I have been teaching Ancient Civilizations for a few years now and I have developed a number of activities and lesson plans that I am somewhat proud of. However, my absolute favorite project I have come up with, well sorta borrowed from the inimitable Jared Diamond, is students first major essay of the year. This comes at the end of the prehistory unit, which studies the origins of mankind from our shared primate ancestors to all the variations of homo sapiens. We spend a fair amount of time studying the culture of foragers, which I use adapted close reading materials from the Big History Project.
After we make it to the Agricultural Revolution and do our wonderful biography of a crop project. We read Jared Diamond’s classic 1987 provocative essay–well rather we read a condensed version of the essay that I have edited down to match the structure of a classic 5 paragraph persuasive essay. Since this is for educational purposes I believe that Mr. Diamond would approve. I do cite the source and encourage, even push students to read the original for further ideas.
A a class we read Diamond’s essay together. Students underline any words they don’t know and we define them. Then the class dissects the argument individually. They have to summarize each main argument and identify each significant piece of evidence from each paragraph. First they do this alone, then in pairs going over their answers, and then all together while I outline the essay on the board. This takes the entire class period. At the end of the class they get their assignment: write their own persuasive essay agreeing or disagreeing with Mr. Diamond. They must follow the traditional 5 paragraph structure (Introduction—with thesis statement—along with 3 supporting paragraphs and a conclusion. If they agree with Mr. Diamond, then they must find other evidence why farming was a bad idea. They cannot simply parrot his arguments. If they disagree–and most do–then they must find evidence why farming was a good idea.
I love this exercise as most students end up arguing against Diamond. They make arguments for how farming lead to cities, specializations, culture, trade,…civilization itself! They have to write a first draft, which I comment on using google docs, then a second draft. I use this rubric, focused on clear arguments and basic structure, to help guide them. We spend two days in the library researching and writing initial drafts. Students use some of the wonderful lib guide pages that the librarian, Liz Keating, and I put together for them. It’s simply a great exercise in critical thinking and developing good arguments.