Empowering Students Through Their Writing

This past weekend students like Emma Gonzalez made history. Kids not only stood their ground, they stood up for what they believe in. They stood up peacefully. They stood up with a purpose. They stood up eloquently. Ms. Gonzalez represents all that is right about her generation. She spoke with passion, dignity, and purpose. And, she knew exactly how to make her point. She represents all that we Teachers would want our students to turn out to be.

This generation is starting to chip away at that unfair reputation they were tagged with. Their protest for gun control is something that politicians and leaders have refused to do anything about. But, as many of us in the education field have known for a while, this generation is more than capable of standing up when they believe in something.

It is up to us to foster this skill. It is up to us to arm them with the skills necessary to make a difference in the world. Teachers have that power. English Teachers have even more of a direct route to help turn students into socially aware people with directed passions and deep convictions. More importantly, we can help them stand up for what they believe in.

Teachers of writing have known this forever.  We know that words, constructed properly and with focused intent, have power. Words have the power to change things. Even standard makers seem to have gotten on board after the Common Core put a heavy emphasis on argument writing. It took a while for many in the education industry to get comfortable with this genre of writing after years of simple persuasion, but now students are experiencing true argument in the elementary school and learning tools to put together a logical, factual, appealing argument as they progress through their secondary education years.

This emphasis has forced Teachers–especially English Teachers–to look at everything they do in the classroom differently. In short, everything is an argument. Literature can be read as an argument. Non-fiction is an argument. Every bit of news is an argument. In short, every writer is trying to “argue” his/her point, whether it is to analyze a piece of news, show results of an experiment, write about a particular baseball team, or even in a work of fiction. Argument is everywhere. We must teach our students how to see the argument, how to see its construction, and how to make their own.

It is those skills that we see young people like Emma Gonzalez use as they stand up to the listless politicians. It is those skills that students will need as they head into a job market that will expect innovation, constant reinvention, and constant proof. Argument writing gives students those skills. It is our obligation to develop them.

Below is one approach to argument writing. My position as English Department Coordinator allows me to speak and work with Teachers from grades 7 through 12. This year, my teaching periods are with 10th graders. Our course, AP Seminar, is all argument. Students generate their own topics, make their own claims, look for evidence, evaluate source credibility, examine multiple perspectives, offer conclusions/solutions, defend those conclusions/solutions, and then evaluate their process. That is all done in written form as well as an oral presentation. It has been one of the best experiences of my career as I get to see students generate their own work with me acting as a guide.

The rest of my day, however, is spent working with curriculum, conferencing with teachers in my department, and a whole lot of meetings. One of the internal struggles I have in the position is my credibility with the Middle School. Although I taught 8th grade for the first five years of my career, I’ve been a high school teacher for the past 15 years. While I am secure in my process, there was some doubt about whether “my game” would work. I needed to find out. I needed to live it with a middle school class to see what I can do from my position to better our District. And, frankly, the idea of teaching a middle school class is always far better than sitting in a meeting.

Fortunately, I work with a great department. I am often met with “whatever you need” any time I ask for a favor. This time, I needed a class. I wanted to teach an argument unit to a 7th grade class. I asked one Teacher and she immediately said yes. That should not be undervalued; many Teachers would balk at the request since it would just be for one period. There is a routine and long term plans. While they were about to do argument writing, she had no problems allowing me to enter her room and be with her class.

The past three weeks have been some of the most fun I have had in years. This seventh grade group is a tremendous group of young people. They all have a desire to learn. They all have strong opinions. They all have passions. And, they all have been willing to work since the day I walked in. Here’s what we’ve done and where we are going.

Step One: The Big Rule

After a brief introduction, I told them the big rule: You Are A Writer. They were given the same speech I give my high school students: What you have to say is important. What you have to say can change the world. We talked about the events going on in the world and how students are standing up. They are a part of that and I was there to prove to them that they are a part of that. I also made them two promises:

  1. I would never tell them what to write. They could ask for advice, but I would talk to them, not tell them what to write or how to think. There would be no graphic organizers or word limits. They seemed to like that.
  2. I would never give them homework. They seemed to really like that.

Step Two: Define Argument

Many beginning writers will confuse argument for persuasion. To some degree, they are similar, but as I tell early writers, persuasion is the third cousin to argument. They are family, but they aren’t all that close. My seventh graders had an idea of argument because many of them “remembered” doing something in sixth grade.

We started with a simple think and quick write: recall a time when you argued with a member of your family or one of your closest friends. What was it about? What was your side? How did you try to prove it?

They talked more than wrote at first. My first day back in a middle school classroom was a big reminder that there is much more of a need for thorough explanation. So, that prompt was talked through. I gave an example of an argument I had with another teacher about how I believe we should ban homework (shocking, I know). They got it and wrote.

Then, they shared their work with a partner. At first, they looked at me funny. But, I reminded them of the big rule: they are writers and what they have to say matters. So, people need to hear it. They read to each other. Then, they shared with me. Almost everyone volunteered to read or talk about their answer. Afterwards, we talked about the main components of their argument: what they wanted (claim), how they tried to get it (evidence), what their opponent said (counterclaim), and why their opponent was wrong (refutation).

Our class came up with this definition for argument: An argument is a type of writing that makes a claim on a topic or issue and backs it up with solid reasons and evidence. That’s a solid definition. They are smart kids and were treated as such. There wasn’t a ditto given with the definition; they came up with it. Those words would be brought into our daily conversation rather than given as memorization. As they work, they will apply them. As they apply them, they will better learn what they mean.

To conclude the first day, we discussed what would make really good argument subjects for them. They looked confused. Again, I saw you have to be thorough. I reminded them that I wouldn’t be telling them what to write. They would need to come up with their own topic. One young lady raised her hand and asked, “anything? You mean we get to choose?”

Once I told them yes, the topics started flying, ranging from video games (Fortnite is big in seventh grade) to censorship to animal rights to sports. They had passions. They were excited. They were told to keep a list as we would return to that later in the unit.

Step Three: Claim Vs. Opinion

After opening up class with another quick write, we moved into defining claim and opinion. They got this really quickly. They realized that “School starts too early” is an opinion and “Starting school later would improve academic success” is a claim. The difference is that the second one gives something to prove. We will argue that starting school later would increase student performance. We’ll have to prove that. The opinion doesn’t give anything to prove. They understood immediately. For this group, we moved on. Another class may have needed more practice.

Step Four: Argument Is Everywhere

We needed to establish the idea of everything being an argument. So, I showed them this toothpaste commercial. After watching, I asked them to talk with their neighbor about how Crest was selling their product. After a couple of minutes, they shouted out answers: Shakira, “playful side”, “whitens”, “90 percent in a few weeks”, “amplify…”. As they talked, I listed them on the board in three separate spaces. On the left side, Shakira and Crest were written. In the middle, “playful”, “amplying”, and “creative” were written. On the right, the two facts regarding whitening. After telling them how great they did, one student asked why I wrote them that way. It’s amazing what kids pick up on.

That led into the discussion of The Appeals. I told them that we argue in three different ways. We argue through using familiar, safe, reliable, credible things (ethos), through emotion (pathos), and through facts (logic). I labeled each section of the board with the name of the three appeals. A spokesperson like Shakira gives credibility (she’s famous and has great teeth, therefore Crest is good). Also, Crest has been around forever. It’s pretty reliable. The middle board was really emotional, giving benefits from using the product such as increased confidence and playfulness. Those are things everyone wants and feels. And, of course, the logos are the facts. We would practice this every day with difference commercials, ranging from the ASPCA commercial to car commercials. Each day, they were able to see how the companies were laying out their argument. And, they were able to put them into categories. We concluded that many rely on pathos and then put the facts in later. It was something to be aware of when they are reading. Emotions are powerful, but informed citizens have to see the facts for what they are.

To practice the appeals, we began a quick activity every day where I would select a couple of students to sell something. I’d give them a random object from the room—my pen, hand sanitizer, a pack of gum with just two pieces in it, etc. They would then have 30 seconds to convince the class to spend $30 on the item. The audience had to listen to what appeals the sellers would use. It’s a quick, fun activity that gets kids thinking about how to create an argument orally, how to dissect one as a consumer, and then how to analyze how to strengthen those arguments.

Step Five: Model

After each day’s start of analysis and selling, we moved on to my model. I told them I needed help with my opinion that homework is horrible. Together, we came up with reasons why we didn’t like homework. Some students disagreed, which was great. They came in handy for the counterclaim. We brainstormed a list of reasons why we thought homework wasn’t good.

This gave an opportunity to talk about sources and finding evidence. Knowing that our excellent Librarian was going to do a major lesson with this in the coming week, we kept it simple. We talked about valid sources and how to evaluate credibility. For the next couple of days, we started with some short articles. After the quick reads, we discussed the idea of bias and how to look for it.

After generating our list of reasons, I chose one: homework causes stress. I modeled for them how to write an argument paragraph, starting with the claim. We then researched for one piece of evidence. We discussed how to use quotes and how to do citations. While I was the one typing the paragraph, they were dictating sentences to me. Some kids were searching, without being told to do so, for more sources. After a period and a half, we had a model that they made with very little guidance. Now, it was time for their work.

Step 6: Group Practice

With a list of possible claims for why homework isn’t good, the class now decided on our full claim. They chose the three best reasons.

So, they wrote my claim as a class. It turned out like this:

Homework is barbaric because it gets in the way of family time, cause health problems, and gets in the way of true studying.

Their words. Not too shabby. I love that they chose barbaric.

The class divided up into groups. Each group took one of the claims. The group of kids who thought homework was valuable were our counterclaim group. They came up with one reason it was valuable.

For the next few days, groups researched and drafted their paragraphs on chart paper. During that time, the two Teachers talked with the groups. We asked questions, read their work, and, most importantly, encouraged. By the end, we had four excellent paragraphs. We just needed one last thing to top it off.

Step 7: The Hook

We started class with a discussion about why they read. After giving answers that ranged from they had to be interested in the subject to having good characters to it being descriptive, I once again had to refocus my question. How do we get people to actually read our stuff?

There was silence. I waited them out. One young lady finally said, “our introduction?”. Yes, our introduction. I told them that writers call that “the hook”. We have to hook the reader or they won’t even make it to our really good argument. Or, worse yet, they’ll be in a bad mood when they get to our good stuff. We talked about how when they are trying to get something from their parents, they don’t start with reasons; they start with compliments and reminding them how good they’ve been. They are trying to hook them in.

We talked about how to do good hooks and how there is no real set way to do it. We had to keep in mind our audience and what would be effective. They had some great responses: “you can scare them”, “give them a crazy fact”, “be confident”, “tell a joke.” I added, the idea of telling a story. They had done narrative earlier in the year so they knew what I was talking about.

In truth, narrative is such an important part of writing. We respond to stories. They create pathos. They can give ethos. They can set up or be an example of logos. They liked that idea so we decided to do a quick write about their worst night of homework. They did this so quick. They had such great, vivid stories of staying up until 2 AM (as 7th graders!) to having to choose between studying for a test or completing a study guide. After sharing, we voted on the best one and made it our introduction. This was the class introduction:

Picture this: It’s 1:00 AM. You’re tired. Your eyelids feel like they weigh 500 pounds.  You’re hungry because you haven’t eaten dinner. Your stomach is eating you from the inside, out. You smell bad, after a long day at school. You just want to go to sleep. But, you have three very thick packets to complete and you have a big science test in the morning. The packets for homework were time consuming and got in the way of everything from eating to studying to other activities. All of this was because of homework. Homework is barbaric because it gets in the way of family time, cause health problems, and gets in the way of true studying.

Their words. Again, not too shabby. Kids are amazing.

So, in a matter of a few class sessions, the class created an argument with a hook, research as evidence, a counterclaim, and a refutation of the counterclaim. They wrote it, but they had guidance to push their thinking. They just needed a close-to-real-world experience.

Step 8: A Real World Simulation

Luckily, I work in a District with excellent Administrators who are there for the kids. The building Principal agreed to come in and debate the students about homework. Obviously, he was in support of homework, but under the idea of doing it the right way. The students read their essay to him. We showed him which of the appeals we used and then invited him to debate. For a solid 40 minutes, the Principal and a group of seventh graders had an intelligent, mature discussion in which each side acknowledged each other’s argument. Both sides had evidence. The kids were excited that the Principal came in. They felt respected and heard. They learned about the idea of doing homework the right way, that our District is looking to improve on it, and that their beliefs were not only heard, but important.

They wrote for a purpose. And, they stood up for their beliefs in this simulation.

Step 9: Using The Class Literature As Practice

So, we’ve scaffolded quite a bit, but it was now time for students to do this on their own. The class had just finished reading The Hunger Games before I started this unit. Their teacher had already started using the literature to help them develop the skill of pulling quotes and then analyzing them in order to prove a point. So, as said earlier, everything is an argument. Our question for independent practice was this: Does Peeta Love Katniss?

Each student had to make a claim, support that claim, and examine/refute the counterclaim. For the next few days, they wrote and we conducted the workshop model. We sat with them as they wrote, pushing their thinking and asking questions. They were never told how to write something or to follow a model. They did a great job making a clear claim. They did a nice job with selecting a quote. I made a mental note to discuss how to connect the analysis of the quote and keep it focused on the main argument. It’s a difficult skill and one they need more practice with. Fortunately, our Librarian was about to help with that.

Step 10: Independent Thematic Argument Practice

The Librarian took the class for three days to work on a thematic argument question based off of their book. They will be arguing whether or not violent video games causes people to be violent. The Librarian led the class in a discussion about source validity, how to document sources, and how to navigate databases. She’s also taught them how to pull quotes and work on the analysis. She did this by using a website, Pro-Con. She showed them the evidence and the analysis and led them through an activity of how to document them. As the lesson unfolded, kids were learning Google shortcuts, learning how to support their claims, and how to best construct their argument for optimal effectiveness.

The best part of this was I got to sit with kids as they were learning. I was able to observe their process and the skills I’ll need to reinforce when they do their own argument. It was valuable time to see them in action without being the lead person in the room.

Step 11: The Real Thing…Their Argument

We’ll be starting the final part pretty soon. Students will select their own topics. They started their lists during the first days of this unit, but they’ll likely add to that list now that they understand the process and the purpose. Each student will be permitted to pick their own area of interest, pitch a question to me, refine that question, and then begin their argument paper.

It will be a challenge as they will have to find sources, incorporate and document them in the paper, and incorporate multiple perspectives. And, they won’t be given a “how to” or “fill in the blank” for it. They will have a guide who will meet with them each day. For those struggling with words, we’ll talk it out first. For those struggling to find sources, we’ll search together. They will be writing and conferencing daily. When they are done, they will share their work because what they have to say matters.

Final Thought

Argument writing is worth the long, arduous process. It is vital for today’s students as it provides them with the necessary skills to navigate today’s complicated world. It will allow them to discern news better, analyze data and findings more efficiently, and be less inclined to be swayed by emotion rather than the actual facts. We already see this generation rising up and taking a stand. We just need to reinforce their knowledge with the proper skills.