We 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.
My 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?
Rick 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.