Critical Editorial Analysis: Is Overpopulation a Problem?

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Objective

Students will be able to critically consider the claims and evidence provided in an editorial and write a paragraph explaining why they agree or disagree with the central argument of the editorial.

Big Idea

Editorials are only as effective as the evidence provided to support their claims. Sometimes editorials that seem to be on opposite sides of an issue are actually in fundamental agreement.

Introduction

This is a text-based lesson that asks students to critically evaluate two editorials that don't necessarily take opposite views, but rather approach the same issue from different perspectives:

The first editorial (from the LA Times), "Why we need to address population growth's effects on global warming", argues that addressing climate change requires addressing the issue of overpopulation.
The second editorial (from the NY Times), "Overpopulation is not the problem", argues that overpopulation is not a problem, rather, resource consumption habits in the developed world are the more significant environmental problem.

Again, although a simple glance at the titles of these editorials might lead one to believe that they are arguing opposite points (i.e., population is or is not a problem), they actually argue similar points, albeit from different perspectives.  Rather than simply having the class read one editorial, I chose these two editorials because I thought that students would probably also assume that the authors are arguing opposing viewpoints.  It's only later in the lesson when groups of students have organized the arguments and supporting evidence from the editorials and presented that information to the whole class that it becomes clear to students that these are actually very similar arguments. 

My intention here is very deliberate that students develop the critical thinking skills necessary to understand those cases when there is actually significant common ground between seemingly opposing viewpoints.  To summarize the "common ground" between these editorials, it could be said that:

  • Human populations require resources
  • Resource extraction affects the environment
  • Some populations use more resources than others, and therefore have more environmental impact
  • As populations grow, their environmental impact increases

 

Hopefully students then come to the two options available to us as a global society that wants to avoid environmental collapse: either we have a small population that uses a lot of resources, or we have a larger population where the most resource-using segments of that global population reduce their consumption habits to be more in line with the rest of the global population.  These "two options" for a sustainable global human population are themes that intersect multiple points of populations unit, but most directly connect to the ecological footprint and environmental impact of populations lessons. 

 

Connection to Standards:

In this lesson, students will determine the central idea of a text, develop claims and present evidence, utilize content vocabulary and general academic vocabulary as necessary to communicate the complexity of a topic, make a poster that clearly presents information, and write a concluding statement with supporting evidence.

Warm Up

10 minutes

I begin the class by asking students what an editorial is.  Students responses vary, but ultimately I hope they arrive at an editorial being an expression of the writer's opinion, not mere reporting of facts.  I then ask students if facts have any place in an opinion piece like an editorial.  Hopefully students arrive at the explanation that facts can be used to support the argument presented in the editorial.

I then explain that in this lesson they will be reading an editorial and that they should not only pay attention to the main idea or central argument of the editorial, but also pay attention to the facts and evidence the author provides as support for their claims.  As I discuss in the next section, students will use a graphic organizer to take notes as they read and then more explicitly list the claims and evidence supplied by the authors of the editorials.


Since there are two articles (LA Times and NY Times), I arrange them before class in an alternating stack.  Then, as I pass them out, every other student gets a different article such that, at a table of four, two will be reading one editorial, and another two will be reading the different editorial.

Independent Reading Time

30 minutes

Once I have distributed the editorials, I distribute the reading guide worksheet and quickly go over the instructions:

  • Underline all class vocabulary as they read
  • Highlight all unfamiliar vocabulary as they read
  • Record lists of vocabulary in both categories and define 5 of the unfamiliar words (I have a class set of dictionaries available to students, but many choose to use their smartphones to define their unfamiliar terms)
  • Summarize the main idea or central argument of the editorial
  • List at least 3 claims made in the editorial and write the evidence the author provided to support each claim.

 

I then accept questions if anyone is unclear on the directions.  Once all questions are addressed, students are given 30 minutes of silent time to work on their reading and worksheet. 

As students are reading, I monitor the room, checking on progress and addressing particular concerns if students have questions during the independent reading time.  Although the vocabulary section is fairly straightforward, the claims and evidence can be difficult for some students, so it's often necessary to engage an individual student quietly and ask questions such as, "What is the author saying?", "Do they back that up with any other information?". 

Sometimes it is necessary to have students point to the claim in the text, then coach them that the evidence is likely located in the same paragraph, then ask them to reread the paragraph and try to identify the evidence.  This strategy isn't necessary for all students, but it is a way of closing the gap for those students that struggle with text. 

Please note: Some of the reading strategies that I have already developed with the class are discussed in more detail in the Of Moths and Sloths lesson from the previous unit.

Even with 30 minutes, some students will not be able to complete the reading and the worksheet.  However, the share out and group work sections of the lessons that follow this independent reading time provide good opportunities for more advanced students to model their work so that struggling students can improve their work either as homework or with my assistance in after school tutoring.

 

Share out

25 minutes

During this section of the lesson, I ask students to share out the main ideas of each editorial as well as examples of content-specific vocabulary and unfamiliar academic vocabulary from both editorials.  This image shows the end result of this section on the whiteboard in front of the class. 

 

I begin by writing the titles of both editorials side by side on the board and divide these titles by a vertical line.  I then start with one editorial and ask students what they thought the main idea, or central argument of the editorial was.  Rather than let just one student provide the "main argument" of the editorial, I make sure to ask for more multiple students to offer their take on the editorial to get a sense of the different interpretations of the main idea.  I then cobble together my own paraphrasing of the central argument in one sentence based on the responses from the multiple students.  I then check if students agree with my condensed central argument.  If not, I ask students what needs to be added or removed to the statement and those changes are made.  Once students are satisfied, we repeat this process for the other editorial.


After we have done this, I make a horizontal line under the central argument of the first editorial and ask students to offer some of the content and unfamiliar vocabulary from the article.  At this point, I'm just making a list.  I then repeat this for the second editorial. 

Then, I focus on one editorial and go through the list of vocab, asking students to share the definitions they found.  If necessary, I amend the definition or give an explanation of how it's used in context if the connection to its use in the text isn't clear. 

This can be a time-consuming process, but it is also time well spent, especially with ELL students, as it helps students fill in the gaps of their academic vocabulary and exposes them to terms used in writing aimed at a general, educated audience.

Small Group Analysis: Let's Make a Poster!

40 minutes

Once the share out is completed, I ask all students to get up out of their seats and I divide the class according to the article that they read, with the NY Times editorial on one side of the room and the LA Times editorial on the other.  I then walk amongst these larger groups and make groups of 3 or 4 students that read the same article.  This is an opportunity to get students that are used to working with just their core group to work with different classmates.


I then have a volunteer from each group come get their supplies for this activity: a sheet of poster paper (the giant "post its" work best) and a box of markers.

I then distribute the group instructions and check that students understand what needs to go on their poster:

  • The title of the editorial they read
  • 5 important "words to know" to understand the editorial (with definitions)
  • The "Central Argument" of the editorial (it's ok if they just copy down the central argument we wrote on the board during the share out section)
  • at least 4 claims and evidence from the article (they should get these from the reading guide worksheet they've already filled out)
  • A final "Our Opinion" statement stating whether or not the group members agree with the central argument of the editorial

 

After I have gone over the instructions, students begin work on their posters.  After giving each group a few minutes to get started, I begin walking around to help students with their work as needed.

When there are about 5 minutes left (after 15 minutes), I give a warning that they'll need to wrap up the posters.

After the full 20 minutes have elapsed, I have students hang their posters around the room and have students take their individual worksheets to jot down notes as they do a "gallery walk" and view other groups' posters.

After the gallery walk (5-10) minutes.  I have each group elect a spokesperson to read their group's opinion on the central argument, and provide at least one reason to support their opinion.  Although this can seem overly regimented and perhaps repetitive considering there are multiple groups presenting opinions on only two editorials, the idea here is for students to practice not only offering an opinion, but to also offer text-based support for their opinion.  It's a skill that some students might already have, but especially with my ELL students, it's valuable to go through this procedure.

Writing a Concluding Paragraph

10 minutes

Finally, after all posters have been presented and I feel like most students have a good understanding of the arguments and supporting evidence from each article, I direct students' attention to the final part of the Overpopulation Editorial Individual Instructions sheet where they are required to write a paragraph.

The paragraph is highly scaffolded and the students may hew close to the arguments their group came up with, but again, because many of my students have trouble writing a focused paragraph in English, the scaffolding is necessary for many of them.  Ultimately, this final exercise is really just an opportunity for students to practice writing concluding statements supported by specific pieces of evidence

If students can not complete this in class, then it is assigned as homework and, again, I offer additional support in tutoring if necessary.