Developing Argumentation Skills and Citizenship through Contemporary Controversies

By Vincent Pham —


As Karp (1997) explains “[effective classroom teaching is] inherently ‘political’ in the sense that it had to take the social context of schooling and of students’ lives as a primary point of departure” (Karp, 1997, 239). Teaching is not done in a vacuum curriculum has to combat the realities and perspectives that shape the schooling experience.  I believe that the classroom is not an escape from the politics and injustices of the world. Instead, it is a space in which the students and teachers collaborate together to develop the worldview, skillset, and self-affirmation to tackle these challenges head on.

In the 21st century and especially in urban schools, it is a moral imperative that we teach students how to explore all sides of an issue and that we grow citizens who feel compelled to investigate the rationale behind opposing viewpoints. In studying government and civics, English Language Learners can further improve their integration and participation in the US (Cruz, 2013).

In my first year at International High School at Prospect Heights, I was tasked with teaching the first-ever iteration of “Looking for an Argument”. I realized that my class can best serve students and the grade-level team by helping demystify the research and writing process for students. I engaged recently arrived immigrant students from more than 20 countries in a college-prep writing seminar. The course provides opportunities for students to examine, paraphrase, summarize, and analyze multimodal texts in order to develop persuasive oral and written arguments. By focusing on subjects such as Gun Control and Confederate Statues, topics selected for current relevancein addition to schema-building for students who have not studied U.S. History as long as other high school peersthe course encourages historical re-examination as part of an academically rigorous research process.

Together my students and I explored the concept of argumentation with the use of culturally relevant pedagogical framing to build access points and lower the affective filter (Krashen, 1985). This is especially important when teaching immigrant students about topics with high socio-political stakes.

We consider different sides of the argument and will make claims in both oral debates and written essays. We research and analyze complex texts and rich sources in class in order to establish routines for academic investigation.  Through these processes, we will practice and refine college-readiness routines that will support us in years to come.

The content of the course comes from these core questions:


  1. What are the promises of the United States and to what degree have these promises been fulfilled for underrepresented and marginalized communities?
  2. How have Americans’ historical perspectives on race, ethnicity, and gender shaped the narrative for sociopolitical issues today?
  3. What are and should be the limits and powers of the State and Federal Government, especially relating to individual liberties?



This course used a 3-4 week research cycle.  Each cycle included the following arc of routines:


Week 1

We had an introduction of the contemporary issue through priming with videos and a classroom activity. Only the most relevant historical knowledge was provided, along with one core classroom text that everyone read together to provide a foundational knowledge.

Afterwards, the students began to divide into six different groups to role-play as different stakeholders in the debate.

Students researched the contemporary issue through the specific text and lenses of the individual whose identity they assumed for the debate. (see the example gun control readings)

Week 2

After annotating and analyzing the text and argument, the groups would then construct posters with key summaries and quotes for their reading. Then they did rotating small group presentations while also learning from the other perspectives and argumentseither for or against the position. See the action unfold in this video.

All of this research culminated into a whole classroom debate, where the following structure took place:

  1. Opening statements by each group
  2. Affirmative Group Arguments
  3. Oppositional Group Arguments
  4. 3 minute intermission (to develop additional arguments and allow students to process everything)
  5. Open Debate / Questioning from all sides
  6. Closing debates

Week 3 +4

Finally, in the last week and a half, we worked to identify evidence to use for the position paper and to use the graphic organizers as scaffolds to complete the essay. In sum, students would be expected to write an introduction and thesis, MEAL paragraphs, a counter-argument paragraph, and a conclusion.

In order to teach about the current debate over gun control, I did not start with the history of the 2nd Amendment. Instead, I asked students to reflect in writing about their opinions about guns and gun violence, both in their home country and the United States. The culturally relevant manner in which I contextualize for my students shows why “it’s necessary to activate students’ prior knowledge in order to learn what students already know, to identify misinformation, or discover when it’s necessary to fill in gaps” (Echevarria, 2012).

These strategies allow students to interact with the text with their own social and cultural knowledge and prior experiences” (Gibbons, 2009). Letting the students contextualize and interpret the material in ways that make sense to them allows for increased inquiry.

Students used sentence starters as part of sequencing to produce a logical order of effective introductions and body paragraphs. By understanding the acronym M.E.A.L (Main idea, Evidence, Analysis, Link to thesis), students were able to fulfill the necessary components of a persuasive argument. Through suggested sentence stems, such as “One reason why…”, “According to…”, “What this demonstrates is…”, “Based on the evidence…”, students were provided the opportunity produce a sequential order that builds off another, which thereby strengthens their argumentation skills.


This past year has been a joy in having full autonomy to create content that is meaningful and ever updating. The students have demonstrated extraordinary growth and critical thinking during the research, debates, and essay writing. As I reflect on the teaching experience, I will reference my students’ comments from a survey about how they felt about the unit.

What are some things that can be improved in the gun control / gun rights unit? (Be specific)


  • “My favorite part about the unit was the poster presentations and questions at the end of class before the debate and the debate. I also liked learning about the gun history in the US.”


    • “The most interesting part is that strict law on gun did not make difference because everyone striking fro gun law but they don’t know gun law make no difference.”


  • “write the essay, because help me to understand completely the unit with all important parts”
  • “I liked the debate because we got to express the different ideas of each person’s perspective.”
  • “When we have to read and try to know if our person is with gun control or gun rights”
  • “The debate was my favorite parts about gun control / gun rights because I get a lot different views ideas from people.”
  • “winning my first debate. it was my first time winning a debate.”
  • “My favorite parts about the gun rights is all the people have they own opinion about it.”


How has your understanding of US culture and society changed (or not changed) because of the gun control / gun rights unit?


  • “Before I did not know about the opinions on the guns in the country and if it was easy to obtain a gun. But in this unit I was able to learn more about two points of view, both interesting. I thought that there were more strong laws on guns, but really not.”
  • “at first I used to think that the US culture is many culture that mixed together, American likes to copy from other cultures. But now I know that the American culture is not about mixed culture, America have it’s own culture that we students have to learn.”
  • “first I thought that the United States loved to take care of people but now I know that they prefer Gun Rights over Human Rights.”
  • “it has changed because I thought gun rights was the answer but now I think gun control is the right answer because it would decrease gun shootings.”


Teaching Looking for an Argument in this manner has taught me that students can engage with challenging, contemporary issues even without a full historical knowledgeso long as key access points are provided to their lives. Their questions from the introductory lesson can serve as inquiry points to further develop classroom understandings. As a result of my experiences, I have learned to re-conceptualize the presentation and delivery of historical and civic curriculafrom content building to simultaneous inquiry and skills buildingwithout devolving into a pure history or pure language arts approach. As I prepare to teach this course again next year, I cannot wait to add even more topics including metal detectors or the relevance of the death penalty. Also. teaching students how to identify relevant and irrelevant evidence. Through collaborative strategies (like group poster-making and collective annotation) and examining examples of student work, we will illuminate and reinforce essential understandings.


Vincent Pham is an 11th grade teacher for the class “Looking for an Argument” at International High School at Prospect Heights. He is the son of Vietnamese refugees and his parents’ immigrant experiences informs his ideology and pedagogical approaches. Prior to teaching in the International Network, Vincent served as a Fulbrighter ETA in Vietnam in 2014-2015 and Chile’s English Opens Doors Program.


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