To most of our middle level students, college and careers seem light-years away. But we old codgers (meaning anyone not in their teens) sense with much trepidation how close our students are to their graduation. “Six years ain’t nothin’, kid,” we say in our gravelly, ancient voices.
So here’s the question: How do we promote young adolescents’ readiness for postsecondary challenges while they’re in middle school? Clearly, there must be more to it than trying to scare our students into preparing for [insert foreboding music here] the real world.
Several strategies can both engage kids and lay the groundwork for lives that launch. The strategies are organized according to a non-freaked-out approach (see my blog, TeachingtheCore.com).
1. Go Big on Argument
According to the Common Core’s Appendix A, argument has a “special place” in the standards because of its “unique importance in college and careers.” Our students don’t come to us with this understanding, however. In fact, most teachers still visualize anger and yelling when they hear the word argument.
Yet, argument is simply getting to the bottom of a debatable question using two primary tools: evidence and reasoning. As a result, argumentation is something upon which I aim to build my classroom culture. I want my ELA and history classes to be places where we formulate ideas, test them against other ideas, and constantly hone our thinking around them.
Why? Because I want my students to be heard when they enter the worlds of work or academia. I want them to have the 21st-century superpower of clear, rational thought. Argument is the key to those goals, and here’s what’s crazy: it’s also pretty darn fun.
To get started, give yourself and your students lots of practice with the following two strategies.
First, form the day’s lesson around a debatable question. For example, rather than setting an objective that states “The students will demonstrate an understanding of the differences between Mayan and Aztec cultures,” ask, “Which civilization would have been better to live in, the Mayan or the Aztec?”
The lesson can still look much the same as you would have taught it with the prior objective, except that now the exit ticket for the lesson can require students to answer the debatable question. The only way they can do this is by making a debatable claim and supporting it with evidence and reasoning. They’ll argue every day if you try this—and if your students are like mine, they will learn to love it.
Second, bring the power of argument into the classroom through simple, robust pop-up debates. The pop-up debate strategy is simple:
- Every student speaks at least once, at most times (the maximum depends on your time constraints and the breadth of the debatable question you’ve posed).
- To speak, students simply stand (“pop”) up and talk. The first person to speak has the floor. When more than one student does this simultaneously, I coach them on how to practice self-control and social intelligence, yielding the floor politely.
- In every debate, teach and assess one or two speaking skills. Sentence templates are an ideal scaffold for this.
Pop-up debate has become a favorite class activity in my room over the past few years, but keep in mind that it takes some skill to use the strategy well. You’re probably doing it right when kids start begging you for a debate.
2. Read Purposefully and Often
The Common Core has popularized the fact that there’s a daunting gap between the text demands of K–12 schooling and those of adult settings. We can pull our hair about this gap or work toward bridging it by simply 1) increasing the number of complex texts our students actually read and 2) excelling at simple, authentic literacy instruction that supports content-area knowledge.
To increase text quantity, count how many texts (or pages from longer texts) your students currently read each unit. Next, aim to increase that number.
One simple, powerful method for doing this is through Kelly Gallagher’s article of the week strategy, which he explains in the book Readicide.
On Monday, students receive instruction on reading and responding to an engaging, real-world article. On Friday, students turn in an annotated article and a one-page written response to the article. When time permits, students can engage in a pop-up debate or discussion around a provocative question that the text brings up.
This is a stellar, high-energy, end-of-the-week activity that doubles as an incentive for students to apply themselves when reading and responding.
3. Write Purposefully and Often
When it comes to reading, writing, and speaking, I suggest getting kids to do these things purposefully and often. But, when it comes to writing, that “often” part is problematic—ain’t nobody got time to read thousands of pages of student writing per week.
Yet, as many greater minds have argued, we cannot allow our inability to keep up with the paper load to keep us from having students write as much as they need to write if they’re to be college and career ready. As a result, I recommend that you think of writing in the three modes advocated by Harvey Silver, Thomas Dewing, and Matthew Perini in their book The Core Six: Essential Strategies for Achieving Excellence with the Common Core. The modes are: provisional, readable, and polished writing.
Provisional writing is the quick-write variety, ideal for warm-ups and exit tickets. Let’s have our kids do this type of writing daily and let’s read what they write quickly, for the formative data they have to offer. Readable writing is how we teach them to organize their thinking logically. I aim for at least one readable writing assignment each week. These often are one-paragraph compositions in response to one of the week’s debatable questions. I usually read these for formative data and occasionally go through an entire set to inform grading.
Finally, polished writing takes students through the writing process; it gets planned, drafted, read, revised, polished, and edited. This kind of writing, if it happens once a month across the content areas, is excellent practice for the high-stakes writing in the college and career worlds.
4. Speak Purposefully and Often
Simple strategies like pop-up debate or think-pair-share are perfect for providing students the quantity of speaking and listening opportunities they’ll need if they’re to become college and career ready, but those strategies by themselves don’t do the work of teaching students how to speak well.
For emphasizing speech-delivery skills, I’m in love with a strategy Erik Palmer explains in his book Well Spoken. It’s called PVLEGS.
- Poise: Appear calm and confident; avoid distracting tics and behaviors.
- Voice: Make sure every word is heard; avoid trailing off in your volume or mumbling.
- Life: Infuse passion into your voice; show us that you feel what you’re saying.
- Eye contact: Visually connect with everyone you’re talking to.
- Gestures: Use not just words, but also your hands, body, and face to communicate.
- Speed: Speak at an intentional rate of speed; use pauses for effect.
After explicitly teaching and modeling these elements for students, lead them in setting PVLEGS goals for themselves before speaking tasks. Afterward, have them reflect on whether they met or exceeded their goal for the element of PVLEGS that they chose.
5. Grow Character
Thinking argumentatively, reading, writing, and speaking are fundamental skills for flourishing in the 21st century, but they are not all it takes to succeed. There is no way to approach college and career readiness without teaching students non-cognitive skills, or character strengths, as they are more popularly known.
Whether teaching kids to develop a growth mindset, or to cultivate grit, or to strengthen their self-control, the key with young adolescents is to be explicit about what exactly these things are and, even more important, what they look like. So before telling a student he is experiencing a grit moment right now (for example when he wants to quit on an assignment), use a mini-lesson to lead students in reflecting on specific behaviors associated with grit (for example, finishing what you start), allowing them to self-assess and set goals for growth. For great, simplified, explicit information on the character strengths most predictive of college and career success, visit CharacterLab.org.
Aim for Small Wins
College and career readiness is a daunting goal, especially when graduation still seems like forever away for our young adolescent students. However, by teaching our students to become increasingly adept at these key skills, we’ll gradually increase the likelihood that when they receive that ever-so-distant diploma, it will truly mark the start of a flourishing adult life.
Dave Stuart, Jr. is a full-time history and English teacher who also runs TeachingtheCore.com. He is the author of A Non-Freaked Out Guide to Teaching the Common Core: Using the 32 Literacy Anchor Standards to Develop College- and Career-Ready Students, published by Jossey-Bass. firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in AMLE Magazine, March 2015.