Lesson Plans

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Analyzing a Writer's Stance

Developed in partnership with: The New York Times Learning Network

Lesson Question:

How are legacy preferences in college admissions related to issues of democracy and the Constitution?

Applicable Grades:


Lesson Overview:

In this lesson, students analyze a writer's stance on legacy preferences in college admissions as expressed in a New York Times column. Then, students are asked to defend different points of view on the topic in a roundtable debate.

Length of Lesson:

One hour to one hour and a half

Instructional Objectives:

Students will:
  • write journal entries on the college admissions process
  • evaluate a writer's stance on legacy preferences in college admissions
  • clarify statements on the topic by using the VT
  • represent different points of view on the topic by participating in a debate


  • student notebooks
  • white board
  • computers with Internet access
  • "Points of View: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions" [click here to download]
  • copies of the New York Times article "A Hereditary Perk the Founding Fathers Failed to Anticipate" (one per student), available at the following URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/15/us/15bar.html

Warm Up:

Writing and sharing journal entries about the college admissions process:
  • Have students write a brief journal entry in their notebooks in response to the following prompt: "How do colleges decide what students to admit? Write a list of the criteria that you think that most colleges consider when processing student applications."
  • Elicit students' journal entry responses and keep a running list on the board of the specific criteria that students mention (e.g., standardized test scores-SAT's, ACT's, etc.; students' transcripts; teacher recommendations; student interviews; students' personal essays; students' extra-curricular activities; etc.).


Discussing the concept of "legacy preferences" in college admissions:
  • Present students with the following scenario as a discussion prompt: What if two students with similar application packages (i.e., similar grades, similar test scores, etc.) are applying to the same university and one of the applicants is the son or daughter of an alumnus of that university--should that student be granted a "legacy preference" and therefore be admitted before the other applicant?
  • Have students briefly weigh in with their opinions about this hypothetical scenario, along with their "gut-level" reactions to the practice or concept of legacy preferences.
Determining a writer's tone with the help of the VT:
  • After students air their initial reactions to the discussion prompt scenario, inform them that they are about to read a New York Times column by Adam Liptak that begins with the following sentence: "Legacy preferences in college admissions-the nepotistic advantages given to the children of alumni-are indefensible, of course."
  • Display the Visual Thesaurus word web for the word "nepotism" and have students try to determine Liptak's purpose in using the adjective form of this word "nepotistic" in describing the "advantages given to the children of alumni." Identify the different definitions of nepotism on the VT word web and point out that one definition conveys the negative connotation of "unfair treatment." How does Liptak's use of this word clarify his stance on legacy preferences?
Assigning groups different points of view to consider in regard to the issue:
  • Explain to students that although Liptak begins his column with a rather straight-forward denouncement of the use of legacy preferences in college admissions, the rest of his article reveals many different points of view regarding such practices, and whether or not they are "democratic" or in keeping with the spirit of the Constitution. Inform students that it will be their job to clarify the different points of view in the article and to defend these views in a roundtable talk show format.
  • Organize the class in six small groups and assign each group a different quotation that represents a point of view expressed in the article (A) John Edwards; B) Michael A. Olivas; C) Jerome Karabel; D) Clarence Thomas; E) Hiram H. Ward; F) John Adams). Distribute the "Points of View: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions" [click here to download] sheet to groups and point out that today's roundtable discussion will involve a wide range of "experts" on the issue of legacy preferences in college admissions -including a presidential candidate, a law professor, a sociologist, a supreme court justice and even a founding father of our Constitution!
Preparing for a roundtable debate on legacy preferences in college admissions:
  • Inform groups that they should complete the following tasks in preparation for the roundtable discussion/debate:
    1. Read the New York Times article "A Hereditary Perk the Founding Fathers Failed to Anticipate," available at the following URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/15/us/15bar.html
    2. Prepare to explain your assigned quotation to the class, using a word web display of a key word in your quotation as a means to clarify your point of view (e.g., the John Edwards group may want to display the word web for "democracy" in their explanation, whereas the sociologist Karabel may want to explore "xenophobia" in his quote presentation).
    3. Prepare to defend your assigned point of view by mentioning supporting evidence in the article, by finding additional evidence from personal experience or the Internet, or by calling in an imaginary "expert witness" (i.e., a fellow group member) who can support your view (e.g., an alumnus parent, a rejected applicant, or even another founding father...).


Holding a roundtable debate on legacy preferences in college admissions:
  • Rearrange students' desks so that there is a central "roundtable" of students' desks in the center of the room.
  • Have a representative of each group sit at the "roundtable" and act as the person highlighted in their group's assigned point of view quotation.
  • Begin the discussion by having a roundtable participant read his or her group's assigned quotation, clarify its meaning with the help of the VT, and then briefly support that view. Then, another roundtable member can respond to the initial presentation by making a rebuttal or by lending further support. The next speaker's comments should in some way refer to the previous speaker's comments but should also include an explanation of his group's quotation (with a VT word web display) and the rationale behind it. Continue the discussion until each point of view at the roundtable is expressed and defended. Roundtable participants may call on fellow group members in the audience as "expert witnesses," and audience members should also pose questions to roundtable participants.

Extending the Lesson:

  • After students have argued the points of view in Liptak's article through the roundtable discussion, you could have them express their own points of view on the topic by writing "letters to the editor" in response to Liptak's article. Students should try to use some of the key words presented during the roundtable to express and defend their views and they should also call upon personal experiences that could be relevant to the topic.
  • Students could also read and discuss an actual letter to the editor that was published in The Times in response to Liptak's article, available at the following URL: http://www.nytimes.com/learning/students/pop/articles/l17legacy_LN.html


  • Assess each group's preparation for the roundtable debate (e.g., analysis of quotation, use of the VT to clarify key concepts, supporting evidence, etc.).
  • Assess each student's participation in the roundtable debate and/or his or her letter to the editor on the topic of legacy preferences in college admissions.

Educational Standards:

Language Arts

Standard 2. Uses the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing

Level III (Grades 6-8)

1. Uses descriptive language that clarifies and enhances ideas (e.g., establishes tone and mood, uses figurative language, uses sensory images and comparisons, uses a thesaurus to choose effective wording)

Level IV (Grades 9-12)

1. Uses precise and descriptive language that clarifies and enhances ideas and supports different purposes (e.g., to stimulate the imagination of the reader, to translate concepts into simpler or more easily understood terms, to achieve a specific tone, to explain concepts in literature)

Standard 5. Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process

Level III [Grade: 6-8]

3. Uses a variety of strategies to extend reading vocabulary (e.g., uses analogies, idioms, similes, metaphors to infer the meaning of literal and figurative phrases; uses definition, restatement, example, comparison and contrast to verify word meanings; identifies shades of meaning; knows denotative and connotative meanings; knows vocabulary related to different content areas and current events; uses rhyming dictionaries, classification books, etymological dictionaries)

Level IV [Grade: 9-12]

2. Extends general and specialized reading vocabulary (e.g., interprets the meaning of codes, symbols, abbreviations, and acronyms; uses Latin, Greek, Anglo-Saxon roots and affixes to infer meaning; understands subject-area terminology; understands word relationships, such as analogies or synonyms and antonyms; uses cognates; understands allusions to mythology and other literature; understands connotative and denotative meanings)

Standard 9. Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media

Level III [Grade: 6-8]

2. Uses a variety of criteria to evaluate and form viewpoints of visual media (e.g., evaluates the effectiveness of informational media, such as web sites, documentaries, news programs; recognizes a range of viewpoints and arguments; establishes criteria for selecting or avoiding specific programs)

Level IV [Grade: 9-12]

2. Uses a variety of criteria (e.g., clarity, accuracy, effectiveness, bias, relevance of facts) to evaluate informational media (e.g., web sites, documentaries, news programs)

List of Benchmarks for United States History

Standard 8. Understands the institutions and practices of government created during the Revolution and how these elements were revised between 1787 and 1815 to create the foundation of the American political system based on the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights

Level II (Grades 5-6)

1. Understands the factors involved in calling the Constitutional Convention (e.g., Shay's Rebellion)

2. Understands the issues and ideas supported and opposed by delegates at the Constitutional Convention (e.g., enduring features of the Constitution, such as the separation of powers, and checks and balances; the Virginia Plan; the New Jersey Plan; the Connecticut Compromise; abolition)

Level III (Grades 7-8)

1. Understands events that led to and shaped the Constitutional Convention (e.g., alternative plans and major compromises considered by delegates, the grievances of the debtor class and the fears of wealthy creditors involved in Shay's Rebellion, the accomplishments and failures of the Articles of Confederation)

Level IV (Grades 9-12)

1. Understands influences on the ideas established by the Constitution (e.g., the ideas behind the distribution of powers and the system of checks and balances; the influence of 18th-century republican ideals and the economic and political interests of different regions on the compromises reached in the Constitutional Convention)

5. Understands how the stature and significance of the federal judiciary changed during the 1790s and early 19th century, and the influence of the Supreme Court today

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