NYT Student Contest – Course 5 Final Project

One of the main learning targets in grade 10 English for Academic Purposes (EAP 10) is to develop English language learners’ argumentation skills. Throughout the year, they differentiated between fact and opinion and practiced justifying their ideas by adding supporting statements. When reading, they learned the skill of synthesizing or extracting accurate information without including their own interpretation. When evaluating content, students developed an understanding of whether an author’s point-of-view is biased or balanced based on how information is presented. In other words, they observed if an author used ethos, pathos, or logos to convince readers or viewers.

The standards and assessments for this unit can be found in this UbD planner:

For the final task, students had to take a stance on a major issue of contention. Since the legalization of marijuana in parts of the U.S. and in Uruguay recently made headlines, it presented a timely topic for the unit. Supporters or opponents of the move have polarized views that were ripe to be evaluated and analyzed. In the process, students have to apply the different language and critical thinking skills mentioned above.

To introduce the topic in class, it was helpful to trigger students’ prior knowledge. By creating a mind map on the board, keywords of what students knew about marijuana were written around it.

mary jane small

With the internet flooded with opposing views, and more often than not strong biased views on marijuana, I chose research materials from traditionally considered credible news sites such as BBC, CNN, ABC, The New York Times among others. (I justify my decision on a previous comment. )

A Google Doc was shared with students with links to videos and guiding questions. Students made a copy and shared them with me. The purpose of the document was to collect information for their research materials to be used later.

Starting off research, news materials often talked about the ‘effects of marijuana on the brain’ as assumed knowledge so it was important for students to understand the scientific angle particularly on how THC affects the brain. As a language class it was important to look for content that would be accessible for students with different levels. Videos from ASAP Science and Scishow used ‘more friendly’ academic language while explaining the effects of THC on the brain. Chosen videos were all available on Youtube. Some had transcripts available which helped students understand content better.

As part of our visual interpretation task, students viewed parts of video documentaries considering viewpoints of ordinary citizens versus official policy makers. They also looked at what the different underlying motivation for the move to legalize marijuana whether economic, medical, or recreational. For our reading comprehension task, students read this CNN article and answered true or false questions which had to be accompanied by evidence from the text to support their view.

Interestingly, when students were asked to take notes on how THC affects the brain, they simply zeroed-in on visual information that confirmed their preconceptions. In other words, they focused on pictures or written text on the screen that supported what they thought about marijuana and ignored spoken text or what they heard. In effect, they chose words like ‘euphoria’ and ‘relaxed’ but completely ignored the explanation of how THC affects the brain. I shared my observation to the class and talked about ‘selective perception’. After becoming aware of this phenomenon, students were better able to deliver and focus on exactly what the task required. They understood that they must pay attention to the whole process shown in the video and focus not only on visuals but also listening carefully and remembering the spoken words.

Students were able to analyze if a reporter used ethos, pathos, or logos in their reports and whether the arguments were one-sided (biased) or showed both sides of the argument (balanced). I have written a separate blog post talking about my concern that the students might be leaning towards one side only and start glorifying drugs. However, as proven by a Making Thinking Visible exercise called Tug of War, the sticky notes showed that students had a balanced understanding of the arguments for and against the legalization of marijuana. Our counselor was invited as well to discuss with the students regarding the facts they have gathered and written on their stickies. This way, the counselor and I could get a clearer picture of what students were thinking.

Tug of War- a Making Thinking Visible strategy to show two sides of an argument

Tug of War- a Making Thinking Visible strategy to show two sides of an argument

Adam, our school counselor, joined the class discussion to gauge if students were inclined to one side

Adam, our school counselor, joined the class discussion to gauge if students were inclined to one side

At this point, COETAIL’s push for redefinition was lurking at the back of my mind. The final assessment task for this unit was originally a class debate. For a while I felt stumped because this would not meet redefinition. As I looked for inspiration, I visited the New York Times Room for Debate site. By chance I saw an announcement about a student contest to ‘write an editorial on an issue that matters to you’ on the Learning Network.

A video from editor Andrew Rosenthal was included on the site. He gave tips on how to approach writing editorials. Viewing this reinforced the message I have given students in class. The rules were stipulated in the video including one New York Times source and one non-New York Times source, the word limit, and how to submit work. The deadline for submission was on the 17th of March, which gave our class ample time to do research, collect information, and go through a cycle of the writing process.

It was straightforward to introduce the project to the class. I simply stated that they will be joining the New York Times student contest. Since the group is made up of multi-level students from low intermediate to upper intermediate bordering on advanced, their reactions were naturally mixed. The low intermediate students balked at the idea and flatly refused to join. The others were excited and wanted to know more. In fact, one of them even wanted to know what the prize would be if they win (!).

I think that students were more motivated when a task had a real audience. Getting involved in a contest run by a renowned entity like The New York Times gave them more meaning in writing their views especially since the writing workshop needed extended time and therefore a sustained interest.

In the end, only the more advanced students were keen to work until the end. The lower intermediate students lost steam. In fact, they kept getting off task using their laptops while writing their drafts (going on Facebook, texting other students, etc…) that I decided it was best to go old school and hand them a piece of blank paper. Interestingly, they focused more using paper and could write in one sitting.

The advanced group was able to finish and upload their editorials on the site. Here are some samples:

Go to link and find ‘Dooho’

Go to link and find ‘Zach’

Go to link and find ‘Nils’

Go to link and find ‘Roshni’

Considering the whole process, I believe students had a better appreciation of the process. We used tools like Youtube videos with some transcripts, Google docs for collaboration in research and writing as well as giving feedback, using the NYT site to upload the editorials, and Voicethread to reflect on their learning process. In particular, joining the NYT Student Contest online helped me achieve redefinition, that is, ‘technology allowed me to create a new task previously inconceivable’. I would not have been able to join the contest, or even discover its existence, without the use of technology! Entering this contest was hopefully a positive experience for students — allowing them to do something meaningful reaching out to people outside our classroom. As they make more progress in the coming years, they can re-visit their comment again and compare how they were at this point in time to what they become!

The questions asked in the Voicethread activity helped guide students to reflect on their learning. Students have shown evidence of thinking and learning about the process from their answers to the questions. These include:
What are challenges you faced when using scientific or technical videos for research?
Which type of argument swayed you the most? The ones that used ethos, pathos, or logos? Explain and give an example.
Which were easier to understand–the videos or the written articles? Why?
Which had more compelling evidence–the videos or the news articles? Why?
Most of you changed your opinion after considering information you never considered before. Is this a sign weakness? Explain.

I have included the information on joining the NYT student contest on the EAL blog. I have also solicited help from colleagues in the process of debating the legalization of marijuana thereby informing them of the project. But the major way to share this with colleagues is to present the project as part of my COETAIL course 5 final project.

One thought on “NYT Student Contest – Course 5 Final Project

  1. So many different elements here working together – each aspect of this task is totally appropriate to the need and they all build on each other. Well done Mariko!

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