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Reading & Writing in the Disciplines

Presenting Facts as Evidence

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Elisabeth Shanley’s students debate the successes of the Aztec and Inca civilizations using evidence from their research.

Teacher: Elisabeth Shanley

School: Parker Middle School, Reading, MA

Grade: 8

Discipline: Social Studies

Lesson Topic: Characteristics of the Aztec and Inca civilizations

Lesson Month: June

Number of Students: 22

Featured Lesson’s Student Goals:

  • Content objectives – Compare and contrast characteristics of the Aztec and Inca societies
  • Literacy/language objectives – Extract valuable details from primary and secondary sources (including textbooks and copies of documents) and present that information to others
  • Engagement/interaction objectives – Collaborate with peers, practice public speaking, and engage with active listening

Standards Addressed:

Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects

    Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.
    Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.

Instruction Details:

The Unit
This month-long unit at the end of the school year focused on reading and writing about the Aztec and Inca civilizations. The unit culminated in a final debate in which students used evidence from their research to support their answer to the question: Which civilization is more successful?

Before the Video
Ms. Shanley had students work with evidence from the beginning of the school year. She started by having students find three supporting details for a particular statement. As the year went on, the questions grew bigger and students learned to argue within limitations by focusing on certain topics within the larger question. By giving them a smaller focus, Ms. Shanley prevented vague responses and instead focused students on gathering details to support specific topics.

Ms. Shanley assigned a variety of creative writing projects for students to practice gathering facts and details. They incorporated their research into stories about topics such as ancient Japan or the fall of Rome.

For the unit on the Aztec and Inca civilizations, Ms. Shanley also used creative writing and role-play activities to engage students in research. Students were first divided into Aztecs and Incas. They began by researching actual names and information to write a short biography for their individual characters. The Aztecs and Incas then paired with each other in scenarios that gave them opportunities to research additional details about each civilization on a specific topic (e.g., court systems, marriage practices, markets) and then had a conversation about what was similar and different between them. The pairs then collaborated on short writing assignments for which they were both responsible for a portion of the information.

To prepare for the final debate, students had a day to take what they had learned about the Aztec and Inca civilizations and prepare their notes. Ms. Shanley assigned each student a side to support and a subtopic so that they would have a better focus and reduce redundancy.

During the Video
The debate about the Aztec and Inca civilizations was a culminating activity. Each student was prepared to debate one or two subtopics about his or her assigned civilization. Each round of debates focused on one topic for three minutes, with two or three students representing each team. At the beginning of the lesson, Ms. Shanley emphasized making counterarguments and described how to use the scoring sheets. When students were not debating, they scored the debaters by giving them one, two, or three points for each statement (for example, a fact that supported their side but was not that detailed was one point, an excellent fact that supported their side was two points, and an excellent fact that responded to the other side was three points). Students learned to recognize similar types of evidence and gained more points by listening to the other side and counterarguing a specific point instead of simply responding with a different detail that was just part of the debate topic. At the end of the lesson, students reflected on what they had learned from the experience.

After the Video
Ms. Shanley followed this lesson with a writing assignment so that students could further practice collecting evidence. The pressure of a debate encouraged them to be more selective of the evidence that they chose, and the writing assignment required them to think about and interpret evidence in a similar manner. Students also participated in more debates on topics of their choosing to improve their ability to develop strong arguments.

Teacher Prep
Ms. Shanley provided students with a research packet about their assigned civilization.

Prior Knowledge
Students had learned the skill of listening and responding to each other from the rules set in place for the debate. They had learned about evidence to support a statement and had researched the information to be used in the debate before this lesson. In addition, students had practiced note taking (using the Cornell method) throughout the year.

Differentiated Instruction
To make the unit accessible to all students, Ms. Shanley broke down large tasks into smaller ones so that everyone could be successful with their learning. This included limiting the number of topics each student prepared for the debate. In addition, students worked in small groups to research so that they could help each other be appropriately prepared.

Group Interaction
Students worked in groups and helped each other with their research. In the larger group, protocols for behavior were spelled out clearly so that all students had a turn and a role in the experience.

Resources and Tools

  • Books and websites to research information
  • Textbooks
  • Handouts (Packets)


Formative Assessment
Throughout the lesson, Ms. Shanley monitored how students were debating and presenting their evidence. When appropriate, she stopped the debate for a teachable moment. For example, when one student presented a great counterargument and explained it very well to the opposing side, Ms. Shanley paused the debate to point out the counterargument to the class. In general, she structures her lessons with many steps so that there are opportunities to adjust learning in the moment and so that students can receive feedback before moving on to the next step.

Student Self-Assessment
Students were aware that they would receive more points for counterarguments and for being selective about which information that they presented. Because they were also scoring each other, students were able to think about how they would score themselves. In addition, at the end the featured lesson, Ms. Shanley asked her students to reflect on the lesson and to think about how the skills they used could be useful in the future.

Summative Assessment
Students were assessed on their choice and use of facts to support their arguments.

Impact of Assessment
Ms. Shanley’s primary focus for the scoring sheets was to get a sense of how students judged statements that would be considered as arguing back to the other side versus facts they would see as good details. She was interested in seeing how well students listened to each other and in comparing how they interpreted the debate.

Series Directory

Reading & Writing in the Disciplines


Produced by WGBH Educational Foundation. 2015.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-906-4