By Megan Fromm
This lesson was inspired by the recent Twitterfest regarding Kansas high school student Emma Sullivan’s tweet about the governor during a trip to the capital. The lesson will take 30+ minutes, and students will need their own paper and pencil. Here are some links for background information on the incident, which will come in handy toward the end of the lesson.
Ask students to discuss openly what things they may not like about their school (of course, remind them that they should be as respectful as possible in this discussion). It could be anything, but the point is to stimulate a 5-minute or so discussion (that will likely get a bit heated, that’s OK!).
Write some of their statements on the board (ie: the school food sucks, the principal is mean, the school doesn’t let us have any say, lunch periods are too short, teachers give too much homework, etc). Leave blank space under the statements, and after you have a range of claims, have students go back to the ideas on the board and write supporting facts underneath each claim. These must be provable facts, researchable items of support that lead them to believe those claims.
Choose the claim that has the LEAST number of supporting facts underneath. Students will then take 5-10 minutes to write the beginnings of an opinion piece on this topic (some might write 500 words, but encourage students to get at least a couple paragraphs down—you’re not editing for spelling or grammar, but how they express their opinion using ONLY the facts on the board to support their opinion).
Once the time is up, discuss with the class how easy/hard this was. What kind of information do they wish they had to support their opinions? What questions would they ask to get more information? How seriously do they think the administration/teachers/other students would take their opinion, considering the lack of facts to support it? What other facts would it take to convince people of their claim? How easy/hard would it be to argue with the opinion you’ve established?
Now, after the time is up, pick the claim with the MOST number of supporting facts, and repeat the exercise. They are allowed to support their opinion ONLY with the facts on the board. (Note: if you don’t have any claim with at least 5-7 facts, provide a few more “facts” of your own for the student to incorporate in their writing.)
Again, once the time is up, discuss how writing about this claim was different. Was it easier (it should have been)? Why? How did having more facts add to their argument? How do they think the administration or student body would respond to these opinion pieces versus the first? How easy/hard would it be to argue with the opinion you’ve established in this piece?
Follow up their responses with a discussion on informed opinions, and the value of opinion writing when it is supported by facts and research. This process is similar to how they should start writing opinion pieces in the school paper: it all starts with a complaint, a grievance, an idea, a perspective, but the professionals know how to support their perspectives with research, facts, and explanations that sound intelligent and insightful instead of whiny. Their research builds them up, making it harder for critics to attack what they are saying.
Now, use the story links at the beginning as background information to discuss what happened in Kansas with your students/staff. Once they know what has happened with Emma Sullivan, have them make a list on the board of questions or facts that would need to be addressed in order to support Sullivan’s twitter claim that the governor “sucks.” Imagine she were writing a full opinion/editorial piece—how much information would she need to know?
“Just made mean comments at gov. brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot.”
Finally, (depending on your time, this could be a whole different discussion) discuss with students why it is so important that as journalists, we support even our opinion/editorial perspectives with facts and research. Why do we need to be responsible and accurate with opinion writing? Why must facts be involved? Who are we responsible to? Emma was not a journalist, no one was counting on her to be accurate, fair, and clear—what if someone on your newspaper staff wrote a tweet like hers? How can journalists have opinions but still be respected, respectful, and responsible? What kind of issues should we consider in regards to our school journalists using social media to express their opinions? The school decided not to mandate a punishment, but what if her tweet was a line in an article in the school newspaper?