Some years ago, near the beginning of my teaching career, I received a batch of argumentative papers from my students that were perplexing. On one level, most had well-integrated evidence from a variety of sources, the skill on which we had focused for the assignment; however, despite the well-integrated evidence, the naivety and aimlessness of their claims and reasons hindered their arguments.
Troubled by the writing my students were producing, I reflected on the cause and concluded there were inherent problems in how we approached the research project. Amid what was done effectively were missed opportunities to create crucial paradigm shifts in student thinking of how to use research for arguments effectively. Common Core State Standards call for “knowledgeable claims” in argumentative writing; however, an often neglected skill in argumentative units is teaching students to listen (through reading) to the conversation before they participate.
Writing should begin with reading – lots of it. How can students develop their own position on an issue if they do not know the actual points of contention that exist within it? How can students develop thorough elaboration if they do not know the substance of the issues in which they are participating? This is why student writing seemed uninformed in the assignment I referenced above. Students were largely naive about their chosen fields of inquiry; therefore, their own positions seemed disjointed and their reasoning, awkward.
Rhetorician Kenneth Burke provides an apt metaphor for the value in listening to the conversation through substantial reading prior to even forming one’s claims on an issue. He likens it to entering a parlor full of people discussing a heated issue. One cannot just barge into the conversation without first listening to obtain an understanding of its nature and the different positions involved.
I find reading the Burkean parlor metaphor out loud to my students while they envision the situation in their minds to be helpful in getting them to understand the purpose of reading heavily on their topics before even brainstorming ideas for papers. Often I even act it out with my classes, asking a volunteer to wait out in the hall while the class selects an issue and begins discussing. (Cats versus dogs is a good one.) Waiting for my prompt, the volunteer enters the room and is instructed to participate in the discussion when ready. The amount of time it requires for this student to participate is the crux of the metaphor, one that helps students shift their previous (ineffective) understandings of how to conduct research for a topic, allowing them to see writing as dialogue and that “listening” prior to entering the conversation procures more informed ideas.
In Teaching Arguments: Rhetorical Comprehension, Critique, and Response, Jennifer Fletcher adds that teaching students to be attentive to the conversation provides further insights to their fields in inquiry, which leads to richer elaboration in their arguments. She has her students look at a painting, Boy with a Flying Squirrel, for ten minutes and record details they observe, noting the time at which each detail was recorded. The lesson: How extended experience with a topic brings revelations. Conducting research to fact hunt for details in support of a preconceived claim is how most students understand the purpose of research, but it does not suffice. More on how to use Fletcher’s technique in the classroom can be found in my last blog.
What research projects do your students do, and how would teaching them to listen to the conversation benefit their work?
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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