Going Old School: Syria and Current Events in MYP Humanities


cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo shared by ndbekah

I started my grade 10 MYP Humanities class with one of the most “old school” assessments in a long time. It required glue and notebooks and newspapers that have ink. Students brainstormed on paper and googledocs was ignored. Despite my ambivalence about traditional essay writing, the final product was a five-paragraph essay.  It was also one of my most successful assignments in a long time.

Setting the scene:

My teaching partner and I met at the start of the year knowing that we had certain goals that we wanted our students to meet with our first unit of the year.

  1. Have students become experts on a current event. We decided that the war in Syria was the most relevent and probably the most complex one we could deal with.
  2. We wanted students to work with the new criteria in MYP Humanities, particularly;
    1. Investigating
      • formulates and follows a detailed action plan to investigate a research question
      • uses methods accurately to collect and record appropriate and varied information consistent with the research question
      • effectively addresses the research question
      • formulates a clear and focused research question
      • complete a detailed analysis of concepts, events, issues, models or arguments
    2. Thinking Critically
      • effectively analyse and evaluate a range of sources in terms of origin and purpose, recognizing values and limitations
      • thoroughly interpret a range of different perspectives and their implications
      • synthesize information to make valid, well-supported arguments.
  3.  We wanted students to explore the concept: “There are many perspectives to a global conflict.”

We came to the conclusion that the best way to do this was by creating a paper portfolio of articles, evaluations, and formative assessments ending in an essay. Honestly, on my own I probably would have done something more technology-rich, but as we talked it through, it made more sense to use old school methods. (Click here for the assignment and rubric)

The process:


Each kid got a notebook to build their current event and we spent three weeks adding ideas and resources and thoughts to the book. Twice a week each student had to find articles and glue them into the notebooks. They had to highlight facts one color and highlight opinions another. . Each student had to evaluate each article, using the language of a DP history course. They practiced parenthetical citations and worked on outlines. And then we started to think about the IB Command Terms and what command terms would allow students to reach the highest level of analysis of multiple perspectives.  Students started to come up with  questions like:

    • Evaluate the role of Turkey in the Syrian Crisis.
    • To what extent are the actions of the UN effective in dealing with the United Nations?
    • Evaluate the motive and effect of Iran’s actions in Syria
    • To what extent do neighboring countries have a responsibility to aid the Syrian refugees?
    • Evaluate how technology is affecting the Syrian Crisis and the people of Syria.

As students started to develop their questions, the conversations in my class were mind-blowing. They became the experts. They struggled to untangle the shifting relationships in the Middle East. They gathered in small groups to share resources and ideas. And it was high-level discussions being had by grade 10 students. They were frustrated with the seeming hopelessness of the situation. They explored the points of views and perspectives of so many different people. They debated ways to solve the problem and were so creative in their research.  I was moved by their intelligence on a daily basis.

Next step:

When every page of their notebook was filled, bibliography finished, and the essays were printed and turned in, I told my students that I was so impressed with them. And then I asked them if they were proud of themselves. Once they all nodded, I asked them if they were bummed out that I was the only one who would read their essay. And I watched their faces fall. They realized that a month of hard work, which resulted in something incredible, was meant for an audience of one.

Naturally, the next step was to turn their essay into a blog. Some of my favorite blogs are political blogs and we spent some time looking at how blogging can be used to communicate not only reflections, but big ideas about current events. But instead of parenthetical citations, we use hyperlinks. And we didn’t need to avoid using personal language in a blog. And so as the final step in their work, they had to write a blog post with the exact same content and analysis as their five paragraph essay using the conventions of a blog. . Check them out if you want to see what Grade 10 students can really do.

Final thoughts:

Yes, this assessment was old school. And I still don’t believe a five-paragraph essay is the best way to check for understanding or get the best efforts from students. But really, the essay was secondary to all the other skills we worked on. I’m hoping my students can take the old-school skills and apply them to the 21st Century skills and realize the value (and ease) of tools like Diigo and googledocs and blogging for sharing knowledge and understanding.

And most importantly, I was reminded from this assignment to never underestimate the ability of grade 10 students.

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About Rebekah Madrid

MYP Humanities Instructor. International School Teacher in Japan. Google Certified Teacher. Apple Distinguished Educator. National Board Certified Teacher. Traveler & TV Watcher. This is where I write my thoughts about all of the above.
This entry was posted in MYP Humanities, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Going Old School: Syria and Current Events in MYP Humanities

  1. I am one of the few who probably thinks the 5-paragraph essay still has a place. I will say I LOVE that you had them turn into a blog post because it also gives opportunity to explore the different conventions of each style and format. This is still important and relevant. And if these kids go onto uni, they will likely have to write a few essays. While I don’t think we should be doing them all the time or lauding them as THE central type of writing, I do think we need to do them from time to time so that students have exposure to them and experience writing them. It’s also worth noting that many of the best op-ed pieces in digital media (e.g. NYT, Guardian, The Age) follow a structure very similar to the 5-paragraph essay. This form is still alive, kicking, and effective.

    How did they do with the cutting and pasting? How many students printed things they found online and then cut and paste and highlighted? And how easy was it to find print media in Japan, in English, about events in the Middle East?

    A quick glance at these posts and I can tell they’re intelligent, well-researched, and articulate. Perhaps submitting a few to “authentic” agencies or similar online could be an extension? Just thinking out loud…

    Thanks so much for sharing. I know these posts take time — really appreciate it all.

    • I agree the structure of a 5 paragraph essay is never going away. I just think there are lots of cool ways to teach it (i.w. modeling op-ed pieces). This was just one way. And I thought as they got ready for DP, where the structure is integral to extended essays and History exams, it would be irresponsible not to teach it.
      As for the cutting and pasting, they thought it was a blast the first couple times and then just wanted to read and comment online. Finding newspapers is a little more difficult. We did use mostly online resources, but a few used Japanese language (which was awesome to get a different perspective) and then the library has a few English language papers. I think they really enjoyed be “informed” about a topic.
      Thanks for taking the time to respond! Really appreciate it.

  2. Do you think taking the tech away for this project allowed them to focus more on the higher level thinking and content they were working with?

    • I think taking the tech away showed them that what we do with tech isn’t anything new. Evaluating a source on paper is no different than evaluating on a sticky note on diigo
      One thing that I did love is the book shows tangible proof how all the work they did. The mistakes and the breakthroughs are all in one place. I’m not quite sure how to replicate that in digital form, because it’s so many pieces, many of which aren’t ready to be blogged. But I’m sure there is something out there. I just need to find it.

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