the educational technology journal

Vol 22|No 6|Summer 2013
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Previous articles about lesson-building:



Great Digital Lessons

By Jamie McKenzie, ©2013, all rights reserved.
About author

How can teachers best create exciting lessons that use new technologies and digital resources to engage students in the critical thinking, inference and analysis required by the Common Core Standards (CCS)?

For more than a decade I have been helping teachers to develop lessons that were challenging and intriguing — lessons that met the demands of the CCS before they existed. They combine great resources with questions of import.

As examples and sample test items emerge from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, it pays for teachers to take the time to go online and note the characteristics of these items so they will build lessons that help students to master the thinking operations required.

The Smarter Balanced Practice Test is available at http://sbac.portal.airast.org/Practice_Test/default.html

Characteristics of the items

When teachers review the language arts sample items, the following characteristics will become evident:

  • Students will be expected to read and understand multiple nonfiction text sources or listen to audio sources.
  • They must answer questions that require inference and synthesis, in each case citing the text and evidence to be found in the sources.
  • They will write an argumentative essay or an opinion article that builds a case using information pulled from the text sources.

When preparing students for success on these kinds of performance tasks, the teacher imitates the testing experience during regular classroom activities. They saturate the year with nonfiction reading tasks along with the writing of argumentative essays and opinion articles.

Looking for Controversy

In building great digital lessons, the sample items suggest the importance of finding issues that are controversial and might inspire a reasonable difference of opinion. The sources in these items usually present a mix of arguments and evidence that could support at least two different positions. In fact, they tend to push students into being for or against something like public art or a law governing the access of service animals to restaurants. They must pick and then defend one side or another. There is little room for indecision or positions somewhere in the middle. Students might be in favor of public art in the abstract, for example, but worry about their town putting a sculpture in a particular spot. Perhaps they think the local budget cuts for basic services would argue against spending money on art, but they are not allowed to speculate on such things or take such a measured approach. They must stick to the choices, the evidence and the arguments presented in the sources. They should not improvise or be clever. This is kind of sad, but success on tests has always suffered somewhat from this reality. Close reading of the text is a basic element of the CSS.

Fortunately, controversial issues are readily available through Web sources such as Google News or Yahoo News. The trick is to find a mix of articles that present several sides to the issue. On the day this was written, the Yankee, Alex Rodriguez, was in the news because he had been caught using performance enhancing drugs. Everyone is speculating about the penalties likely to be imposed. A Yahoo article reports, "Rodriguez is among 14 players facing discipline in MLB's Biogenesis drug investigation, and suspensions are expected on Monday." But it also contains comments from Rodriguez questioning the fairness of looming suspensions. At first glance this seems promising. The question might be whether the MLB should be harsh or lenient.

The question facing the teacher is whether there are four articles or a combination of articles that will provide enough balance. Turning to Google News, the teacher may find more than twenty articles

ESPN offers a promising 3 minute 20 second video. A-Rod, MLB far apart. Should he get a lifetime suspension? Like the Yahoo article, it offers a mix of evidence and opinions.

Yahoo Sports offers an editorial that is harshly critical of both A-Rod and MLB, arguing for a settlement somewhere in the middle. A-Rod wants cash over playing time! But here we have an example of balance that is somewhat in conflict with the sample items. Is it ok for students to pick three different levels of punishment? Harsh? Moderate? Mild?

The teacher must keep looking, but must ponder the troubling issue of simplicity versus truth. Most real issues in life are complicated, so it is simplistic to force students into taking sides. Life is rarely black and white, but success on the tests may require simple thinking. How can the teacher nurture a respect for complexity while helping students understand the testing game they must play?

Compiling the Lesson

Once the teacher is happy with the resources to support the lesson about Alex Rodriguez (or some other issue), it is time to write the 4-5 questions the students must answer as well as the directions to accompany the argumentative essay. One more resource is added so that there are four.

Source 1 - MLB done talking with Alex Rodriguez, who faces 214-game ban on Monday after latest outburst
Source 2 - A-Rod homers with drug penalties likely Monday
Source 3 (video) - Sources: A-Rod, MLB far apart
Source 4 - A-Rod wants cash over playing time!

The sample items usually pose four questions before asking for the argumentative essay. For the three Rodriguez articles and one video, the following questions would match the style of the sample items:

Part One - The Questions

1. Which of the four sources provides the strongest arguments for a harsh penalty? Identify the source and list the arguments in the box below.



2. Which source does the best job of listing the evidence against Rodriguez? Recreate the list in the box below.



3. Which of the four sources provides the strongest arguments for a lenient penalty? Identify the source and list the arguments in the box below.



4. Using information from two different sources, list arguments in the box below for a penalty that is neither harsh nor lenient.



Part Two - The Essay

You will now look over your sources and consider what you will recommend as punishment for Alex Rodriguez to the MLB. Once you have decided your position, start to organize the information so you can write a letter of several paragraphs to the MLB. Make sure that you support your position, but also make certain that you mention why you did not select one of the other options.

Argumentative Scoring

Your letter will be scored using the following:

1. Statement of claim and organization

2. Elaboration/evidence

3. Conventions

Full descriptions of the above criteria can be found at The Smarter Balanced Practice Test

Now begin work on your argumentative letter.






Generating Additional Lessons

The above example used a current event as the basis for a lesson, but it is also possible to generate lessons in the same format around long-standing issues like those below.

"If you were making recommendations to a local, state or federal government agency to address one of the following problems, what would be the five most important actions steps you would urge? Base your suggestions on the 4 sources you have read."

acid rain global warming urban decay
violent crime drunken driving smog
traffic congestion water pollution declining fish harvests
endangered species unemployment government corruption
health care costs AIDS teen pregnancy
racial conflict gangs illegal immigration
hunger homelessness voter apathy

In addition, there are many Web sites devoted to problems-based learning that will be useful to teachers wanting to identify issues that are age appropriate.

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