Wondering how you can get kids to build critical thinking skills, but not sure how to do it? I have one simple answer for you: Op-Eds!

Critical thinking is the process by which we analyze and evaluate our own and others’ ideas. It involves breaking our thinking up into its component parts — concepts, information, purpose, assumptions, point of view — and then holding those parts to high standards of clarity, accuracy, precision, depth, fairness. We hope students are doing this every day, and with a little planning on our part, we can push them to think critically in just about any class activity.

Writing opinion editorials — short arguments, supported by reasoning and evidence, that take a stance on a controversial issue — for a real-world audience is engaging, has value beyond the walls of the school building, and pushes kids to think critically all at once. If you’re wondering how to infuse critical thinking into your classes, this is the only assignment you’ll ever need!

The process is simple:

1) Choose a controversial issue or debatable question (Should we celebrate Columbus Day?)

2) Help students analyze and evaluate other op-eds (How clear is the author’s purpose? How relevant is the information included? How logical are the conclusions the author comes to?)

3) Help students research, weigh evidence, and write and refine their own pieces

4) Help students submit their op-eds to local newspapers and blogs

Two weeks ago we published an op-ed from David Baker, a 10th grade student in Boston. Check out these excerpts from other 10th grade students’ op-eds:

“Today it is often debated whether taking a day off in order to celebrate the nationally recognized holiday, Columbus Day, is allowing us to pause and recognize a hero or worship a cruel tyrant. Christopher Columbus was an Italian man who lived in the late fourteen hundreds and who was the first European to explore parts of the Americas. Columbus Day is celebrated in honor of Christopher Columbus’s voyages which dramatically affected society. Columbus day should continue to be celebrated and recognized as a holiday because of Columbus’s bravery and intelligence, preconceived notion about slavery and warfare, and the dramatic world shift which he began. The voyages of Columbus were never before performed, therefore it took a significant amount of intelligence and bravery for him to go out on these expeditions. Although he brought slavery and violence to the Americans, the European ideals of warfare and slavery had a lot to do with the brutal actions of Columbus. He was a product of his time. While we need to acknowledge the devastation he caused, we should not judge Columbus by modern standards. In fact, we can use him as an example to show how far we’ve come in our understanding of freedom and equality and justice. Finally, the global shift which these voyages created and connected the world is something which can not be ignored.”  — Sarah P.

“In elementary school, kids are often taught of Columbus’ heroics and brave will to cross the ocean into previously un-traversed territory and discover new land. Often in these rudimentary lessons, Columbus is portrayed as a kind hearted young man who did nothing wrong. There were no lessons of Columbus doing anything wrong or ever mistreating the natives. The teachings were focuses primarily on his courage, leading many people to characterize him as a hero, not a villain. Columbus is about as American as it gets in the minds of most people. These people never heard the dark side of the story.” — Ryan K. 

“Using what is found in the sources and the overall significance of Columbus Day, I believe Columbus should not be the face of the discovery of the Americas.  Although he did arrive there, his many horrible deeds should not be overlooked.  The name “Columbus Day” should be changed to “The Founding of America Day” or something along those lines.  We can still recognize those explorers who stumbled upon the new land, but the emphasis should not just be on Columbus himself.  This day can be a celebration of America’s beginning and the new opportunities that this discovery introduced to people.  It can even be a remembrance of the natives who lost their lives while the Europeans opened up a pathway to a new world.” — Lauren M.  

“Columbus did not care for the well being of the native people; he didn’t even try to talk to them or make and agreement. Howard Zinn writes in A People’s History of the United States a quote of Columbus who states, “ As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first island which I found, I took some of the natives by force.” The natives were swimming up to Columbus to greet him because they have never seen Europeans before and right away Columbus captured them and demanded to see the gold; he didn’t even ask them first he just captured them. Also, in David Stannard’s A Historian’s View of Columbus he writes, “He thought nothing of enslaving or killing such people simply because they were not like him.” These two quotes show that Columbus was a terrible person and did not care at all for the native people who were being invaded.” — Parker S.

“Columbus is described as being a cruel and greedy man in many historical sources. One source in particular, written by Bartolome de Las Casas, recounts the cruelty of Columbus and other Spaniards. Las Casas says that “they pitilessly slaughtered everyone like sheep in a corral” and that he had no problem doing it. He also explains how Columbus did not provide food or water for Natives, letting them die. It is possible that 50-90% of the original native Americans died as a result of European influence after Columbus came to the Americas. Many of these deaths may have been directly related to Columbus, but a lot of deaths were caused by the spread of foreign diseases.The cold-heartedness of Columbus makes me question why we would celebrate a man with such personality traits.” — Nicole B.