How to Combine Service Learning and Persuasive Writing

Notes from the Classroom

In this season of giving, it can be challenging to get students to think beyond themselves and their list of wishes.

That’s why an Academic Service Learning project is one of my favorite things to do. This project, part of my district’s initiative to connect learning and community service, allows me to combine persuasive writing with student choice, in a way that produces lots of great ideas for a class project–and guarantees family involvement from the start.

Our Service Learning Begins with Reading

I start by reading students several books over the course of a week, asking them what they notice, and charting their thinking. At the end of the week, we start to look for common themes that emerge. This helps to launch the conversation about our project. Books I have used include:

Some other books that may be helpful are:

Students Propose Actual Service Projects, via Persuasive Essays

After we have read the books and discussed themes, I reveal the assignment to the students: they must come up with an idea for our class ASL project and write a persuasive essay about why we should do their project.

I send home a letter to families asking them to have a conversation with their child, and to help them come up with some ideas for our project. Students bring back their ideas and then they choose one to use as the basis for their persuasive essay.

This makes the writing so much more purposeful. Students know that they have to convince not only me, but also their classmates, in order to do their project.

Then We Vote

Once all essays have been submitted, I begin the task of choosing five to six for the students to vote on. (Side note: if you haven’t used Google Classroom before, you should try it for writing assignments! Life changing!) I try to find a nice variety of ideas as well as essays that are well written.

After this is done, I read the finalists out loud to the class. I always stress that they are not to tell who wrote what; this needs to be about the project and the writing, not a popularity contest. Once the votes are in, we begin the process of planning and implementing our ASL project.

And Finally, We Take Action  

This project has been a great way for me to get kids engaged, help them find passion, and get them to think outside of themselves. We have raised money for local animal shelters, sent money to WWF for elephants, made blankets and games for children in local hospitals, and purchased books for children in a nearby school. The reward of seeing my students feel so successful goes far beyond what I could have imagined. I will never teach persuasive writing any other way.

beth Beth Rogers (@bethann1468) has taught in the elementary setting for the past 11 years. During this time, she earned her Master’s in Educational Technology from Michigan State University. This year, she is in a new position: Instructional Technologist K-12. This gives her the unique opportunity to work with teachers and students, district wide, to incorporate technology into their teaching and learning, in ways that engage, enhance, and extend the learning. She has already already begun to work with multiple classrooms to engage students in blogging, and to help teachers understand the power of this platform. At home, she lives with her husband, sons, and an anxiety-ridden German Shepherd who requires inordinate amounts of time and attention.

Empathy Through Research Writing

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_426313705As my students work through the Extended Research Argument unit from the National Writing Project, we’re having really good conversations about the issues they’re interested in, and we’re doing a lot of thinking about evidence.

Most recently, we’ve considered viewpoints that don’t align with our own. We’re at a point where they’ve looked at what is being said about their issues, and are trying to write sympathetic, fair statements that sum up what they’re seeing from people holding different viewpoints.

This is a shift from the way I’ve taught this in the past. Before, of course I taught my students about making concessions and why that’s an important move. The good reason: making a concession shows your reader that you understand the issue’s complexity, and that you’re not a fanatic. The bad reason: The Big Test you’re going to take won’t give you a high score without one.

I taught, and maybe thought, about argument as a contest–and so they did too. But what’s coming out of this new work is some real empathy, something I mostly ascribed to fiction reading. I’m thinking that empathy and fairness are traits that are lacking and in need of teaching.

Cultivating Empathy

Fiction maybe lets us experience what another person experiences and feels, but I don’t know a way to require that, or how a student might demonstrate empathy in the kinds of writing we do. Our research-argument project, though, requires it. Students write a statement from the opposing viewpoint that’s fair, and which someone holding that viewpoint would agree with.

Here’s a sample of what all of this has lead us to:

An African-American student, male, tells me his peer reviews don’t think he’s being entirely fair while representing the opposing viewpoint. He writes about police use of force when dealing with communities and individuals of color. He’s not sure he knows how to keep his own bias out of the writing, and how could he?

What’s great about the conversation is that he genuinely wants to be fair because he knows he can make a good argument. He doesn’t want his bias to undermine that. We talk and I read what he’s written. We decide that he’s going to be honest about who he is, and that his next step is to think about whom he wants as his audience.
Whom does he most want to speak to and what might that look like? This young man has little motivation to seek empathy with people who see him as a threat, but because he wants his argument to be taken seriously he’s going to work hard on that empathy piece.

Another young man announced to the class that his issue was raising the minimum wage, because “only losers work for minimum wage–McDonald’s money–and they don’t deserve more.” But now he sits, sharing statements about the opposing viewpoint that contains references to living wages and other topics he hadn’t thought about. His own point of view shows growth and empathy and an understanding of the complexity of his issue. His “only losers” claim is gone, replaced by one that show nuance.

shutterstock_278574116Not all the conversations go this way. But enough of them do that I take notice. Is my thinking about empathy and how to get it wrong? I’m also worried that some of these students will slip back into “a prove my point/win the argument” mindset, but I am encouraged.

I sat today and looked through my social media feeds. I didn’t see much empathy, didn’t see anyone trying to sympathetically represent the opposing viewpoint. Is that what we’re up against? A genre that only tries to “win” and never understand?

I thought about my students’ projects. In the last step they are going to produce a piece of civic writing that hopefully achieves their purpose. We’re going to talk about op-eds and petitions, speeches and letters. But I’m afraid that their efforts will get lost in the myopic howling noise of their Twitter feeds and Instagrams and Snapchats. I’m also struggling with how to capture and reward–if that’s the right word–these students for their thinking.

Still it’s a good start.

Right?

RICKRick Kreinbring (@kreinbring_rick) 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.

With Writing, Quantity Begets Quality

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_560033377“There are no more words left in me to write, I think.” (Read with melodramatic hand on brow, maybe even a Southern belle accent for an extra flair of drama.)

A student of mine said this the other day as I returned the class’ most recent essays and started describing our next writing adventure. I am lucky to teach both AP Language and Composition and AP Seminar (a new, research-writing based course) this year. The young lady who made the dramatic pronouncement has the pleasure (?) of being in both. That means she did a lot of writing this fall. A crazy amount of writing.

And exactly the right amount of writing, I think.

She’s not the only student in this position. I have about 15 overlappers, and they’ve really made me rethink the amount of writing I’m doing in my classes. Despite the dramatic “there are no words left” comment, they actually have quite a few words left, and those words are getting more insightful and more interesting. All of that writing is paying off–and I think they know it.

I always thought I had a lot of writing in my classes. But watching how far my overlappers’ writing is coming, I’m realizing that maybe they need even more. Kelly Gallagher, a reading-and-writing-teacher guru, is often quoted as saying, Students should be writing way more than a teacher can grade.Though I know that’s true, I have never really embraced it fully. I have been so caught up in the idea that I need to give feedback in order to help them grow, that I thought that meant grading everything. It simply wasn’t possible for them to write and write and write and write, if I wasn’t going to write all over it. Right?

Copy/Paste

Wrong. There are plenty of smaller writing activities that I could replicate in each class, and I have different strategies from each class that could be copied and pasted into the other. My students shouldn’t need to be in two of my classes to get such a flood of writing opportunities. There are four things I’ve been doing on and off in each class this fall. What if I did all four things consistently in both classes?

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A page from my bullet journal. (Click the thumbnail to view a larger image.)

Bullet Journals
My AP Seminar kids have been experimenting with different ways to reflect on their research process all year, and most recently, we’ve started bullet journals. I hesitated to start this with my Lang students because I already had writing notebooks in AP Lang. But, my notebooks in Lang are inconsistent. Bullet journaling would force daily reflection and guarantee that my students would never go a day without writing at least a few lines.

Holistic Feedback
The other thing I’ve been very good about in AP Seminar is giving consistent holistic feedback. There is one, 4-point, simple scale in my Seminar class. Because my students have worked with that scale all year, it works as shorthand with us now. A 3 scribbled in the margins tells them just as much as a paragraph of feedback. And it’s a lot faster. AP Lang has a holistic, 9 pt scale, but it’s not simple and isn’t as clear to my students. If I could break the scale down for them more and help them see the levels more clearly, I could start using this practice in that class as well.

Write Two, Choose Your Best
I often ask my AP Lang students to write two different pieces (different days) and then choose the best one for me to evaluate. This works really well in AP Lang because sometimes students feel great about one analytical piece and horrible about the next one. This both removes the pressure and pushes them to be a little more critical of their own writing. I hadn’t thought about doing this in AP Seminar because all of our writing has been long, workshopped pieces. But, I need to do a better job of assessing my Seminar students’ reading, and this strategy would work well with that.

Self-Annotation
One of the ways I save time prior to writing conferences in AP Lang is by asking the students to annotate their own essays with reflective comments and questions. What were you trying to accomplish with a particular section? Why did you choose one word rather than another? This reflective writing has been absent from my Seminar class, and I think I need to add it. 

*

When my son was a baby, his pediatrician used to tell us, “Sleep begets sleep.” Put him to bed early, make sure he gets lots of naps, and he will sleep perfectly. My pediatrician was right. Lots of sleep led to better sleep.

This fall I learned the same thing about my writers. Lots of writing leads to better writing. Quantity begets quality.  This spring, I’ll see if I can up the writing in each class. My poor overlappers don’t know what they’re in for.

Hattie Maguire (@TeacherHattie) is an English teacher and Content Area Leader at Novi High School. She is spending her sixteenth year in the classroom teaching AP English Language and Composition, AP Seminar and doing Tier 2 writing intervention. She is a National Board Certified Teacher who earned her BS in English and MA in Curriculum and Teaching from Michigan State University.

School Year’s Resolutions

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_88053079On a road trip this summer, an old favorite track, Ice Cube’s “My Summer Vacation,” popped up on my shuffle. I immediately started ruminating about its amazing, subversive cultural commentary. The entire track plays out as a straightforward story of drug dealing and violence, until the final verse ends with the sudden revelation, “No parole or probation / Now this is a young man’s summer vacation / No chance for rehabilitation.” Every time I hear this final verse I react to it–I draw connections to research I’ve read, and I think of statistics about America’s youth. But mostly I react emotionally in exactly the way the song cleverly wants me to.

My years of writing and reading have trained me to react to everything–even decades-old pop songs–reflectively and thoughtfully. Even if I don’t actually grab a writing pad while driving, I have enough experience to know that my thoughts about something like this song would constitute authentic writing with powerful voice, and would probably include quite a few text-to-life and text-to-text comparisons.

Wouldn’t it be great if, this year, your kids were engaging in all of those targets during the first five minutes of every class?

Scorching Hot Takes!

I’ve tried stretching my imagination, believing that the kids are producing meaningful notebook entries–questioning Gatsby’s greatness or their favorite independent-reading books. But the truth is, this is uninspired writing.

And I’m the one who has failed to provide the inspiration.

This year, my notebook topics will be ripped from the pop-culture world of high schoolers and the headlines of the day. And the kids are going to produce a rather new form of writing, perhaps not completely unique to the internet age, but certainly popularized by it.

My kids will be writing…daily hot takes.

If you’re not familiar with the term, I’ll let The Week’s Paul Waldman define it for you, from an excellent piece defending it in the pantheon of opinion writing:

Briefly, the “hot take” is a piece of opinion writing, produced quickly, about some breaking event or controversy. It seldom involves reporting heretofore unknown facts, but instead is meant to provide a unique perspective that will supposedly deepen your understanding of that event.

This sounds a lot like how teenagers prefer to write and think–maximum weight on emotion and personal perspective, little effort expended on reasoning or (God forbid) research.

Not the usual criteria we’d put on a rubric, eh? But think about how well it lends itself to what a good notebook entry could do for a student. It would engage them, draw out their natural voices as writers, encourage them to draw on their own experiences, remind them that their social-media voice is valid in other forms of writing, and provide them a safe zone for writing.

Those last two elements are what I’m hoping will result in better writing. My students are on the internet all the time, but rarely do we, teachers, call attention to the number of colorful, energetic voices that flood that realm. If we celebrate the truly colorful voices in students’ most natural writing, then maybe we can get them to develop more subtle tones as well.

“Safe zones,” too, are going to factor largely here. It’s not news that the material we ask of students sometimes intimidates them, and that many kids don’t extend themselves as writers because of this. How often have your weaker writers produced entire essays that are clearly their perception of what you (the teacher) want to hear? How often have they produced the generic when you were looking, nay, begging for the original and nuanced?

They Might Like it Hot

shutterstock_101218786I’m prepared to be proven wrong. But I think shifting the focus of their low-stakes writing might result in much higher-quality results. A student who felt lost the whole time you read A Doll’s House, for instance, might bring the noise if you ask her to assess the gender stereotyping of The Bachelor or The Bachelorette.

You can make up your own, but you get the idea: Give your students some lively, real-life topics to chew on, and make it clear that the hotter the take, the better. In fact, I’m going to create a “Hot Take of the Week” corner in my classroom, a place to share the best–and hottest–student takes about that week’s topics.

The eventual question is what to do next. Great, they produced a ten-minute free write that captures their rage about The Grammy Awards. Now what? Here’s one possible answer: Perhaps a really good “hot take” is only a few steps away from being a damned good piece of writing, provided students get writing guidance, and pursue a sprinkle of research and/or revision.

That’s getting ahead of the game a bit, but what kind of teacher would I be if I didn’t start off the new year on an ambitious note?

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.  

Relevance: an Apathy Antidote

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_371530516“Just give me a topic. I’ll write about anything. I don’t care.”

Ah! There it is. The dreaded “I don’t care” that makes every teacher want to throw up her hands in despair.

My students are in the throes of their final writing piece for the year–an op-ed. I love the assignment because it pulls together many of the elements we’ve worked on all year, and it asks the students to write a research-based argument with a genuine, natural voice. It provides choice—one of the keys to increasing student engagement.

But what about when choice isn’t enough? What happens when you lead the horse to water and the darn horse refuses to drink?

It’s easy to shrug the apathetic ones off and say they just don’t care, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s certainly an issue that’s been around for a while. A 1988 study published by the National Education Association contended that “student apathy is as common as chalk dust” in American classrooms. That same study also said that while “most educators take pride in their contributions to the winners, few acknowledge responsibility for the losers.”

Yikes. That’s rough.

So what do you do with the “I don’t care” students? As much as I’m tempted to say, “I can’t care more than they do,” I don’t think that’s true. My job doesn’t stop once I’ve led the horses to the water, regardless of how awesome the water is. I have to acknowledge my responsibility for all of my students. And when they aren’t engaged with their writing, I need to continue to seek out ways to help them.

Relevant vs. Interesting

I decided to attack student apathy head-on with this current op-ed assignment, and my first step was throwing out my lists of topics. As a former debate teacher, I have lists of hundreds of “hot topics” that are sure to interest your average teenager. Those lists work for many kids, but they aren’t enough for some.

In their new book, Reading Nonfiction, Kylene Beers and Bob Probst hit on the reason why some of these very “interesting” topics just aren’t enough to catch and hold attention. They explain that “something that is relevant is inherently interesting, but something that is interesting isn’t always relevant. In short, getting kids’ attention is about creating interest; keeping their attention is about relevance.”

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Circles of relevance. Click to view a larger version.

Helping my students find that relevance started with brainstorming. I modeled this by using overlapping circles: writer at the center, then our school, then the nation, and finally the world. In each circle, we tried to fill in both serious and non-serious topics.

In my inner circle were concerns and issues that are close to home–my son’s sports choices, the cost of Diet Coke in the teacher’s lounge. As the circles got bigger, my issues got “bigger”–weightier–but I continually reminded my students that even with the weightier issues, I had a personal reason to be invested in the topic. I’m interested in education policy because I’m a teacher. I’m interested in the preservation of the national park system because my family loves to camp and hike.

For many, that day of brainstorming was enough, and they were off and running. But each class still had a few holdouts. So far, I’m discovering that those holdouts simply take time and talk during one-on-one conferences. I wish I had a cool activity or graphic organizer that magically transformed them into focused, motivated writers, but I haven’t found it yet (please let me know if that exists, btw).

For some students, this has been a matter of seizing on one small thing. One young lady groaned and asked, “Can I write about how my stepmom shouldn’t be able to tell me what to do?” She wasn’t seriously considering that as a topic, but what a great one it is! How should parents deal with teenagers in blended families? The more we talked, the more she started to see the possibilities. Yet she needed me to validate that her experiences are important things to write about. Today, she came back and said, “I can’t do that topic. I don’t want it to seem like I hate my stepmom.” So we talked some more about what it means to have a nuanced position, and how her genuine care for her stepmom lends itself nicely to a counterargument.

I’m not sure where that op-ed will end up, but I know that she is invested–at least a little–in a topic that is relevant to her today. Tomorrow, when she doubts it again, I’ll be back with more questions, more talk, and more time. Apathy is as “as common as chalk dust,” but seeking out ways to help students connect to their writing is a good first step to moving past it.

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.

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.  

A Window into Students’ Thinking

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_133106732If you are an educator, you know how quickly things can pile up around conference time and holiday breaks. Add in a few major life crises, and you can get way behind.

So when I finally got back to my students’ blogs (I am not even through half of them!), I had some pleasant surprises waiting for me. As I read through my students’ posts, I found myself gaining new insights into who they are as people, even though their spelling and grammar still jumped out at me.

Our last assignment was based on an article about participation trophies, from a reading in Scholastic News, a regular source of readings for my students. The responses of the students were heartfelt and gave me something to think about.

One student wrote, “I remember when my brother went to his Boy Scout wood car race and he lost and he cried because all he wanted was to win.”

Another student wrote, “I had a special needs kid on my baseball team and he was happy and proud that he got a medal in the end.”

Only in Blogs

As I think about this topic, I realize that we could use it in multiple ways: to write persuasive essays (complete with the counterargument paragraph); to have a dialogue and step inside the shoes of someone with a differing opinion; or to brainstorm new ways of doing things that would be win-win.

Yet had we read this article in class and had a discussion, I don’t believe the outcome would have been the same, compared to what came from the blogs. The reason why?

My students tend to publish their posts before reading others’. This means their thinking isn’t influenced by their peers. (Parents probably have an influence, but not for all students.)

This gives me a more authentic look into students’ thinking and sets us up for more powerful conversation and learning. It’s another benefit of blogging that I hadn’t anticipated but am thrilled to discover.

beth croppedBeth Rogers is a fifth grade teacher for Clarkston Community Schools, where she has been teaching full time since 2006.  She is  blessed to teach Language Arts and Social Studies for her class and her teaching partner’s class, while her partner  teaches all of their math and science. This enables them  to focus on their passions and do the best they can for kids. Beth was chosen as Teacher of the Year for 2013-2014 in her district. She earned a B.S. in Education at Kent State University and a Master’s in Educational Technology at 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.

Dr. Jennifer Fletcher – Literacy Webinar

Revising Rhetorically: Re-seeing Writing through the Lens of Audience, Purpose, & Context

Thursday, October 22, 2015    7-9pm EST (optional discussion 8-9pm)
recording      slides      resources

TeachingArgumentsWhen students revise their writing rhetorically, they practice the situational awareness and responsiveness that characterize real-world communication. They try to see their compositions through their readers’ eyes, making choices about what works based on considerations of audience, purpose, and occasion. In this interactive session, we will explore ways to help students make revision decisions by applying rhetorical reading strategies—such as descriptive outlining and “the doubting and believing game”–to their own writing. We’ll also examine strategies for helping students analyze their image as writers and negotiate the different voices in a written conversation.

Recommended Reading: Teaching Arguments: Rhetorical Comprehension, Critique, and Response

JenniferFletcherDr. Jennifer Fletcher is an Associate Professor of English at California State University Monterey Bay, where she coordinates the undergraduate program for future English teachers. She is the author of Teaching Arguments: Rhetorical Comprehension, Critique, and Response and co-author of Fostering Habits of Mind in Today’s Students: A New Approach to Developmental Education. Jennifer leads professional development sessions for high school teachers throughout California as part of a nationally recognized academic preparation initiative, the California State University’s Expository Reading and Writing Course (ERWC). She also serves on the ERWC’s Steering Committee. Before joining the faculty at Monterey Bay, Jennifer taught high school English for over ten years in Southern California.

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.

Description:
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: delia.decourcy@oakland.k12.mi.us