Characters: They’re Just Like Us

Critical Literacy Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_330346853Next month I hope to bring you an update from my graphic novel project (yes, it has officially become a project!), but in the meantime, I thought I might talk for a bit about the great characters of literature . . . and Star Wars. Half kidding.

I read a fantastic article at Slate that argued that Han Solo, the reckless heartthrob who melted hearts across the galaxy, was actually a doofus. It’s a wonderfully fun read, and I highly recommend it.

But the piece is also useful for your classroom. Most notably, it’s a real-world, colorful version of a paper I’m almost certain your kids are writing: the character analysis essay. It’s a chore we’ve tasked students with for decades, and with good reason. But be honest—have you ever handed them a published version of that same classroom staple? Here’s one in living color—and timely and relevant to their pop-culture interests to boot.

Characters—They’re Just Like Us! (Complicated!)

Equally interesting are the article’s assertions about a popular figure. I’m not sure I buy all of the writer’s arguments. But note how effectively she supports every assertion with dialogue and other evidence right from the text (in this case a film). It’s like she’s writing a model analysis paper or informative essay. Imagine that—our classroom skills at work in the real world, being read by tens of thousands. And for pleasure, no less!

But here’s what is really worth noting. The piece recognizes something that I don’t think we help kids to wrestle with enough: the inherent complexity of a well written character.

Challenging a Challenging Text

My students just finished The Crucible, and their fury at Abigail for the unjust hanging of 19 innocent people is still burning at their insides. As well it should be. But I posed a question to them that they largely rejected: Isn’t Abby sympathetic in some ways?

John Proctor had an affair with her, even though she’s an innocent teenage girl, in a society where such people are already powerless. Proctor is largely portrayed as the hero of the play, but his sins (which he does admit) are perhaps worse than even he is prepared to acknowledge.

I think we might improve our students’ analytical abilities if we helped them to recognize something: the binary protagonist-antagonist structure, which they learned so long ago, is almost non-existent in actual literature—or film, or any other storytelling medium.

Granted, students should be analyzing all sorts of things beyond literature. But this false dichotomy tends to be a trap we fall into every time we read a work of fiction. We embrace questions like “Was Gatsby really great?” or “Were Romeo and Juliet’s deaths inevitable because of their families’ ongoing feud?”

The problem here is that the first question invites a watered-down perception of Gatsby—it can have shutterstock_304158824no right answer, because he isn’t reducible to that single, misleading adjective in the book’s title. He’s a bootlegger and rather shallow in his desires, but he’s also a man of enormous will and work ethic and, of course, hope. And the second question excuses Romeo and Juliet entirely. What we perhaps should ask about them is whether they might both have survived if either of them had been mature enough to have patience. Their love was noble and beautiful, but my goodness, if I simply HAD to have everything in my life the way I wanted it to be for all eternity within a fortnight, I might wind up dead in a church basement too.

Overcoming Emotions

Recognizing a character’s complexity is a wonderful starting point for encouraging our students to practice a more important skill. That is, recognizing the inherent complexity of, well, everything. Wouldn’t they be better in almost every subject area if they recognized that a simple, reductive perspective about most subjects is insufficient for understanding it completely?

The idea feels obvious to us as adults, but the acts of reasoning and analytical thinking require a lot of practice—mostly in the area of overcoming our more immediate emotional or intuitive reactions to things. That’s where most of our students are—the phase of existence wherein everything is judged via the first emotion it evokes. Abigail never has a chance. Hamlet is annoying for his indecisiveness. And Han Solo is . . . old. Ew.

With practice, we can help them learn to interpret literature and life more thoroughly. But first we have to identify it as a skill to be practiced and mastered.

Michael Ziegler

Michael Ziegler (@ZigThinks) is a Content Area Leader and teacher at Novi High School.  This is his 15th year in the classroom. He teaches 11th Grade English and IB Theory of Knowledge. He also coaches JV Girls Soccer and has spent time as a Creative Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam team coach, AdvancEd Chair, and Boys JV Soccer Coach. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, majoring in English, and earned his Masters in Administration from Michigan State University.  

Everything’s an Argument, Right?

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

argument definitionWe hear it all the time: ELA is frustrating and maybe an easier subject, because “there’s no right answer.” It’s all argument and evidence. Math and science, on the other hand . . . they’re objective. Who can argue 2+2, or that the sun is 93 million miles away?

I recently said this to a group of ELA teachers, in a conversation about the best ways to teach argumentative writing. I suggested that we have an advantage because of this. All ELA classrooms come with a built-in culture of argument, right?

Nope, apparently not.

My colleagues informed me that, in fact, a culture of argument is not inherent to ELA classrooms, and it might be really rare. 

So how does this kind of culture develop?

Teacher-Centric Cultures and Norms

This is a hard question to answer, because for the most part culture is invisible. It’s in the background.

Yet, part of the answer for me came last summer, when I attended the Oakland Writing Project’s Summer Institute. At the institute, our focus was on creating a culturally responsive classroom. I learned a lot about how the majority culture, which I took for granted, might have been giving different messages to my students who didn’t share my status. 

My status is as a teacher and a member of the majority-white, male, straight, middle-class culture. This sets me up to be tone deaf. I assume that my cultural values take precedence, always; that my unconscious is my students’ as well. But it’s not, and if I’m not aware of that, I stifle voices. I stifle argument.

As their teacher, I set standards, rubrics, and grades. I am the sole arbitrator of what’s a valid argument and what’s not. Despite my attempts to avoid being their only audience—check out the Tumblr Experiment—they still look to me as their teacher, and that can kill a culture of argument.

So what do I do to foster a culture of argument?

Creating a Culture of Argument

First thing I’ll advocate is getting off the stage. It’s a real ego massage to stand in front of an audience and have them write what I say. But I’m starting to see that as a barrier to a culture of argument.

shutterstock_223920001My colleagues and I have been using the Harkness method for a couple of years, and we’re beginning to see it pay dividends. Some of our colleagues in other disciplines are trying it now. The hardest part about the technique, they’re learning, is shutting up and resisting the urge to steer the conversation. Though students still look for affirmation–as soon as I weigh in or nod, that’s the end of argumentation. My status trumps their argument. It’s something I then have to undo and tell them that I am not their audience.

I’m also looking for different argumentative writing assessments. Many of us have pointed out that the five-paragraph model isn’t of much use beyond those classrooms where it’s valued. Sure, it has its uses. But maybe it’s time to open up the conversation about the supremacy of the literary essay.

As a teacher, this is hard. I’m very comfortable grading essays. I also wonder whether I’m doing my students a disservice—by setting them up to think that the culture we value is valued in other classrooms.

I live in abject fear of the graduate who comes back and tells me that she’s struggling in college, since I didn’t stress the three-part, evolving thesis. I don’t want to let students down.

But I’m making a bet that the larger culture beyond my classroom, beyond all classrooms, will value strong argument over status. I might be wrong, and so I’ll end this by opening up the question: What do you do to to create a culture of argument?

RICKRick Kreinbring teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include teaching AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project through the Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative partnered with the MSU Writing in Digital Environments Program, which concentrates on improving student writing and peer feedback. Rick has presented at the National Advanced Placement Convention and the National Council of Teachers of English Conference. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.

Writing Begins With Reading

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom Professional Learning

shutterstock_276546899In a burst of unexplained energy (see my last blog post for more on my ongoing problem with this), I signed up for several sessions in Oakland Schools’ Literacy Webinar series. Some of the writers in the sessions were familiar to me, so I signed up for those sessions. But the first session—Revising Rhetorically: Re-seeing Writing through the Lens of Audience, Purpose, and Context—grabbed my attention, since I was knee-deep in introducing my new AP Language students to recognize audience, purpose, and context. 

The webinar is next Thursday, October 22, and the session is followed by an optional discussion with Dr. Jennifer Fletcher about her book Teaching Arguments: Rhetorical Comprehension, Critique, and Response. Still riding the wave of energy, I ordered the book. Unfortunately, by the time it arrived, the wave was long gone. It sat on my desk under a pile of papers waiting to be graded.

Finally, I picked it up. The first chapter is “Open Minded Inquiry,” and right away I was hooked. Fletcher marries argumentative writing with critical reading, explaining that “a rhetorical approach to texts acknowledges that writing begins with reading.”  She writes about teaching students to do “reconnaissance listening”; that is, we must teach students to “listen” to conversations they wish to join.

Listening to the Conversation


Dr. Jennifer Fletcher

This concept hooked me, and I realized that I needed the book fourteen years ago, when I started teaching Debate. At the time, students would come to me, completely dismayed, and say they needed to change their topics because there was “no information” to support their arguments. A quick discussion with the student would usually reveal the same problem: there was “no information” because the argument was not a good one. The student had tried to cherry-pick evidence to support a side, rather than read about the topic—listening to the conversation—and then develop a position. 

All through the opening chapter I was silently high-fiving Fletcher. She was nailing down every problem I’ve had when teaching students to argue effectively—both in my Debate classes and in argumentative writing assignments. Even more, her book gives specific techniques to tackle these problems, alongside useful classroom activities. Loads of them.

Several times I found myself wanting to ditch my planned activity for the day, and to replace it with one of her ideas. I didn’t—I’m trying to resist the urge to change things up quickly without thinking them through. But I know that I’ll be using her activities as I plan my upcoming units and rethink my course for next year. I’m hoping the webinar next week will help me get started on that rethinking. 

Thursday, October 22, is coming up quickly, but you can still sign up for the webinar. You don’t need to read the book prior to the webinar, but I’d encourage you to get your hands on a copy. It’s a practical resource for helping our students think and read critically, and then enter those conversations with well reasoned, logical arguments.

Hattie profileHattie Maguire is an English teacher and Content Area Leader at Novi High School. She is spending her fifteenth year in the classroom teaching AP English Language and Composition and English 10. She is a National Board Certified Teacher who earned her BS in English and MA in Curriculum and Teaching from Michigan State University.

Foundations of Teaching Argument

shutterstock_90951101REGISTER – click here for instructions
Audience: teachers in all content areas grades 6-12

Format: five hours of self-paced online modules; to be used individually or with PLCs, departments or teams.

If you are interested in

  • familiarizing yourself–or maybe re-familiarizing yourself–with some of the basic ideas and elements of argumentation and argument writing and
  • learning about effective ways to introduce your students to argument-focused thinking and writing,

this virtual learning experience is for you! This “Foundations” course is designed to introduce key ideas, terms, and habits of mind that are essential to understanding how arguments work, as well as how constructing and analyzing arguments can benefit your students’ learning.

In the course’s four modules you will

  • watch presentations,
  • read texts,
  • take short quizzes,
  • analyze and discuss example arguments,
  • adapt activities and materials for your own students, and
  • give feedback.

Our goal is for you to complete the course feeling inspired and energized to make greater use of argumentation and argument writing in your classroom–and for you to feel equipped and prepared to do that.

You will learn about:

  • diverse types of arguments;
  • the key elements of well-formed arguments;
  • habits of mind that generate high-quality arguments and argument writing;
  • the benefits of nurturing a “culture of argumentation” in your classroom;
  • activity ideas to introduce your students to basic concepts and moves of argumentation;
  • education research that supports the view that, across the school day, practice making and analyzing arguments can help students deepen their understanding of content we want them to learn.

SCECHs: available – 5 hours

Consultant Contact:

Teaching Argument Using Courtroom Simulation

Consultants' Corner

177839470In July, I was selected to serve on a jury for an armed robbery trial at the Oakland County Courthouse. I’d never watched a real trial, only seen clips on CNN from particularly salacious, high-profile cases–Jodi Arias and Casey Anthony most recently. The armed robbery case wasn’t salacious, just kind of strange and full of inconsistencies. But just like on t.v., the stakes in the courtroom were high. And even more compelling were the elements of argument present throughout the trial–the defense and the prosecution battling it out over their claims, the witnesses presenting their versions of the story, which the lawyers shaped into evidence with their lines of questioning and opening and closing statements. Over those two and a half days, argument came to life for me in a way that it never had when I taught academic argument in middle school and college classrooms.

When the trial was over, I considered ways to simulate legal argument to help students understand the elements we want them to use in their analytical writing. Simulation provides the best in experiential learning; it’s an active, engaging teaching strategy that allows for both student content application and discovery. Using a trial-based simulation involving the elements of argument could help concepts stick and be a great interdisciplinary activity for ELA and social studies classrooms.

Jury Selection – Bias

I’ve always found bias in texts to be a difficult and complex concept to teach. The jury selection process, which took as long as the trial, proved to be a true illustration of bias. During a process called voir dire, the prosecution and defense attorneys questioned jurors to unearth their potential biases about the case. We were asked about our employment, family, and lifestyle. The answers were fascinating and sometimes awkward. What seemed most important though were questions about any experiences or connections to law enforcement and experience as a victim or perpetrator of a crime.

The prosecutor released the college kid with a mohawk; questioning revealed the guy had an anti-authority attitude, which his hair had told me the moment he walked into the courtroom. The numerous potential jurors who’d been victims of armed robbery (or had friends or loved ones who had been) were released by the defense attorney. A former parole officer was also let go by the defense. Another key element of bias the lawyers tried to determine was whether we would assume innocence until proof of guilt.  A young mother of three freely admitted that she could not, stating that we were clearly “here for a reason.”  The defense attorney released her immediately.

Lesson Idea: Provide your students with a courtroom scenario related to the theme or topic they’re currently studying.  Assign students to the role of potential juror, defense team, or prosecution team.  Have students simulate the voir dire process, with the lawyers deciding which jurors remain on or leave the jury.  Following the selection of twelve jurors, have the class reflect on the bias evident in particular jurors and the nature of the questions the lawyers asked to expose that bias. Finally, have students consider the kinds of questions they can ask of texts to determine bias.

Opening Statements – Claims & Persuasion

78724287The trial began with opening statements–the lawyers submitting claims of guilt and innocence to us with an overview of the evidence, angled differently by the prosecution and the defense. Our attention was grabbed; we were enticed first by one side, then the other.  It felt a lot like the opening paragraphs of a good essay.

Throughout the trial, I was struck by how the personalities of both the lawyers and the witnesses influenced my willingness to believe claims and evidence. I felt one lawyer was sharper than the other. And the prosecutor cast himself as understanding and unintimidating, which seemed somewhat false. Many of the witnesses seemed shady or to have poor memories. None of these impressions were based on pure fact, and so, the element of persuasion came swiftly into my jury experience.

Lesson Idea: To practice crafting complex claims and evidence, provide students with a controversial scenario at school or in their community that they’re all familiar with.  Assign small groups to either the pro or con side of the issue.  Ask them to craft “opening statements” that make a claim and lay out the evidence, angled to persuade a given audience. Ask them to consider how they would change their opening statement for a different audience.  To practice public speaking skills, have students deliver their statements to the class or video tape themselves delivering their “opening statements.”

Witness Testimony – Data vs. Evidence

87349294A few cops testified, then a friend of the supposed victim, and then the victim himself. No one had the same story. Few elements of the witnesses’ narratives even overlapped–there was a knife involved, and it was a bitter cold day.  That was it.  But the prosecutor and the defense attorneys’ lines of questioning were both artful — they constructed arguments with their questions.

We had been instructed by the judge to listen only to the witnesses’ answers, not the lawyers’ questions.  The lawyers wanted our understanding of the answers to be biased by the questions that elicited them.  So we had to treat testimony as data.  It only became evidence once each of us passed judgment on the credibility of the testimony and how it compared to the other data we had collected during testimony.

Lesson Idea: When students research, they collect data. Just like a jury, they must decide how credible sources are and compare all the data collected to determine inconsistencies and facts. This process allows them to then select the evidence with which they will craft an argument.  To simulate the process of how data becomes evidence, provide students with the story of a crime. (A common argument exercise like Slip or Trip is one example.) Assign students to play the roles of key characters in the story, as well as police officers or detectives. Have the rest of the class cross examine the characters, then have a full class discussion about the credibility of each witness and their testimony. Who seemed credible? How come? Have the class make a determination of guilt or innocence based on their decisions about the data they received during testimony.

Deliberation – Arguing with Other Jurors

Being in the jury room became an exercise in argument as well. Two of the twelve jurors felt the defendant was guilty and asked the rest of us to explain our reasonable doubts–to make our case. Some people were general: “It just doesn’t add up.” Others were more specific: “A thief who doesn’t run or makes threats when the victim calls 911 might not be a thief.” I pointed out that the supposed victim started laughing at one point in the 911 recording, so he couldn’t have felt too traumatized. Could we say for sure that a crime had occurred? These specifics were what made the difference in our argument and turned the two “guilty” jurors to “not guilty.” They weren’t 100% convinced of the defendant’s innocence, but they didn’t have to be. They now shared our reasonable doubts. We gave our verdict and were released from our civic duty.

Testing Theories & Relevance

My jury experience reinforced how important it is for students to practice argument by experimenting with different theories through talk before they write. The discussion I had with my fellow jurors during deliberation was all about testing our theories with the evidence we had been supplied. And together we came to a decision that would significantly affect one man’s life, which made the importance of being able to understand and craft an argument take on a whole new kind of importance.


If you’re interested in trying out a court-based simulation to teach argument in your classroom, consider using some of the resources below.

United States Federal Courts website – activities concerning impartiality, collegiality, and civil discourse

Mini Simulation of a Supreme Court Oral Argument

iCivics website

Michigan Supreme Court Learning Center – Teen Court Simulation

Delia DeCourcyDelia DeCourcy joined Oakland Schools in 2013 after a stint as an independent education consultant in North Carolina where her focus was on ed tech integration and literacy instruction.  During that time, she was also a lead writer for the Common Core-aligned ELA writing units. Prior to that, she was a writing instructor at the University of Michigan where she taught first-year, new media, and creative writing and was awarded the Moscow Prize for Excellence in Teaching Composition. In her role as secondary literacy consultant, Delia brings all her writing, curriculum design, administration, and teaching skills to bear, supporting districts in their implementation of the Common Core via onsite workshops and consultations, as well as workshops at Oakland Schools.  She is currently spearheading the development of literacy-focused online professional learning modules as well as the building of a virtual portal where Michigan educators can learn and collaborate.