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Common Core Standards: ELA

Grades 11-12

Reading RI.11-12.8

Standard 8: Delineate and evaluate the reasoning in seminal U.S. texts, including the application of constitutional principles and use of legal reasoning (e.g., in U.S. Supreme Court majority opinions and dissents) and the premises, purposes, and arguments in works of public advocacy (e.g., The Federalist, presidential addresses).

Breakin’ it Down:

Unlike the other standards, this one is extremely specific in that it isolates a genre of texts that should be studied: major legal and political texts. This could include any texts that shaped the laws, culture, or institutions of the country.

If possible, you might want to team up with the history department to see which texts students have already studied through a historical lens. Sometimes, students are more excited to take on a lengthy text if they already recognize its importance in history.

But, in short, this Standard is not unlike Standard #6. It involves analyzing the point of view and logic used to support the arguments in major historical documents. The question that students should be able to answer with regard to any of these texts is: What did the author(s) believe and how did they arrive at those conclusions?

Example 1

Teacher Feature: Ideas for the classroom

1. UNDERSTUDY: The writing may be old school, but the ideas sure aren’t!

Well, the good news is that the ideas in seminal U.S. documents are still shaping pretty much every aspect of society. So there’s always a relevant connection between these documents and something happening today. This standard is easy to tie into the novels and core texts of your class because they frequently touch on topics in great literature: human rights, freedom, wealth and ownership, government and control, and so on.

Focus on a plot event in a novel or play and use a legal document or other non-fiction text to explain why the characters may be acting in a certain way or facing a certain dilemma. For instance, you could incorporate historical documents on race-based laws if you’re reading A Raisin in the Sun.

Example 2

2. COLLEGIATE: All Rise!

Transform your classroom into a courtroom! This standard is the perfect opportunity to combine reading standards, speaking skills and listening skills, along with fine-tuning logical reasoning. Give students ample time to study a selected set of political and social texts that would pertain to the case you’ve designed. The more dissenting and conflicting texts you can find, the better. Then present a court case to your students and ask them to dig for quotes and evidence that would be relevant to the case.

Assign each student an identity or role that they will take on to evaluate the case: defense, prosecution, social protesters, historical figures who may be bystanders, journalists, etc. Then give students time to prepare a written document that synthesizes and interprets important pieces of the historical documents. This is a literacy test, so it’s all about finding the right combination of quotes from the documents and developing unique interpretations.

When you are grading these assignments, a few suggested criteria you can use to ensure mastery of the standard might be: 

  • correctly identified the main ideas or opinions of relevant texts
  • pulled relevant and concise quotes 
  • originally or effectively interpreted evidence 
  • addressed counter-arguments 
  • refuted opposing evidence.

Really, it’s up to you what skills you want to emphasize. The important part is that students are grappling with complex U.S. documents and thinking about how they shape society.

Quiz Questions

Here's an example of a quiz that could be used to test this standard.

  1. Read the following extract from the 1952 - 1954 court case “Brown v. Board of Education,”
    which dealt with the constitutionality of segregating schools by race. Then, answer the questions that follow:

    “Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right, which must be made available to all on equal terms.

    […] We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other "tangible" factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does.

    Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system. […]

    We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

    Which of the following is a fundamental belief the author has about education?

    Correct Answer:

    Good citizens are a product of good education.

    Answer Explanation:

    • (a) - Great! He claims that quality education ‘is the very foundation of good citizenship’.
    • (b) - In the last line of the first paragraph, the judge states that education ‘is a right’. So you can rule this one out.
    • (c) - This is the opposite of his argument. He asks if the country is ‘depriv[ing] the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities’ with segregation, and then concludes that the country is.
    • (d) - Even though he says compulsory education creates ‘great expenditures’, he never implies that it should be stopped. In fact, his entire argument is about the importance of maintaining quality education for every citizen.

  2. The judge believes that segregated schools:

    Correct Answer:

    are not equal, although they may have equal facilities.

    Answer Explanation:

    • (a) - Correct! This is seen in his observation that although ‘the physical facilities and other "tangible" factors may be equal’, they are ‘inherently unequal’.
    • (b) - At no time does he say anything that implies the situation cannot be changed. Remember, you have to have direct evidence to support your answer!
    • (c) - Nope. In the first paragraph, he actually argues that equal, unsegregated education is required to adequately perform public duties like serving in the army.
    • (d) - The correct answer is A. He never brings the topic of attendance rates into the conversation. Remember, you have to have direct evidence to support your answer!

  3. Based on the judge’s written opinion, which of the following would he believe is a danger of continuing to segregate public education?

    Correct Answer:

    The quality of America’s professional workers would decrease.

    Answer Explanation:

    • (a) - He actually says that when the government segregates schools, they are ‘denoting the inferiority of the negro group.’ So he is implying that whites would continue to be superior in a segregated system.
    • (b) - Great job! First, he says that education is required for ‘professional training’. Then, he says that ‘it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.’
    • (c) - He does discuss the potential for segregation to cause developmental problems, but only among ‘negro children’.
    • (d) - He states his opinion by saying that ‘education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments’ and gives no evidence that it would eventually become less important for state governments.

  4. The Cherokee nation was one of the "Five Civilized Tribes" in the southeast, and Andrew Jackson planned their removal along with all other tribes existing east of the Mississippi River.
Chief John Ross and other leaders of the Cherokee nation wrote a letter to Congress to protest the 1835 Treaty of New Echota. The following passage is an extract from this letter, which was addressed "To the Senate and House of Representatives":

    “It is well known that for a number of years past we have been harassed by a series of vexations, which it is deemed unnecessary to recite in detail, but the evidence of which our delegation will be prepared to furnish. […]

    A contract was made by the Rev. John F. Schermerhorn, and certain individual Cherokees, purporting to be a "treaty” […] A spurious Delegation […] proceeded to Washington City with this pretended treaty […] It comes to us, not through our legitimate authorities, the known and usual medium of communication between the Government of the United States and our nation, but through the agency of a complication of powers, civil and military.

    By the stipulations of this instrument, we are despoiled of our private possessions, the indefeasible property of individuals. We are stripped of every attribute of freedom and eligibility for legal self-defense. Our property may be plundered before our eyes; violence may be committed on our persons; even our lives may be taken away, and there is none to regard our complaints. We are denationalized; we are disfranchised. We are deprived of membership in the human family! We have neither land nor home, nor resting place that can be called our own. […]We are overwhelmed! Our hearts are sickened, our utterance is paralyzed, when we reflect on the condition in which we are placed. […]

    The instrument in question is not the act of our Nation; we are not parties to its covenants; it has not received the sanction of our people.”

    The word “treaty” appears in quotation marks in the text because:

    Correct Answer:

    the Cherokee Nation does not agree that the document should be treated as an official treaty.

    Answer Explanation:

    • (a) - Good! This is especially apparent in the final paragraph, where they state that it is not an act of their nation and they do not sanction it.
    • (b) - There is nothing in the letter to suggest that the U.S. government has not approved the treaty. In fact, the complaints in the letter imply that this document has already been approved.
    • (c) - This answer doesn’t make sense because the letter talks in detail about the contents of the treaty.
    • (d) - There is absolutely no evidence in the text to justify this answer. We know nothing about their native language.

  5. All of the statements below are reasons why the Cherokee Nation is rejecting the new treaty EXCEPT:

    Correct Answer:

    The only thing protected by the treaty is their personal safety.

    Answer Explanation:

    • (a) - The letter does mention that ‘it comes to us, not through our legitimate authorities’. So this is a definite concern for the Cherokee Nation.
    • (b) - This is definitely a concern they have. Remember, you are looking for the answer that is NOT true. The letter states that with the new treaty they ‘are despoiled of [their] private possessions’ and ‘property may be plundered before [their] eyes’.
    • (c) - This answer is the only one that is not true, so it’s the right choice for this question. They make it clear that not even their safety is guaranteed when they write: ‘violence may be committed on our persons’ and ‘even our lives may be taken away’.
    • (d) - The correct answer is C. This is actually a complaint against the treaty. The letter states this fear with the line: ‘there is none to regard our complaints’.