“Why aren’t our countries allies?” Great question from one of my eighth-grade English language learners (ELLs) back in 2010. As a teacher in an American school in Syria, I was well aware of why the United States and Syria weren’t on friendly terms, but as an American working hard to change the status quo, I had no intention of answering the question.
So I put it back on my students: “Why don’t you research that on the internet tonight and tell what you find out tomorrow.” I figured that by the next day, they would have forgotten all about it.
Far from forgetting about it, they came to class with copious notes, eagerly talked about how much Americans and Syrians had in common, and listed the benefits of being allies for both countries’ governments. I was impressed by my students’ knowledge and passion.
I used to shy away from having political conversations in class, but once I saw firsthand how they can support literacy, critical thinking skills, and students’ understanding of civics, I figured out ways to assign political essays in a way that was scrupulous, engaging, and even exciting.
Choose an Engaging Topic
Since my middle school ELL classes usually start with conversation time, I begin by choosing a topic in the news that has already caught their attention. For my regular classes, I choose a topic that the students have some interest in but have not formed strong opinions about, such as teacher pay raises, SAT scores for college admissions, or local recycling efforts.
Sometimes topics that aren’t current work well because they’re still rooted in critical thinking. For example, I’ve had British students argue for and against the American Revolution, which prompts them to debate points like the sacrifices that the British made during the French and Indian War versus the unfairness of taxation without representation, and the protection of Native Americans versus the desire for land. That exercise helps them understand the importance of examining all sides of current world conflicts.
I refrain from sharing too much information about topics because I don’t want my students to detect my opinions. Rather, I have them research and write down information they find themselves, either independently or in teams. I also emphasize the importance of gathering facts rather than opinions.
Discussion and Reasoning
During class discussion, I ask questions and encourage the students to form their own opinions without revealing my own. I tell them that they may change their opinion as the project progresses and that undecided counts as an opinion.
From there, students take three sheets of paper and write one reason for their opinion on each sheet, together with facts to support it. Then comes the fun part: I divide the class into groups of two or three to argue their point. I explain to them that even though they may personally agree with a classmate presenting an opposing view, they must try as hard as they can to demolish their reasoning—that’s what they’ll be graded on.
I model the process for them. My eager-to-please Syrian students were all in favor of Syria and the U.S. being allies, so they were shocked when I said the opposite. So they agreed with me... and then I disagreed with them. Once they realized what was happening, they relished arguing with their teacher and with each other.
Politics and history are not about parties, platforms, or theories, I tell my students; they’re about people. I also use the word argue along with the word debate because I want my students to understand that, since voting means making decisions about people’s lives, we should be passionate about politics and willing to listen. After all, if the founders of the United States did not believe passionately in “We the people,” the country would not exist.
When students argue their points, they can see the strengths and weaknesses in their reasoning, and they come to appreciate how emotions play a role in politics. They quickly discover that when their opponent can no longer find fault with their logic, the opponent will pivot to insults—and they’ll see that pivot objectively since they’re role-playing. It also helps them to see how empathy can be an effective tool in persuading others, which helps put a human face on political discussions.
I ask students to take notes on their discussions as they go, so they can discard reasoning that doesn’t hold up. If none of their reasons hold up, I tell them, they should rethink their position and feel free to switch sides.
This step also helps my students form a rebuttal. I have them take a fourth piece of paper and write the best argument against their opinion that they have heard—and then prove it wrong.
Creating a Rough Draft
I then tell them to use their notes as a rough draft for the body of their essay and to write an introduction that will draw readers in and a conclusion that readers will remember. Students work together in groups of two or three again to try out their ideas on each other. They write their ideas on two additional pieces of paper—one for their introduction and one for their conclusion.
Next, they assemble the pieces of their essay: They trim the excess paper from their six sheets (introduction, conclusion, three separate arguments with their supports, and a rebuttal) and arrange them in the order they think makes sense. I encourage them to experiment with the progression of their arguments, and with using their conclusion as an introduction and vice versa. They read each other's work and comment on the order of paragraphs in their classmates’ essays, ask questions, and suggest additional support for arguments. Once their paragraphs are in what they think is the best order, each student tapes them together to form a rough draft.
Before they type the final draft, we cover how using a thesaurus can help strengthen their language. Students work in small groups to find and highlight words or phrases in their rough drafts that might be weak or overused; then they use the thesaurus to experiment with different words that their imaginary audience will find engaging.
Good writing, I tell my students, doesn’t happen in a vacuum; input from anyone, including another student, can strengthen a draft. This is especially true for political essays and speeches, in which multiple writers often collaborate.
At the close of their political essay assignment, my Syrian students had more confidence in reading and writing in English, but they also had a newfound respect for the work of elected officials. Most important, they decided that our two nations should not only live together in peace but also work together to bring peace to a world that needs it—and that one day, they would achieve that dream.