Arts of persuasion

By Sharon Pearson and Pamela Myrick

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In a democracy, delegates are selected through caucus groups to represent their constituents. Undergirding caucusing is the premise that, in a democracy, citizens should be informed decision makers. Students can put this same premise into action in classroom caucuses. They can investigate an issue, form an opinion, and make a decision, selecting individuals to represent their views in a class-wide caucus. In doing so, students are practicing the tenets of responsible citizenship.

Caucusing in the classroom works best when it focuses on issues that interest students and that evoke a range of passionate student response. Under these circumstances, the caucus provides an engaging forum for students to share their ideas, discuss their opinions, validate information, and form a position on thought provoking and challenging current issues. Should students be required to wear uniforms? Is urban sprawl endangering the environment? Should there be random drug testing at school? By selecting topics that students are interested in, providing opportunities for students to develop deeply informed opinions, and allowing students to discuss their findings in a caucus setting, teachers can introduce students to the idea of the political caucus while also encouraging responsible and informed political engagement and civic pride.

Preliminary research and setup

Research portfolios

Caucus groups are formed after the students have researched both sides of an issue. We have our students compile their research in research portfolios. Not only have students recorded data, but they also have included personal reflections on each article. Researching and reflecting is a process enabling the students to develop their point of view. Basic research requirements for the portfolio should include a minimum of five sources for each student. However, the teacher should be aware of student levels and modify the requirements.

Forming caucus groups

The teacher initiates the grouping by posting two charts. The issue is listed at the top of each chart. One chart is labeled "pro" and the other "con." Based on their opinions, students sign either the pro or con chart. Giving students choices in their learning — in this case, by selecting their own groups — helps them to become vested and self-motivated individuals. In the process, a positive climate for learning is established reinforcing both academic and social skills

In order to facilitate the caucusing process, teachers should designate the size of each caucus group. For example, in a classroom of twenty-eight students, seven caucus groups may form. Of the seven groups, three could be pro and four could be con. If student opinion is unbalanced, it is also acceptable for five to be pro and two to be con. In fact, it may be somewhat of a challenge for the two groups to persuade others of their opinion! Flexibility is the key.

Student activities and assessment

Caucus data sheet

In caucus groups, students share their research portfolios to identify the most compelling arguments to support their point of view. Selecting the most compelling evidence, students organize and record their information on a "Caucus Data Sheet."

Each student will replicate the data sheet on his or her notebook paper. The number of rows on the data sheet is dependent on the amount of information. Students work collaboratively, and so the source, date, supporting facts and details will be the same for each student in a group. However, the explanation of the data should vary. Supporting facts and details need to be relevant to the issue. The explanation should reflect the student’s understanding of the research and its correlation to the stance.

The data sheet serves as a plan for writing a persuasive essay and a tool for evaluation.After completing the data sheet, students will have a framework that organizes their thoughts and information.

Persuasive essay

Each student in the caucus group then writes a persuasive essay based upon the data sheet plan. After essays have been written, students meet again in the same caucus groups and share their essays.

Collectively, the students in each group choose the most compelling evidence in their essays and draft one persuasive speech. Whatever media students use (word processing or pencil and paper), all students should share a responsibility in the writing process. After the final document is completed, every student in the caucus group should have a copy of this collaborative speech. Students then self select a speaker from their caucus group to present to the entire class.