after tallying the votes, and on the Monday following the four-corners debate, we introduced the final two debate.

Anecdote vs. Pathos and Ethos vs. Pathos Debates:

Rhetorical Term Showdown

Students were allowed to choose either side for the final debates.  Baptist had recruited administrators and teachers to come in as judges and choose the winner (thank you to Sam Bosse, Melissa Larisch, and Roshawn Parker).  He and I filled the roles of coaches, and during the planning breaks, we worked with our team to prepare for the next round.  Here is the mini-debate format we used:

10 minutes of planning time

3 minute opening speech for both sides

o   Use attention grabber

o   Present initial argument

o   Consider what opposition might say and refute

5 minute regroup for rebuttals

o   Teammates should have notes from opening speeches

o   Use these notes and research of your own to address the oppositions argument

3 minute refutations

o   Use specific evidence presented by the opposition and respond to it

5 minute regroup

o   Teammates should have notes from refutations to help guide closing arguments

2 minute closing argument

o   Summarize the opening argument

o   Summarize refutations of your opposition’s argument

o   End with a call to action

Each of the classes did a good job of thinking quickly, using examples to support their points, and making sure to refute the opposition’s side.  Keeping in mind that this was an improvisational activity, in most cases each round got better as students became more comfortable with the process.

However, the standout moment of the debates for me was when a student in third period on the anecdote side began the opening speeches with an anecdote about seeing Lightning Grader (Baptist’s superhero alter ego) on the announcements wishing another teacher happy birthday, and how the power of this anecdote would be what he would use to encourage other students to take AP Language and Composition next year.

  The Winners

At the end of the period, the teachers and Mr. Parker voted on the winners.  The results were as follows:

  • In Ethos versus Pathos the winner was: ETHOS
  • In Pathos versus Anecdote the winner was: ANECDOTE

This process and lesson were great examples of the energy brought to the classroom when teachers collaborate with one another and actively engage students in the learning process.  Baptist and I had as much fun participating as the students, and we are looking forward to another “March Madness Rhetorical Match Up” (my own phrasing) next year.

Additional Resources:

  • March Madness Meets AP Lit” a unit/lesson from Edutopia on using brackets to pick the best literature of the year in an AP class

Using Formative Assessment: Learning Target Tracking Sheets and Exit Tickets

Exit Tickets, Learning Targets Goal (5)


The following are an accumulation of resources to track students learning and understanding in different ways.  These resources were gathered for a PD on formative assessment at PHSC.

In addition, here is a list of quick formative assessment practices.

The Essence of Good and Evil: A Socratic Seminar Using Lord of the Flies and Heart of Darkness

“There isn’t anyone to help you. Only me. And I’m the Beast. . . . Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill! . . . You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close! I’m the reason why it’s no go? Why things are the way they are?”

Lord of the Flies by William Golding


The complexity at humanity’s core cannot be boiled down to the argument of “is man good or evil.”  Because of this fact, the conversations had by students during the Socratic seminar on the topic using a collection of fiction, non-fiction, and multimedia sources (planned with Susan Turley) were complex.  For the unit, we utilized the students-coaching students model where students received feedback from one another throughout the process.

Here were questions for the seminar (also listed in the Resources at the bottom of the post as a Word document:

  1. Is man inherently good or inherently evil?
  2. What is the definition of “good”? What is the definition of “evil”?
  3. What does it mean to be civilized?
  4. What does it mean to be savage?
  5. What role does religion play in the development of good and evil in society?
  6. What role does power play in the development of good and evil in society?
  7. Is morality something that the gods (or God) has made or is in intrinsic to the universe?
  8. Describe examples of evil from your personal experience, texts or other contexts. What contributed to the evil you perceived?
  9. Describe examples of good from your personal experience, texts or other contexts. What contributed to the good you perceived?
  10. Is the society in which we live inherently good or evil?
  11. How do individuals contribute to societal good?
  12. How do individuals contribute to societal evil?
  13. What social structures contribute to the good in individuals?
  14. What social structures contribute to evil in individuals?
  15. What factors (environmental or personal) lead to evil in the individual?
  16. What factors (environmental or personal) lead to good in the individual?

Students were to use Heart of Darkness, “Paradise Lost,” and Lord of the Flies, in addition to the following non-fiction sources:


What Do We Mean by ‘Evil’” from The New Yorker

  • This blog post summarizes the evolution of the word “evil”


The Marathon Bombings: Lessons on Fear, Good and Bad” from Psychology Today

  • An article about the positive and negative effects of fear
  • Discusses some ideas on how fear can be somewhat overcome in a society but will always exist


Bad to the Bone: Are Humans Naturally Aggressive” from Psychology Today

  • An article analyzing whether violence has a psychological and physiological basis or not


“The Real Meaning of Good and Evil” from Psychology Today

  • This post discusses the human characteristics we identify as good and evil and gives an example from history
  • It also discusses how these designations are fluid and should not be applied to individuals holistically


For all its Flaws, Religion Remains a Force of Good” from The Guardian

  • This article argues that religion, like all human enterprise, is flawed but ultimately a force of good for those who want to reflect on themselves and strive to be better individuals.


Capitalism is Evil; You have to Eliminate It” from The Guardian

  • This article documents an interview with Michael Moore about his documentary Capitalism: A Love Story
  • The article reveals some really interesting historical information, including a lost speech from Roosevelt that describes an alternative view of what the U.S. should look like


The Good, Bad, and Ugly of Capitalism” from The New York Times

  • This post describes the downfall of immoral capitalism and describes “new capitalism” as a more humane and aware enterprise


Civilization is Defined by the ‘Others’” from Science Daily

  • This press release describes the history of the term “civilization” and “civilized” and describes studies that determine the meaning of these words across cultures
  • There is some really interesting information about how Western values (and capitalism) have come to mean civilized and differences in some cultures (Scandinavia for example)




Religion, Evolution and the Ecstasy of Self Transcendence” a TEDTalk from Jonathan Haidt

  • This talk is a multifaceted look at the physiological and historical implications of religious practice and its effects on the individual and group dynamics of humans


Can Science Answer Moral Questions?” a TEDTalk from Sam Harris

  • This talk explains the connection between “values” and “facts”
  • It assumes there is a scientific basis for morality


Capitalism: A Love Story” clip from YouTube

  • This clip describes how Walmart takes out an insurance policy on low level employees (called “Dead Peasant” insurance) and profits from their deaths without giving any money to families. It is a piece of the documentary Captialism: A Love Story

Here are the resources:








Students Coaching Students Socratic Seminar: A Step-By-Step Process


I have been using a model for Socratic seminar over the last couple of months with great success.  In the model, a central fiction text (a novel or play) is supplemented with a number of non-fiction and multimedia resources.  In addition, students set goals before the seminar and are “coached” by peers in order to improve.  To streamline future posts about this process, here is a day in the implementation of a Socratic Seminar and a collection of resources to use in preparation.

For the seminar, I usually determine a central theme with teachers, and from that theme, we establish a central question and supplemental questions around that theme.  Independently, I gather resources to address the questions in different ways, seeking to find a variety of sources from which students can derive connections to the theme.  These sources have evolved to include non-fiction news articles and scientific texts, multimedia sources such as videos and TEDTalks, and, if I can find them, infographics and personal accounts dealing with the topic.  Some teachers have chosen to integrate some of these sources into whole class instruction and others have decided to give the students the list and let them choose a number of sources to use (usually telling them to choose one of each source type available); Most teachers have done a little of both.  Teachers have created a variety of resources to use for the purpose of note taking for preparation.  Here are some of those resources:

In addition, students are usually given the source list and essential questions well before the seminar and are given time to take notes over the questions specifically, writing down evidence that is relevant.

Introduction Resources:

Other Supplemental Resources:

Preparation for Students before seminar:

  • Annotate articles and other texts
  • Collect direct quotes and other textual evidence specific to at least five of the questions for the Socratic discussion
  • Write at least three original questions dealing with the texts and themes being discussed
  • Meet with partners the day before seminar to set goals for the process

Day of Seminar

Set Up:

  • Put students’ names who will be in the inner circle on a word document on the LCD projector and prompt students to see if they need to sit in the middle as they come in
  • Coaches need to be seated directly behind the person they are tracking

All other roles:

o   Big Board- At the front board (they can take un-formatted notes or have columns for questions, opinions, and points of agreement/disagreement)

o   Tally Keeper- Can be done on the LCD projector.  This person will just record each time a student participates

o   Quote/Transition tracker- Can sit anywhere outside of the circle. One person can easily do both roles. There are worksheets to use for this (see above- supplemental resources).

  • Before the seminar starts, find the person who the teacher wants to be the facilitator and ask them to choose a question to start the discussion. Also remind them that they need to call on everyone, choose the person who has yet to speak first, and let them know they can politely prompt those who have not shared but cannot force anyone to share.  You can also just have the facilitator be the one who asks the question.  In this way, with each new question, a new facilitator will take leadership.

Before the seminar starts, prompt students to do the following:

o   Inner Circle please make sure to have:

  • Essential questions for the seminar
  • Article annotations and notes
  • Socratic seminar norms and transitions sheet or nameplate
  • (Tell them to give their OWN rubric and goal sheet to their partner to keep track of their scores BEFORE they start)

o   Outer Circle you should have:

  • Partner’s rubric
  • The feedback sheet with PARTNER’S NAME AND GOALS on it

Once everyone has resources out and is ready to go, remind the inner circle of the following:

  • They must be called on by the facilitator to speak
  • Anyone may ask a question at any point, not just the facilitator
  • Students should build on others ideas as much as possible
  • They should also make connections by using text evidence and notes, in addition to using their own personal experience or other sources

Remind the outer circle:

  • Keep a running tally on the rubric of participation points by making a check mark in the appropriate place
  • Fill out their feedback notes
  • Don’t speak during the seminar

Begin the seminar and set the timer for fifteen minutes. The teacher is totally out of the conversation (even if there is a silence and it seems awkward, that is fine). Students will need to struggle at times to be successful in the long run, and students will get feedback during halftime as well.  The only time a teacher should interfere is if someone is being personally attacked or saying something inappropriate.  (I have never seen this happen, though.)


At fifteen minutes, stop the seminar and ask coaches to make sure they have filled out the top section of the feedback sheet for their partner (strength, area to improve, and one suggestion). This resource is linked above in “introductory resources).  As they are doing this, begin sharing out role information.

  • Teacher calls on each person filling one of the four additional roles

o   Prompts students to share findings

o   Prompts students to give positive feedback and suggestions

  • Students then get a couple of minutes (less than five) to meet with their partners and get feedback
  • Afterward, the teacher prompts all students to share out any positive feedback and suggestions

o   How do you all think it is going?

o   What is the group doing well?

o   How can they improve?

Personally, I think this feedback loop is one of the most effective and influential ways to give formative feedback that I have experienced.  I encourage teachers to not rush through this, but instead allow students to take ownership of their own improvement and see that as part of the process- because it is.  When students are reflecting on their own learning and performance, they are growing.

Second Half

Students begin the second half of the seminar exactly as the first. All roles are still filled and coaches continue to take notes and tally. The teacher can decide to use the last couple of minutes of class to get final feedback or let the seminar continue through the end of the period.

Remind students if they were not in the inner circle today, they will be tomorrow. Also, if there is not time for final feedback, it can be done the first couple of minutes of class the next day.


For participation, it seems to work best if teachers create columns for the different “positive participation” categories on the rubric to keep track of participation.  It is too hard to have students totally reliable for tracking.  Also, I would suggest checking preparation separately from the other elements because teachers have found the rubric to be somewhat overwhelming.  If there is an area of the process I would like to improve, assessment would be it.

Evaluating Claims, Reasoning and Evidence: A Lesson about Solitary Confinement

They call it “living death,”  the “gray box” or ‘living in the black hole’…

-“The Living Death of Solitary Confinement,” The New York Times

Renee Jackson wanted to teach a lesson to help students when selecting and preparing evidence for a debate.  We began by building upon this lesson from PBS using the documentary Herman’s House about Herman Wallace, the man who lived in solitary confinement for forty years, which is longer than any person in the United States to date.

The first two days of the three-day lesson focused on the following learning targets:

  • I can identify and evaluate the claims, evidence, reasoning, and emotional appeal in articles about solitary confinement.
  • I can analyze how these factors contribute (or add to) the reliability and persuasiveness of texts.

These learning targets were explained and linked to the larger goals of the lesson (to prepare students to gather research, use evidence, and refute claims in their own debates), which would come later.

We began the lesson by reading the eighth amendment from the bill of rights which reads:

“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

We discussed what “cruel and unusual” punishment might include, and then had students consider whether solitary confinement would be considered to fall into this category.  In order to explore their thinking on this issue, students plotted their initial impression on a reflection sheet (see below).  Five represented the strongest feeling and one represented the weakest.

Reader Reaction Chart

We asked students to mark a starting position and label it as “Point 1.”  Then, on the chart, they had to give one reason for their position.  (They did not yet have evidence.)  Afterward, we used their initial thoughts as a starting point for a class discussion on the topic.

The first source students examined was this clip from the documentary Herman’s House.  We told students to chart a “Point 2” on their graph and (whether the clip had changed their perspective or not) and then give one reason and one piece of evidence they felt supported their new position.  We shared out these shifts, focusing on the evidence and how it could be used to build an argument for one side or the other.

Before we moved forward, students were given definitions for the following vocabulary terms via Power Point:

  • Argument/Claim
  • Reasons
  • Evidence
  • Emotional Appeal

Students were then given a graphic organizer where they had to find the claim, reasons, evidence and emotional appeals in an article about solitary confinement.  We had students look at two articles, one on the first day and one on the second day of the lesson.  Here are links to the articles.  (There are additional links for multimedia sources and articles on this topic at the end of the post.)

The New York Times post was full of emotional appeal, so we had students look at the article first and then fill out one side of the graphic organizer noting the claim, two reasons, one piece of evidence for each reason, and any emotional appeals from the article. We also had students mark a “Point 3” on their reflection sheet to see if their position on the issue changed and give a reason and piece of evidence to support.

Afterward, students discussed the following in small groups and wrote their evidence on a dry erase board:

  • Is this source reliable?  Why or why not?  Give one piece of evidence to support your position.

The conversation produced the following perspectives:

  • The source was not reliable because it only addressed one side of the argument (biased)
  • The source was reliable because it was based upon research, cited sources and came from a reputable organization (The New York Times)

On the second day, students were asked to read the article “Solitary Confinement: Punishment or Cruelty” from NPR and identify the claim, reasons, evidence and emotional appeals on the graphic organizer and plot their change (with reasons and evidence) on the reflection chart.  As with the first article, they then got in groups and assessed the credibility of the source.  Most classes were able to identify the source as less biased because it interviewed the wardens as well as the individuals in solitary confinement.  In this way, they felt it was a more reliable source.

We ended this portion of the lesson by having students review their reasons and evidence on the reflection sheet and answer the following questions in writing:

  • What specific evidence was most convincing to you personally?
  • Label what type of evidence you think this is (personal experience, fact, statistic, or example)

After students answered the question, we discussed responses and asked them why this was important information to know as they prepared for their own debates.  Although they struggled to make the connection, the discussion eventually revealed to them that the information he or she found most convincing would also have a better chance of convincing others, and that this is something to keep in mind when they begin their own debates.

We continued this lesson with mini-debates, which I will outline in a later post.

Here are resources for this lesson: