By guest blogger Amy Howland, Academy of the Pacific Rim teacher and Choices Teaching Fellow

I work at the Academy of the Pacific Rim Charter School in Hyde Park, MA.  Our school is small, with just around 200 students in grades 9-12.  Most of our students will become the first to attend college in their families.  Over 70% of our students receive free or reduced lunch and for many, English is not their first language.  One of the many challenges that our students face is learning how to read and write at the college level.  As a result, our History department focuses much of its instructional time on teaching students how to read and write.  However, spending time teaching writing does not mean that I have to sacrifice important content or engaging activities; I still do all of that.  I find that Choices lends itself perfectly as the foundation for many reading and writing activities.  I love the Choices units because they help me to engage my students in civic dialogue and debate.   I also love the Choices units because they facilitate my ability to teach students how to read critically and write persuasively.

The 9th grade World History class recently finished a unit that combined the Choices units The French Revolution and The Haitian Revolution.  I used the text, many of the lessons, and the role plays as preparation for two major essays.  I will briefly highlight several ways in which I use these particular Choices units to teach reading and writing.

The unit plan. This is a 5-½ -week unit on Revolutions.  It asks students to construct a definition for revolution, and evaluate how each revolution impacted the lives of different people in each society.  The first essay had the students evaluate the impact of the French Revolution on the lives of the people in the different estates, while the second essay asked them to compare the two revolutions to evaluate which revolution had the greatest impact.  I treat the essay on the French Revolution as a “draft.”  In the second comparative essay, students must revise parts of their first essay on France and synthesize it with evidence from the Haitian Revolution.  For both essays I require that students only use the Choices texts to find their evidence.  The unit calendar below illustrates how I combine both units and their respective essay assessments.


Week of 9/10

Monday – What is a Revolution – How to read text – HW: rd. 1-6

Tuesday – Movie – HW: rd. pgs 7-11

Wednesday – Classes of French Society – HW: rd. pgs. 12-22

Thursday – Frances Financial Crisis – HW: rd. pgs. 23-25

Friday – Movie: French Revolution – The Fall of the Bastille- HW: Rd. Declaration of the Rights of Man

Week of 9/17

Monday – Declaration of the Rights of Man seminar – HW: Considering the options

Tuesday – Prep for Debate – HW: Finish debate prep

Wednesday – French Revolution Choices Debate – HW: Rd. pgs. 36-43

Thursday – Movie – HW: Rd. 44-50

Friday – French government graph – HW: study vocab quiz

Week of 9/24

Monday – Vocab quiz – systems map – HW: finish map

Tuesday – Essay Planning

Wednesday – Essay Writing – HW: Finish Essay

Thursday – Haiti in the News – HW: rd. 1-5 (Haitian Rev)

Friday – Map of European colonization – HW: rd. pgs. 6-10

Week of 10/1

Monday – Life in St. Domingue graph – HW: rd 11-18

Tuesday – Parties in Conflict – HW: pgs. 19-21 – Considering the options

Wednesday – Debate Prep – HW: Debate prep

Thursday – Haitian Revolution Choices Debate – HW: rd. 34-38

Friday – Mapping Independence – HW: rd. 39-43

Week of 10/8

Monday – Columbus Day – No School

Tuesday – Haiti independence – HW: Create a systems map

Wednesday – Discuss Systems Map – HW: Study Vocab

Thursday – Vocab Quiz – Organizing – HW: organizing

Friday – Organizing

Week of 10/15

Monday – Writing

Tuesday – Writing – HW: Essay Due Thursday

Reading Choices: I love that Choices provides clear, rigorous and dynamic texts full of quotes, images, and maps.  But in the beginning of the year many of the freshmen struggle with the reading level.  As a result, we spend the first several weeks learning how to decode the text.  First, I break each part of the reading in half and I give clear directions on how I expect them to actively read.   The active reading will not only allow them to follow along and access the text but it will facilitate their ability to find evidence for their essay.  As they actively read they must identify words they do not know, summarize the main points and ask questions, or comment on the text.  Additionally, I teach them how to use the headings to determine the main point of the text.

Activities:  I love the lessons and optional lessons that Choices provides, especially the particular graphic organizers that accompany some lessons.  Struggling readers and writers need to learn how to categorize information that allows them to break down the text to understand key concepts.  I connect these graphic organizers to the essay prompt.  For example, the prompt asks students to explain how the French Revolution changed the lives of the different social classes in France.  There is an excellent graphic organizer that breaks down each social class in pre-revolutionary France and has students consider what their role in France was at the time.  Students are then able to go back and use this information on their essay.

The Role Play:  The role play is the corner stone of a Choices unit.  It never fails to engage every single student in a lively dialogue about the future of France or the Colony of St. Domigue.  In fact, after each role play there is always one other 9th grade teacher who tells me that the students were so excited about the role play that they continued debating as they walked into their next class.  They are the perfect launching pad for teaching civic dialogue, but the role play can also become a tool to teach students about persuasive writing.  To prepare for the role play, I create worksheets that have students identify the claim or main argument of their option. They must also identify and record supporting evidence from both the options as well as the background readings.  I am explicit that this is exactly what they will do for their essay.  As the students debate they must record the other option groups’ arguments and supporting evidence.  This activity can stand alone as a lesson about building a persuasive argument but it could also be used with the Choices’ “Option 5” lesson to expand it into an essay.

Additional Activities:  In addition to the materials provided by Choices, I also use the French Revolution DVD by the History Channel, which follows the events of the revolution and the rise and fall of Robespierre.  I show clips of the movie every other day, which helps students to visualize the material they have just read about.  I also conduct Socratic seminars using the primary sources provided in the Choices curriculum.  This allows students, especially those who struggle with the challenging text in a primary source, to understand it.  Part of the seminar discussion is devoted to talking about how students might use the source in their essay.

Conclusion: As pressure to teach writing in the History classroom increases, it is easy to feel overwhelmed or worry that important content will have to be sacrificed.   The solution is not hard to find.  Choices units fit neatly into units focused on delivering rigorous content, engaging students in active debate, and teaching important literacy skills.

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