Both CCSS and NGSS emphasize argumentative writing, asking students to make and defend/support claims; however, there is a prerequisite to this work, for there are nuances in these standards. For example, CCSS asks students to acknowledge the significance of the claims, and NGSS requires students to differentiate between cause and correlation. Before students are ready to complete these (and the other nuanced tasks), they must first “listen” to the conversations academics are having.
For years, I put the cart before the horse, prompting students to develop claims before they even had a grasp on the issues in which they were participating. The epiphany to how I needed to shift my approach to argumentative writing came last year in the middle of a writing workshop in which students were outlining for an argumentative paper. Sensing many students were struggling with developing minor claims, I had the whole class stop and asked students to list the points of contention within their topics. Almost none of them could. Many did not even know what a point of contention was. It was in this moment I realized students were not yet ready to enter the academic conversations. Leading up to this point, they had spent three days in the library and were assigned to gather 20 pieces of evidence from sources as homework, tasks my PLC and I deemed appropriate for getting them ready to meet CCSS standards.
Having not dwelled in the ideas of others, students could not narrow their topics past the overarching, polarized issues. Nor were they familiar with how academics participating in the conversation tend to talk. Instead of getting students to participate in arguments, I had them fact hunting to forcefully plug in some quotes to an argument that lacked authentic substance. That is what three days in the library was good for.
Students were not yet ready to enter the conversation; therefore, this year I challenged students to listen to the conversation consistently. Instead of merely adding an extra day in the library, I asked students to identify an issue they found provocative in the first week of school. Then each student was required to find and read two articles each week on his/her issue. I also tried to give students a class period each week to gather and read sources in addition to their weekly articles. Instead of a few cursory days fact hunting in the library, students spend an entire semester listening to an academic conversation. Assignments early on have them analyzing points of contention and vocabulary within the argument before they are asked to form their own claims and reasons. Along the way, this reading will fuel multiple, shorter writings in different genres (opinion editorial, academic paper, etc.) instead of just one, and student writing becomes increasingly sophisticated throughout the semester.
In her book, Teaching Arguments, Jennifer Fletcher illustrates how valuable this preparatory listening can be. She discusses an exercise she uses with her students in which she displays a painting for ten full minutes, asking them to list every detail they notice and the time they notice each detail. Like Fletcher, I used this strategy with John Singleton Copley’s Boy with Flying Squirrel. After ten minutes, I had a few students share their responses out loud. It is a successful lesson in the importance of listening before entering into the conversation. Early responses on their lists reflect superficial observations, such as colors and presence of basic objects. As the lists go on, more nuanced observations emerge, such as how the outline of the squirrel’s belly mirrors that of the boy’s ear. Some students even have interpretations of the painting’s themes toward the end of their lists. Similarly, we want students to communicate in an informed and sophisticated manner within the issues on which they write.
They are not ready to form their own claims, analyze evidence, or refute the reasons of opposing sides until they have thoroughly listened to the conversation. A good example of the value of listening to the conversation before entering it comes from one of my students who has been studying capital punishment throughout the semester. In one of her earlier writings, attempting to refute an opposing reason, she wrote, “Some say capital punishment does not even deter crime, but that is just wrong. Who would commit murder if they knew they could be put to death for it?” Later in the semester, after listening to the conversation further, she wrote, “While studies show states that have capital punishment have higher homicide rates than other states, it is important to note that deterring crime is not the only reason for capital punishment.” Notice how the latter reflects are more informed refutation, one that can only come from time spent listening to the conversation of the issue.
How might giving students time to listen to the conversation of self-selected issues benefit student work in your class?
When outside of the classroom, I enjoy mtn. biking, skiing, running, and grilling good food, but don’t enjoy karaoke or green beans, mainly because I can’t sing and was afraid of the Jolly Green Giant as a kid.
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