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Getting Ready to Write: Evaluating the Quality of Evidence from Worthy Texts

Eighth-grade students in Jeanne Boland's Humanities class at the Odyssey School in Denver, CO, spend a week building background knowledge, reading closely, gathering evidence, testing ideas, and debating their claims in preparation for writing a summative essay about the stand Atticus takes in To Kill a Mockingbird.

In this video, students and teachers are engaged with EL Education's grades 3-8 ELA curriculum. This video accompanies the book Transformational Literacy: Making the Common Core Shift with Work That Matters.


- [Narrator] Combining powerful literature with important topics about the world, motivates students to weigh the quality of evidence carefully.

- He didn’t have the chance at all to even be considered to win because of the--

- [Narrator] In Jeanne Boland’s eight grade humanities class students debated the quality of their claims and evidence, as they prepare to write a summative essay, about the stand Atticus took in the novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

- One of the shifts I would say with common core is really getting kids to push to what makes strong evidence. [Narrator] On the week before writing their essay we capture the class pairing a new piece of informational text with evidence gathered from the novel to create the strongest cases for their claims. On the previous Friday, students began the process of building background knowledge about the historical context of “To kill a Mockingbird” through a gallery walk.

- Another shift that has affected our classroom is balancing literary text with informational text. With this particular novel, it was really important for kids to gain information about Jim Crow and the Jim Crow south.

- On one of the tables there was a section on lynching and that happened a lot during that time, especially to black people and that made me realize, how often that happened and it was really surprising.

- [Narrator] Like Atticus in “To Kill a Mocking Bird,” the class decided to put evidence on trial. They used the week for gathering evidence, testing ideas and debating their claims. They began by reading closely from an academic article, about Jim Crow laws and etiquette.

- So can I have somebody read our target for us for today.

- I can explain the odds Atticus was facing in defending Tom Robinson using specific, relevant details from an informational text about Jim Crow.

- I’m still out here wondering how well you guys understand the historical context. What do you see happening in the book, that you can back up or explain based on historical context? At your tables you should have a text--

- I chose a piece of text that was by Dr. David Pilgrim, who is a professor of Sociology at Ferris State University, because it was scholarly and written in some nice academic language for kids. When we are coming to a text for the first time we’re going to use our close reading strategies, so we’re first going to be looking for gist. The passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the constitution had granted blacks the same legal protections as whites. Reading it aloud, allowed them to get their first understanding, and we refer to that as getting the gist. And then we went back to the text with some specific text dependent questions, and then a specific purpose for finding evidence.

- On page nine, what could be black’s impunity, and black’s had little recourse.

- If they are uphold like, the same legal process, and legal freedoms of whites that they can continue doing all these bad things.

-propagated through novel she means that they were spreading a negative image.

- What are you starting to see as evidence that the odds were against Tom Robinson?

- There is this quote, it was, “God supported racial segregation, which a lot of people who were Christians or Catholics in Maycomb, would support that.

- Okay, Mackenzie.

- I think that the laws and the mindset in that time--

- [Narrator] Pairing a powerful work of fiction with informational text about important topics in the world creates motivation and purpose to be closely. For homework that evening students continued to track evidence from the text and make connections to the novel.

- I love that I hear you guys getting smarter then when you walked in the door.

- [Narrator] On Tuesday, students deepened their knowledge of the Jim Crow era and began the process of connecting historical evidence to their claims about Atticus.

- One of the things you guys know is we’re doing this thinking looking for this evidence in order to be able to write a literary analysis essay, correct?


- Okay. There is a bigger thing going on here. This stuff really happened in the United States. Kids coming in knew it was a racist society. What I want you guys doing right now is going back to the odds note-- But they didn’t have specifics about that

- On the top of page seven it says, “they sent this message to southern and border States, discrimination against blacks was acceptable.

- It’s one of the last paragraphs on page nine, it said blacks we’re prone to violent crimes, especially the rapes of white women.

- I was just seeing these light bulbs go off, of “whoa, he crossed a line.”

- And what’s Tom being charged with?

- A rape.

- Tom crossed this line of expectation and that was new understanding for them, that they didn’t necessarily have just from reading the novel. So what we have to do now is start to think about, for our standard in eight grade, what is the strongest evidence. We’re really pushing for relevant evidence. One of the things that’s interesting is trying to get them to really objectively look at evidence, and so one of the things we did was fill out an organizer that really had them pulling specific details from the text that they though were essential to understanding the obstacles.

- What’s it called?

- It’s at the bottom of one. Obviously a black male could not offer his hand or any other part of his body to a white woman.

- And then based on that they wrote their first shot at a claim as to whether or not Atticu’s stand was worth it, in this historical context. What I really like about this one is Jazmine is starting to connect to the specific things in this time period that got us supporting segregation, that there are laws and etiquettes here, so she is very clearly naming some of those odds, in order to state her opinion and her argument.

- [Narrator] Before committing to arguments and evidence, writers test their ideas in a variety of ways. On Wednesday, the students tried their evidence among a group of classmates that shared their claims.

- An then on page, I’m coming out with page numbers, hold on.

- You really want to make sure that you’re weighing your evidence. Just like Atticus has to weigh the evidence in court. We need to weigh the evidence for our argument. If we want to convey--

- [Narrator] Throughout the unit the class used a variety of strategies, anchor charts and organizers, to track and evaluate evidence and analysis.

- How would the summaries help?

- It’s easier to look at your summaries, then try and look at the entire book to try and find specific part of the book.

- In activities we did in class, kids would need to bring evidence to that and so we would have, different forms and things that we would use to prepare, for those kinds of discussions.

- [Narrator] Work throughout the unit was highly scaffolded. Students recursively read, recorded, analyzed and discussed their thinking. As they made final preparations for the debate, they met in table groups to select the strongest argument.

- I think it changed a lot of people’s opinion on black people after the trial.

- You’re going to have to give me some evidence for that.

- Right, Mr. Underwood.

- If you have just one person like Mr. Underwood who was racist at the beginning of the book and has changed towards the end, that doesn’t men anything, I mean think about it--

- Actually it does mean something.

- It means something.

- What we found in the Jim Crow tax was saying that what is going on in the book is actually happening in real life.

- I would just like to check in right now, with a fist to five, how well do you feel like you have some strong evidence to build a case for tomorrow, okay? A five is while we have been talking about--

- [Narrator] On Thursday, the week before writing, students debated their claims and evidence in one final test.

- Embedded into the people to change it.

- I disagree with that. On 244 in chapter 22,

- [Narrator] Before debating the class reviewed norms.

- What are some of the norms and practices we have in these discussions? Cara.

- Ideas, don’t like exclude them.

- Yelling isn’t going to make your evidence stronger, right?

- And establish grounds for evaluating evidence.

- So here I have my, the evidence. This was the point they we’re making. So by practicing evaluating these different pieces of evidence it, it’s going to help you choose when you need to pull strong evidence.

- On page five, it said, “Are we going to win Atticus? And he said, ‘no, we’re not going to win.’” So if you know you’re not going to win something, then why go through all the pain and

- I can actually counter this. I think in a way when. We’ve been saying a lot that there was very little chance that Atticus would win.

- I am listening very clearly to what their evidence is. To see if what they chose as their evidence really supports what they’re trying to convince me of.

- It means life is at risk. You have to think about the small chance.

- I want evidence that will change my mind, and change someone’s point of view. Tom Robinson didn’t have any chance to win that case at all.

- Reading the informational cut they helped me come to that conclusion. He was a black man going into a jury where the odds we’re so against him. It would have been really impossible, for Tom to even have a chance in winning the case.

- Time was saved at the end of class to give each other feedback about the quality of evidence.

- The example from this last group and the group before of strong evidence.

- It was Michael’s quote, where Tom is talking about not being paid. She said that even acts of kindness could be illegal.

- Within the Jim Crow etiquette, you weren’t allowed to light a white woman’s cigarette.

- I feel that she connected both the book and the informational text to make it really strong.

- I would agree.

- When students are given the time to refine their ideas, through cycle of reading, thinking, talking and writing, before engaging in a major writing project, they gain deeper appreciation for important topics in the world, deeper capacity to analyze powerful texts and a deeper understanding of how writers approach their craft.

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