Teaching how to write better argumentative essays in AP Government

Besides teaching AP Government, I also teach 8th grade. In one of my classes, I have 31 students and the other has 10. Every time we do class discussions, I have to really figure out how to vary the instruction to allow all students to talk and learn. This also allows me to try new techniques!

I’ve also been reviewing the year and my AP Government students just could not fully grasps really using evidence and reasoning. I loved this with my 8th graders and will incorporate it with AP next year, especially after reflecting on my practice as my students are currently sitting in their test.

The set up: We just finished our economics unit and I needed a transition to our final exam, which is a Moot Court on a current case (the students haven’t yet decided which one and yes, I do Moot Court with my 8th graders) Our DBQ is from Voices of History from the Bill of Rights Institute (requires a log in but is free and an amazing resource, including eight of the required cases). We chose to do Kelo v. New London. Let me tell you something, it’s a beast! It also lends PERFECTLY into an argumentation essay.

Day 1: read and annotate the background essay and have a small class discussion to ensure understanding

Days 2-3 (depending on time and length of documents) I split the handouts into sections for groups of 4-5 (depending on class size). In those groups, the students become ‘experts’ in those documents. They answer the questions and think about how to use that evidence to answer the question provided, in this case “Evaluate the Court’s ruling in Kelo v. New London”

Day 4- Four minute Socratic seminars:

  • Students within their groups will have a Socratic discussion regarding their assigned documents and the overall prompt. There are leading questions within the DBQ.
  • I give 4 minutes for the discussion within the group. The rest of the students are taking notes. In my classroom, I have 6 groups, but this can be adjusted for any number of students.
    • For my class of 10, I will have each of them become an expert on a set of documents and talk us through them as I record the evidence on the board.
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I took notes during their Socratic seminars

It’s very simple and can be adjusted to accommodate any classroom. I was able to sit with some groups and help them with some of the meatier pieces. After this round of Socratic discussions, students should be well equipped to write an argumentative essay. My kids killed it because we read AND discussed before they wrote.

If you are doing this with your first DBQ, it’s a great time to introduce the argumentative essay rubric and discuss what is expected of them. At this point, students will write their argumentative essays. (Oh, and the famous Brutus 1) After the first one, you can lessen the time in class needed as the process has been established. For me, the Socratic discussion is the most important part to do in class.

Here’s the clincher- Students either get all the points OR a Z. I learned about this from a college professor. Earning a Z means you aren’t quite done yet. You have the rubric and have seen what you’ve earned, but you also see what you haven’t earned and you have an opportunity to go back and adjust your writing to earn those point. The purpose for this is to get them to a point where they know they have an opportunity for feedback and revision. The end goal is to ensure they know how to write an argumentative essay and how to understand the rubric to get all of the points. Depending on your schedule, you can give up to two weeks (or for me, the end of the unit) to submit their revisions. I realize this will be a lot of front loading, so I may do it as groups to start with. Luckily, I start school in July so I will be able to test it out before many of you are in school.

This strategy is something I wish I would have started at the beginning of the year to really drive home HOW to use evidence and reasoning in argumentative essays. I plan to use the some following DBQ’s to help establish how to write an argumentative essay, as well as using foundational documents (*) and others to help develop solid evidence and reasoning matched with how to write an argumentative thesis. {Argumentative Writing for AP Gov- Thesis Statements}

  • (Unit 1) McCulloch v. Maryland—–> I will do this one first with Federalism!
    • Brutus I*
  • (Unit 2) Marbury v. Madison
    • Federalist 78*
    • Article 3*
  • US v. Nixon (not required but a good place to review the documents)
    • Federalist 51*
    • Federalist 70*
  • (Unit 3) Tinker v. Des Moines
    • 1st amendment in schools*
  • Schenck v. US
    • 1st amendment in wartime*
  • Gideon v. Wainwright
    • 6th *
    • 14th (due process)*
  • Roe v. Wade
    • 14th (due process)*
  • Brown v. Board of Education
    • 14th (equal protection)*
  • (Unit 5) Citizens United*
    • Federalist 10
    • 1st Amendment

The great thing is that they have a more extensive list on Voices of History that can be used for APUSH, on level, and AP Government!

About Elizabeth Schley, NBCT

AP Government and Politics teacher making the world better one person at a time while working through the 2018 redesign.

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