Arguing a Case in Upper School Literature

Students in Mr. Jonathan Stalma’s AP® Language and Composition classes went before a Judge recently. Retired Lake County Judge Larry Semento volunteered his time to oversee proceedings of students arguing the case of “The 21st Century People vs. Christopher Columbus.” They asked the interesting question of should heroes of the past be judged by today’s standards? Around the world, statues erected in different times now face protestors as those yesteryear’s heroes are no longer viewed positively with statues such as the Cecil Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town, Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Silent Sam at the University of North Carolina removed or defaced, and holiday titles like Columbus Day being changed to “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” or “Discoverers’ Day.”

The controversial discussion topic fits into the AP Language and Composition curriculum as students are reading and researching topics from different viewpoints on a single subject or issue. Students utilize their researched information to formulate and support their position on the issue presented. The case that Judge Semento was hearing was: Should past historical figures that are widely respected and celebrated, be judged or criticized by 21st century morals and ideals?

“I was impressed by the amount of evidence the students used, and how they used it to support their line of reasoning,” said Mr. Stalma. “Even though I assisted them in their research process, I did not fully expect how they would implement their ideas. For example, the defense attorneys in the eighth period class used a court decision from “Wisconsin v. Yoder” to draw comparisons of whether we should cast judgment on an Amish community who felt their children did not need to attend school past the eighth grade. Another example was the prosecuting attorneys in ninth period who used statistics of how many Taino Indians were senselessly and unnecessarily murdered by Columbus and his men.”

“We wanted to provide rock solid evidence that the defense would not be able to counter with an opinion,” said Andrew Megler, junior, explaining the choice to utilize the Taino statistic. “The sheer number of murders Columbus committed on his journeys, we believe, was an accurate depiction of what Columbus truly intended on his travels to the Americas.”

Students worked together in two teams – the prosecution and the defense. They had to support their line of reasoning with evidence and facts, along with rhetorical appeals to ethos, pathos, and logos to present their case. All of these aspects are necessary for argumentative/position writing, which is a key focus to the AP Language & Composition curriculum, and a highly sought-after skill for collegiate writing skills.

“I just wanted to thank you for the opportunity to work with you and your students in the trials yesterday,” wrote Judge Semento in an email to Mr. Stalma. “Clearly, you all put a great deal of work and effort into the project. I am impressed by how prepared and organized the students were, and how well they advocated their respective positions. It was extremely difficult to choose one side or the other as victorious, as all of the students who participated are winners.”