Sizing up Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's civics writing tool

Editor’s note: This article is part of the series The Right Tool for the Job: Improving Reading and Writing in the Classroom, which provides in-depth reviews of promising digital tools for English language arts classrooms.

We are keenly aware of the challenge in encouraging teachers to work on writing instruction in subject areas other than English language arts (after all, one of us is curriculum director for a midsized K–12 school district). First, teachers need to appreciate that writing well is essential to the study of any subject. Then we must help teachers recognize that their pupils need strategies for learning how to write well within specific subject areas. Absent such strategies, students may be assigned writing yet not know how to get better at it.

Fortunately, tools such as iCivics Drafting Board can help with writing instruction across subjects, particularly when it comes to the important “argumentative essay.” If you teach social studies at the secondary level, we find Drafting Board well worth a look.

What is iCivics Drafting Board?

Founded by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to enhance civics education across the nation, iCivics is a website that has grown from five thousand registered teacher users in 2012 to over 110,000 today. The full site provides classroom practitioners with curriculum units, lesson plans, games, and other resources centered on various civic-engagement topics such as the constitution, civil rights, and the three branches of government. Each unit includes an assortment of lesson plans and interactive games that help students learn about and participate in civic life. Additional mini-lessons include brief readings and activities on specific historical figures, events, and court cases that have influenced American government (such as John Locke, the debates between Federalists and Anti-Federalists, and Brown vs. Board of Education).

iCivics also includes three supplemental instructional tools designed to develop specific skills and knowledge. The first is DBQuest, which currently contains just a single unit on civil rights but requires students “to tackle important civic questions using primary source documents and analytical skill.” The second is WebQuests, which includes guided web searches that help students “connect civics topics to the real world” by directing them to other online resources on similar topics. The third tool—and our focus here—is the iCivics Drafting Board, an interactive writing tool that helps students to develop strong argumentative writing skills while exposing them to important social-studies content.

The iCivics website describes Drafting Board as a supplemental instructional tool for middle and high school students “that is most effective with teacher direction as a three-to-five-day persuasive-writing intervention.” The site currently contains seven civics units, but there are plans to expand the site to offer seventeen. Each unit engages students in a contemporary civics topic, such as the electoral college, voting age, and military intervention. Topics are introduced with brief readings that summarize diverse viewpoints on the topic from real and/or fictional individuals. Students then select evidence from each reading to complete a fictional news story summarizing the issue; after successfully completing the news story, students are prompted to choose one side of the issue to make their claim for an argumentative essay that they will then draft (more on this below).

All resources available on Drafting Board are free, and the program can be accessed through any internet browser. Once registered, teachers can set up online classes for electronic assignment of work and can track individual student and whole-class progress. Each lesson includes detailed teacher instructions as well as printable activity options and guided questions. Drafting Board can be used for whole-class, small-group, or individual instruction and is intended to develop students’ civics knowledge while strengthening their ability to analyze information, use evidence to support their claims, and compose written arguments.

The tool is designed to address the Common Core State Standards for English language arts in history, social studies, and civics topics (and, helpfully, includes the ability to search individual units and modules for specific state standards related to each resource).

How is the writing process organized?

In the crafting of a complete argumentative essay, teachers can assign to individual students or a class any of five levels of support. At the least-challenging end of the range, sentences within the text evidence are highlighted and the students simply need to select the sentence that best supports their argument. At the more difficult end, students are provided the topic sentence for a paragraph and the full-text evidence from which to take notes to write the rest of the paragraph on their own.

Regardless of the level of support, all students begin their sessions by reading various texts about specific civics topics and are then asked to match claims about the reading with evidence that supports the argument (the site tracks how many attempts a student needs to correctly assign pertinent evidence to their claims). Once students have established their arguments and evidence, they begin to develop their essays. A helpful bar tracks progress as students write an introduction, multiple claims (or evidence to support their argument), a counter paragraph, and a conclusion paragraph. Though student development of the argumentative essay is largely linear on Drafting Board—students must complete earlier segments before later segments are attempted—they can return later to earlier paragraphs and make revisions.

After adding evidence to support the main thrust of each paragraph, students are prompted to add transitional sentences that improve the flow of the paragraph (a thorough list is supplied of possible transitions and their definitions and examples).

Beyond the specifics of argumentative topics, Drafting Board embeds several elements that strengthen argumentative writing in general. Most texts have accompanying audio, and the site provides students with pertinent questions like “does your evidence make sense?” when reviewing potential text evidence for the first time. Such elements have global relevance, as they transfer beyond the immediate task to other writing challenges that students will likely face in the future.

In sum, Drafting Board is a distinctive and welcome tool for teaching students how to create an argumentative essay and improve their writing skills, through a civic lens (the second part of this review, available here, provides a deeper examination of Drafting Board’s major strengths and weaknesses, as well as summary thoughts on its overall quality).

Jonathan Budd is a K–12 director of curriculum, instruction, and assessments in Connecticut with nineteen years of prior teaching experience. His particular expertise is literacy, with a focus on text complexity. Victoria McDougald is the research manager at Fordham.