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For Educators: A Writing Lesson on Puerto Rico

Teaching high school or college students to write research papers requires an arguable topic, one for which there are multiple reasonable points of view and plenty of complexities — but on which the average student has not yet made up his or her mind. There is a tendency to ignore data which conflicts with decisions we’ve already made, and this tendency is particularly strong in students who are just beginning to undertake research.

The status of Puerto Rico offers a perfect topic. It is an important topic, one which affects all Americans, but  misconceptions on the subject are widespread. Outside of Puerto Rican enclaves, mainland students often know very little about the status of Puerto Rico and have few preconceptions. In a culturally diverse class of 25 older teenage students in the middle south, where this lesson has been taught for several years, there will rarely be more than one student who knows that Puerto Rico is a territory. There will be several who believe that Puerto Rico is a state, and there are always some who think that Puerto Rico is ruled by a king. This does not reflect on the intelligence of the students, but on the way Puerto Rico is presented (or not) in the typical K-12 system in the U.S.

This lesson is designed to cover three class sessions, but can be taught over the course of a week or in a three-hour Freshman Comp class. Arrange the classroom for group work in two or three groups, with a marker board or flip chart sheet and markers for each group. Post-it flip chart sheets are practical for this lesson. Use classroom computers, hold sessions two and three in a computer lab, or allow students to use their phones or personal computers for research.

Session One

Use a KWL chart, electronic quiz tools, or casual discussion to establish a baseline of knowledge with questions such as these:

  • Is Puerto Rico a state?
  • Is Puerto Rico a country?
  • Something else?
  • Does Puerto Rico belong to a country?
  • If so, which one?
  • Who is the head of government for Puerto Rico?
  • Does Puerto Rico have a king, a president, a governor, a mayor, or something else?

Show students the video American Empire. Revisit the questions asked before. Students should now understand that Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, with a governor and under the jurisdiction of the current president of the United States. If your state was once a territory, point this out. If not, offer other examples such as Alaska, Louisiana, or Hawaii to activate previous knowledge about territories.

Tell students that there was a plebiscite in 2012 in which 54% of voters said they no longer wanted to be a territory. Present the question: If Puerto Rico is not a territory, what other options does it have?

Give students the assignment of determining what other options are available.

Session Two

Elicit the options a territory has for the future. Students will typically be aware of statehood and independence. Explain “enhanced commonwealth.” Point out that the U.S. government has repeatedly stated that “enhanced commonwealth” is “not a viable option,” but that it is nonetheless the choice of one of the political parties in Puerto Rico. Decide as a class whether to include this option in your discussion, given that it is not consistent with the constitution.

Divide students into three groups. Randomly assign a position to each of the groups:

  • statehood
  • independence
  • enhanced commonwealth (if using)

Each group must research and develop their position, listing on their board of flip chart as many strong arguments in favor of their position as possible in 15 minutes. At the end of 15 minutes, groups switch positions by physically moving from one station to the other and add as many new arguments as they can in 15 minutes.

Conclude the lesson by having a spokesperson from each group read the arguments. Preserve the boards or flip chart sheets for the next session. One way to preserve boards if they must be erased is to snap a photo with a smartphone and show them on the classroom projector or copy them back onto the boards in the next session.

Session Three

Present the arguments identified for each position in turn, and distill them into three strong arguments. Ask students to try to combine arguments if they cannot eliminate many of them. Once each position has three strong arguments in its favor, divide students again into groups and challenge each group to develop a strong thesis and form a workable outline for their position.

With six or nine strong arguments and two or three strong theses, have students form smaller groups and research one of the arguments. Their goal should be to identify supporting facts for the arguments. For example, “Statehood would give Puerto Rico a voice in the legislature” could be one of the arguments. Students researching this argument should be able to discover that Puerto Rico currently has no senators, but would have two if they become a state.

Students should add their facts, with sources cited as required in the particular class, to the outline.

Wrap up the lesson by discussing how easy it would be to write the papers which have been outlined, and reviewing the process. Students can be assigned to choose one outline and use it to write a paper as homework.

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