There is an ongoing debate in my English department about instructing writing. Do we teach students how to write or do we guide them how to become writers? Let me clarify. One of my coworkers, who I will call Irene, believes most students are clueless how to write an essay and must be taught writing by strictly following a template. According to Irene, we need to teach our students to follow the Jane Schaffer method to construct a paragraph, or mimic Graf and Birkenstein’s They Say, I Say to develop a thesis. If we do so, eventually our students will have the tools to write like an academic.
Another coworker, who I will call Jordon, is adamant that our students have become so programmed by formulaic writing, they have lost all sense of their unique writing voice. According to Jordan, “cookie-cutter writing” has become so processed that we end up reading the same dull essay over and over again. Writing templates are retarding our students’ creativity.
I am on the fence on this issue. I agree with Irene that students need a formula to construct their writing, but I also see Jordan’s point. If we give our students an outline to structure their essay, they see it as the correct and only way to write.
The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have turned this heated debate into a full fledged conflagration. The Common Core Writing Standards differentiate between persuasion and argumentation. Persuasion is like a rant where a writer convinces his audience based upon his beliefs by appealing to emotion. Argumentation, conversely, uses a point-counterpoint structure addressing the other side of the debate and grounding an argument with logic and factual evidence. While my school begins to implement the CCSS as our standards for student assessment, the debate in the English department has shifted to how do we teach argumentation. Do we teach argumentation using writing templates or do we guide our students how to develop their own argument? Meanwhile, Irene and Jordan have become further entrenched in their positions.
At a recent professional development training, I learned we could do both. My instructor, education consultant Laura Schneider Vanderploeg, modeled a brilliant way to teach argumentation that involves both using an anchor text and allows students the freedom to structure their own writing. Vanderploeg believes argumentation should follow the process of having students “collect” research on a topic that interests them, brainstorm ideas narrowing down their topic, and “develop a seed” or position on that topic. To model this process Vanderploeg used a “mentor text,” or a piece of writing that models for students how this process can be done.
Vanderploeg used an excerpt of Steven Waldman’s “The Tyranny of Choice” as our mentor text. Waldman takes the reader on his trip to an athletic sock store and shares his confusion over the seemingly infinite variety of athletic hosiery on the store shelves. Our task was to annotate the text looking for the author’s central idea using a verb statement (“Waldman argues…,” “Waldman unpacks…,” “Waldman questions…”) and then paraphrase each paragraph to determine the structure of the piece. As a group, we discussed how Waldman saved his thesis for the end of the excerpt to demonstrate how he was grappling with his topic. We also analyzed how he resisted following the linear five-paragraph essay format by weaving statistics throughout the piece. Vanderploeg’s point was by annotating a mentor text, students learn how great writers craft their writing in interesting and unusual ways to reach their audience.
It was the writing task we did next, however, that really got me excited about teaching this strategy to my students. Vanderploeg had us work in pairs and handed us a double-sided piece of paper. On one side was a paraphrase of Waldman’s thesis, followed by a list of statistics. Our task was to compose an introduction paragraph supporting Waldman’s position selecting the list of statistics to ground our claim.
Then, we turned the paper over.
On the backside, we had to refute Waldman’s position. Our job was to construct another introduction paragraph that represents the counterargument using a series of new statistics that would support the opposite position. I was dumbfounded. When I teach rhetoric, I always model for my students the point-counterpoint structure. But, in my experience, students tend to be dismissive, or even contemptuous, when addressing the other side of a debate. Using Vanderploeg’s method, students must confront the other side in their writing. I had never seen a teaching strategy that was so effective in guiding students to be empathetic of the opposition.
As we were leaving the training, I asked both Irene and Jordan their reaction to Vanderploeg’s approach. Irene was credulous, “Of course it works. Using a mentor text is just another form of a template.” Then, I asked Jordan for his reaction. He glared at Irene and said, “I am still dubious of using templates to teach writing.” But conceded, “If the Common Core forces our students to examine the craft of writing from artists like E.B. White or Virginia Woolf, consider me intrigued.”