By guest blogger Caitlin Moore, Excel Academy Charter School

I just finished teaching a unit on foreign policy for an 8th grade government class at a high performing urban charter school in East Boston, Massachusetts. It serves 210 middle school students from primarily East Boston and Chelsea. Approximately 72% of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch, and approximately 55% speak a language other than English at home.

My students and I had a fantastic time learning about the tools of foreign policy and how U.S. foreign policy has changed over time. One major benefits of this unit was that it provided middle school students with a memorable broad overview of U.S. history that should provide a better foundation for the many details in their high school classes. In addition this provided a fantastic introduction to key vocabulary that will help in any future social studies class as well as in understanding current events in the world today (isolate, neutral, deterrence, terrorism, aid, sanction, treaty, negotiation, compromise).

At the core of this three-week unit were modified Choices materials. We completed two modified options role plays – one on the Challenge to the New Republic: the War of 1812 and one on The Challenge of Nuclear Weapons. Below is a description of few ways that I used ideas, texts and activities provided by Choices to create this experience. I hope that some of them are useful to other middle school teachers.

1. Teaching about Values and Interests: I spent two class periods at the beginning of the government course exploring the idea and interest. The pay off was huge – students would refer to this idea throughout the course and it provided an easy yet rich framework for them to analyze political decisions. Below are a few middle school specific tricks.

a. Explicitly teach the concept of Values and Interests and their characteristics. While the values themselves have multiple meanings, I found it helpful to define the difference between values and interests. I used the short definitions below as well as listed explicitly the characteristics of values and interests (for example, people sometimes believe opposing values; interests are often easier to identify; people often justify their actions using values).

Values – What is important to a group of people
Interests – What will benefit a group of people (you can attach a price tag to interests)
Laws – The rules of a country, what is allowed and forbidden.
Morals – What a group of people considers to be right

In addition to providing explicit notes I also created a mini-scenario in which a person has to choose between spending $5 dollars at Burger King or donating the money to save the environment. We played around with this idea using different values and practicing the vocabulary.

b. Play with the concept of values often. My students really enjoyed using their value cards to play the simple card game ‘War.’ One student would place a Values card down. They would then try to convince each other which value was more important. Whoever ‘won’ each round got to keep the cards. Whoever had the most cards at the end of time — 2 -8 min seemed to work– won the game. In their desire to win, students practiced using the language of values in a context free environment. This made it easier to evaluate the same values when discussing subjects like the War of 1812 or nuclear weapons. When disagreements got heated it was fun to have a pair present their argument and have the whole class vote on which was more convincing).

2. Using the Options Role Play. The options role play is what makes Choices so fantastic – especially with middle school students who love to discuss and perform. The assigned role-play positions are extremely helpful because it makes middle schoolers feel like they are engaged in a doable challenge. Instead of trying to develop their own position, they can devote their energy to finding specific evidence, making their argument understandable to their peers, and building on each others’ points (three major middle school skills). Below are a few tricks that worked for me:

a. Making positions accessible. The language in the positions is challenging and does require small modifications so that all students can access it. At the 8th grade level, I photocopied the ‘options in brief’ for students and had them analyze this small piece of text in terms of values, interests, key points, and summary of position. I found sentence starters/frames such as the following to be very helpful:

A person who believes this position values _____________________ because____.

A person who believes this position would be willing to sacrifice that value of _______________ for ____________.

A person who believes this position would never allow____________________.

A person who believes this position is afraid of/that___________________________.

A person who believes this position would be will to negotiate or compromise on the topic of __________________________.

A person who believes this position thinks it is necessary for ________________________ to happen or else __________.

Then for homework I gave students the full option summary as well as the beliefs and arguments. The accompanying questions required students to do a fair amount of summarizing in their own words as well as evaluate their strongest arguments by circling them and reading them out loud (signature required) in a convincing way. The time investment to help students understand, articulate, and ‘own’ their positions definitely paid off in the role play.

b. Setting students up with background knowledge. For me, this was the most intimidating step of using Choices. There was so much fantastic information in the units, but I felt overwhelmed (at first) in trying to figure out what I needed to communicate with students so they would have a successful options role play. In addition, the text font size and layout is geared to high school students. Below are some strategies that allowed my students to access the ideas in the text:

  • Read the options roles first, and then backwards plan the important information. After reading the options in brief I summarized the discussion for myself in 1 to 2 sentences. Then I went back through the information and only used sections that most directly related to the discussion.
  • Use the primary source quotations throughout the text. These were so well chosen that I was always able to create mini-synthesis activities around them. They are so easy to find in the text (bold, large, italics) that I could easily find and then recopy them into my own worksheet. In addition, students were able to weave them into the debate which helped reinforce the need for high quality quotations in all types of discussion/writing (not just for English class).
  • Use the Scholars Online. These short videos were well organized and students felt so smart listening to experts talk about each topic. We enjoyed watching them together as a class. There was a huge added benefit in the fact that we could re-watch the most complicated ones and work together to take notes. It allowed me to coach their listening and note taking skills much more easily than when I am delivering notes at the front of the room.

c. The Options Role Play itself. I think that any format that you use for the role play (Socratic Seminar, Harkness Discussion, Model Congress/Model United Nations, Debate) will work. I chose to use the parliamentary procedure of Model UN because that is what I felt most comfortable with. One of my colleagues always uses debates when doing a modified options role play with her 6th grade students. With clear positions and an arsenal of high quality evidence and quotations, it’s hard to go wrong. I think that any format that your students are already used to will work.