Structured Academic Controversy – Lewis and Clark Edition!  

Today’s post is written by Cheney, Kansas middle and high social studies teacher Jill Weber. Jill is the 2016 Gilder Lehrman Kansas History Teacher of the Year.


Sometimes it all goes right. Thursday morning I didn’t think the day was going to turn out. It was just one of those rough mornings. Bad news and frustrations everywhere I looked. Before class started, I thought

Man, I’m gonna really have to fake-it-to-make-it today.

But then class started, and we got rolling with our topic and activity. By the end of my first block I knew I wasn’t gonna have to “fake it.” Today was AWESOME!

And it was made possible by the Structured Academic Controversy (SAC) activity I found using Stanford History Education Group. If you aren’t using SHEG in your classes . . . get on it! Seriously one of the best resources out there for incorporating and teaching with primary sources.

The SAC provides a controversial questions, documents for research, and the procedure for students to participate in small group debates. Students learn how to argue with evidence! And middle school students LOVE to argue!

The entire activity took two full class periods (we are on a block schedule, so two 75 min. classes) Here’s how it went down . . . Want the SHEG lesson? Click HERE

Day 1: 
Introduce the activity by telling your kids . . .

Today I am going to teach you how to WIN an argument. Whether you’re arguing with your parents, teachers, girlfriend/boyfriend, this is how you WIN.

The KIDS LOVE that intro, cause they all can relate to arguing with someone and they ALL want to WIN that argument. You see . . . you will NEVER win an argument if you don’t have evidence to back up your claim. Today is about learning to back up what you say with evidence!

I now share the controversial question with students and their teams. Today they will be doing research in groups of four. Our question comes from the SHEG activity:

Were Lewis and Clark respectful to the Native Americans they met on their journey?

Students know that they will eventually be debating over this topic but they don’t yet know which side they will be arguing. This time is just purely spent analyzing the documents and trying to understand what they are saying.

The next step is locating specific evidence for both sides of the argument – think of an upside down triangle. They started with a BUNCH of information in five different primary source documents and we’re trying to narrow the focus a bit. Students identify three direct quotes from the document that would support “YES, Lewis and Clark were respectful to the Native Americans” and three direct quotes that support “NO, they weren’t respectful.”

Day 2: 
Within their groups of four, students are paired up two and two. I tell one pair that they will be arguing “YES, Lewis and Clark were respectful,” and the others that they are arguing “NO.” The team of four now separates in order to prepare for their argument.

This next step is very important because it teaches students how to search not just for evidence that will back up their own claim, it also forces them to learn about BOTH sides. You see, not only are they preparing points of emphasis and evidence for their own argument but they are also looking at what points the OTHER SIDE is going to make and how they can argue against that. The goal is to reach a consensus about the evidence, not necessarily to “win.”

After about 20 minutes of prep time, I bring the team of four back together. I go over the rules of the debate. Team “Yes” gets to start by bringing up their reasons and providing evidence from the documents. Then team “No” has a chance to give their points of view. At this time, no rebuttal can be made. After each presentation, the two students from the “other” side must repeat back and summarize what they heard from the presenting group.

Once each side has had a chance to explain their reasoning and to summarize the evidence, the groups can begin to debate specific issues mentioned. This is where you start to see the volume increase!

Again . . . using evidence and reaching consensus about what the evidence says is the goal to a good SAC activity. And be sure to let students know that it’s okay to change sides – when we get new evidence, it should also be evaluated and applied to the guiding question.

(This activity is doing double duty as a civic literacy tool – coming to agreement, solving problems, and adjusting worldview based on evidence are skills that are crucial to creating engaged, informed, and knowledge citizens!)

Assessment: 
After debating for 10-15 minutes it’s time to assess. Students are asked to construct a written response on their own PERSONAL opinion over the topic – this is where you will see the “switching of sides.” They must use evidence from the documents provided in their writing. I usually ask for five sentences, but with this activity they always write more. The debate caused them to have a personal opinion on the issue and they tend to have LOTS to say about it.

Big Goals:

Okay . . . this activity is AWESOME on its own. Give it a try (you can do this same structure with ANY topic that is argumentative.) It’s great!  However, I have plans for this in the future. No matter how good any lesson turns out to be, there’s always room to improve and make it better. In the future . . .

I want to turn this into a court case. I want the Native Americans to sue Lewis and Clark. Think about the possibilities:

  • I get to be a judge. Getting to announce myself as “the Honorable Mrs. Weber” is probably half the reason for wanting to do this 🙂
  • Various parts for students to play: Prosecuting/Defending lawyers and their associate layers, characters called to testify (Sacajawea, Charbenneau, York, Lewis, Clark, Thomas Jefferson, Native American Chiefs . . . think of the research those students “playing the part” will need to do to accurately portray these people.) And of course the jury.
  • The opportunity to bring in some guest speakers (lawyers) to talk about court procedures and terminology.
  • The learning that can take place, more than just content . . . career oriented!
  • Did I mention I get to be a judge and use a gavel? 🙂
  • And if I’m gonna dream REALLY BIG, it would be awesome to bus my kids to the county court house and have court in the real court! 🙂

Be sure to get all the handouts and resources at the Stanford History Education Group site. (There are six other SHEG activities that use the Structured Academic Controversy strategy – be sure to explore those a bit.)

About glennw

I work as a social studies specialist at ESSDACK, an educational service center in Hutchinson, Kansas. Before coming to ESSDACK, I taught middle school US History and higher ed social science classes.

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