October 29, 2018

Anatomy of a Short Course: Authority

Authority permeates life in high school, from the day-to-day negotiations of growing independence within school and family structures to discerning society’s laws and forms of governance. The short course on Authority, part of the Quest Forward Learning Exploration Phase, draws on this rich topic to advance goals in English and Social Sciences.

Building from the central idea of authority in their lives, students are immediately in a position to engage in several questions that organize the short course: What is authority to begin with, and where does it come from? How do people resist authority, and what sorts of arguments do they use to do so? Conversely, how do people and institutions present themselves as authorities? In the course, these issues translate into “levels,” or a collection of quests, each providing a window into the key questions, while also targeting appropriate skills in English or Social Sciences.

Nothing invites argument like a claim to authority. This course provides a context for students to develop a range of skills and strategies connected to argumentation. The touchstone text for the course, the Declaration of Independence—along with connected historical events, figures, and literary techniques—calls on students to practice research skills comfortably. Over the roughly eight-week life of the course, students probe historical events and texts, ask questions, practice new writing styles, and present a modern Declaration as a final project.

In Practice: What A Level Looks Like

The first of three main levels in this course prompts students to think about what authority is by inspecting it in action, through examples. Five required “core” quests provide the essential grounding:

Quest TitleTopicQuest Goal / SkillArtifact
Introduction to Authority (English and Social Sciences)Introduction to theme and projectOrient within a course and anticipate types of thinking for a project.Brainstorming about final project
Declaration of Independence, Pt. 1 (English)The content, context, and goals of the Declaration of IndependenceUnderstand the authority behind the Declaration of Independence; summarize its arguments.Summary of the main claims and arguments of the Declaration
Who’s Your Source? (English)Strategies for identifying the source of an online resource and evaluating reliabilityDetermine the validity of an online resource.Ranking of website reliability
Whose Authority? (Social Sciences)Cultural practices regarding authority figuresResearch and compare perceptions and definitions of authority across cultures.Writing or other media about cultural differences in authority
Authority Timeline (Social Sciences)Chronology and relations among historical events in the courseUse a timeline to draw connections between historical events.Timeline situating major events of the course; reflection for final project


Beyond these quests, students consult with their mentors to select two among eight ‘choice’ quests that are geared toward deeper or related work on the skills or topics of the level. The options in this first level focus primarily on the skill of assessing the reliability of sources while extending the theme in both historical and literary directions. There are quests focusing on Madison’s role in the creation of the Constitution, the structure of local government, internet privacy, and fake news, coupled with opportunities to read longer fiction involving questions of authority. Mentors are able to shape the direction of individual and class experiences by guiding the selection of choice quests, or permitting greater freedom.   

In Practice: A Quest

In the second level of the course, students investigate instances of resistance to authority, like the opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act in the quest “Running for Freedom.” The Declaration of Independence serves as a model for the use of evidence for an argumentative purpose. Building on this model, students brainstorm evidence for a Teenage Declaration of Independence, scrutinize the quality of their evidence against general standards, and assemble their evidence into a brief declaration.

The third level blends the skills and concepts of the course, exploring in the English quests how figures and institutions establish authority through various stylistic strategies. The choice quest “I’m the Authority” lets students observe the effects of different strategies (use of facts, word choice and syntax, and nonverbal cues) for cultivating trust and authority in several speeches and short texts. With a deeper appreciation for these techniques, students then attempt a strategy in a presentation or writing of their own.   

In Practice: A Project

A final project brings together the diverse experiences, research, and reflections that make up the short course. Throughout, students have been working toward an original declaration of independence on an issue of personal concern. They have studied several declarations in action, analyzed argumentative claims and evidence, practiced strategies of conveying authority, and brainstormed and researched instances and issues of oppressive authority. For their own declarations, they must combine all of these elements: a clear claim supported by well-articulated reasons and documented evidence, communicated using stylistic strategies. The declarations themselves might take any number of forms or contexts, from a straightforward declaration of rights for students, to a declaration for an imagined person or nation in a historical setting, to a poem or piece of creative writing with a supporting artist’s statement. The richness of the resources, ideas, and artifacts throughout the course sets the stage for students to execute a project that is thoroughly representative of their experiences in the course.

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