In late November, a reporter from The New York Times wrote a little piece about a Nazi.
After the article was pubished, I watched the drama unfold. Readers quickly took the NYT to task for normalizing white supremacy, and the paper tried to respond. Amid this controversy, I knew that this was a lesson for my high school English classes, because it raised a knotty and important question.
Was the article as awful as most readers were claiming?
Much of the writing our students will encounter in their adult lives is like The New York Times piece: controversial and up for interpretation. And that’s important to recognize, because in many schools–mine included–aligning to the Common Core has pushed more and more of our writing toward argument that focuses on clear claims, evidence, and reasoning.
An unintended consequence of this shift, I think, has been students who are ill-equipped to read texts with muddier claims–like the NYT piece.
So, what do we do when the writer’s intent is up for debate? How do we evaluate an argument if we can’t say with certainty what the argument is?
In my classes, we asked these three questions about the NYT piece, as we worked toward reasoned conclusions.
1. What is the writer trying to do with this piece?
There are lots of ways to phrase that question or coax the answer out of students, like:
- How do you think the writer wants you to feel?
- What does the writer want you to know–or think, do, believe, or understand–once you’ve finished reading this?
My students and I pretended we were the NYT writer and imagined what his purpose might have been. Was he trying to convince us that Nazis are real people just like us? Was he trying to normalize them? Was he trying to show us that they have already been normalized? Was he trying to sound an alarm bell? We weren’t sure.
The New York Times explained they had hoped to “shed more light, not less, on the most extreme corners of American life and the people who inhabit them,” but they admitted that the piece “offended so many readers.”
So it was time for the second important question.
2. Did the writer accomplish what he intended? How?
I sent my students digging for evidence. What features of the text suggested the writer hoped to “shed more light” on the extremism?
In her book Teaching Arguments, Jennifer Fletcher suggests that you have students play the “Doubting and Believing Game” with a text, so we did a version of that here.
I asked students to suspend their frustration with the writer and believe positive intent. They went looking for examples of attempts to “shed some light.”
Next, we doubted. We looked through the lens of those who were offended by the text. Which raised the question: How might these same examples read differently if considered from a different perspective?
Finally, we were left with the third–and most important–question.
3. Now what?
At this point, my students were a little frustrated. They wanted to know the answer. Is this awful?! Yes or no? The muddiness of it all made them uncomfortable.
Though it was tempting to tip back in my teacher chair and unleash my answer on them, I restrained myself. Instead, we generated more questions:
- Which perspective is valued most in this piece? Why?
- Which perspectives are missing in this piece? What does that suggest?
- How much does intent matter?
- Who decides which impact is most important?
- How do I respond to a piece that offends me?
These are the types of questions we need our students to grapple with if we hope to help them engage in the complex, muddy arguments of today. It is easy to gasp in horror at an “awful thing” somebody says or writes. It is much more challenging to push back against that and look for an explanation or clarification.
We won’t always understand one another, of course. And sometimes further examination will reveal that something is, indeed, awful. Still, we can’t just leave awful things unexamined, and critical reading and conversation can help our students see that.
Hattie Maguire (@teacherhattie) hit a milestone in her career this year: she realized she’s been teaching longer than her students have been alive (17 years!). She is spending that 17th year at Novi High School, teaching AP English Language and AP Seminar for half of her day, and spending the other half working as an MTSS literacy student support coach. When she’s not at school, she spends her time trying to wrangle the special people in her life: her 8-year-old son, who recently channeled Ponyboy in his school picture by rolling up his sleeves and flexing; her 5-year-old daughter, who has discovered the word apparently and uses it to provide biting commentary on the world around her; and her 40-year-old husband, whom she holds responsible for the other two.