Getting Real with Argumentative Writing

Entering the Conversation

Most of ya’ll know my friend and colleague Dave Stuart over at Teaching the Core.  A few weeks ago, Stu shared ways that we’re working on supporting students so they can learn to really argue.  I wanted to explore this idea over here as a way to both expand the conversation and invite you all to share your experiences teaching argumentative writing.

Inquiry & Research

During the last two years, I have been researching ways that I can push my students to be better academic writers.  I’m really  fortunate in my district that students come from a rich, narrative writing workshop in the middle school, so my students were entering the high school able to free-write with great stamina.  I’m lucky also because my students are incredibly passionate about big issues (ex. they’ve raised thousands of dollars for Charity:Water in ninth grade World History).  But–even though my students had these strengths–I was noticing that they struggled to clearly organize their ideas, and their writing seemed to lack conviction, despite all that big passion.  It was becoming more and more obvious that the freedom and love of a narrative writing workshop wasn’t transferring to the disciplinary writing being asked of them in their other core subjects, namely the informational and argumentative writing tasks in social studies and science.

So, let’s be honest, this learning gap—which spans this chasm between totally focusing on love and freedom to actually working towards rigor and the realistic demands of life—only hints at the major imbalance facing current adolescent literacy instruction. This year I’d like to explore this imbalance with more than the “Tips” series has allowed me to do so far on the blog.

Today, I’ll just take a small step towards this debate by saying that  ELA teachers, even those who follow a totally free-style writing workshop, have to realize that students need to learn how to take a stance and use textual evidence to support their ideas.   From English and science to art and social studies, all content teachers need to make expository and argumentative writing the major writing focus across all content disciplines. 

When I was a single-subject teacher, my English major background lead me to believe that students would be prepared for college if they could master a personal narrative and half a dozen literary analyses. But now that I’m also teaching Social Studies and researching reading and writing across disciplines as a professor of literacy studies, I realize that this kind of limited thinking leaves my kids ill-prepared for any college major outside of English.  So as I began exploring these gaps, I kept coming back to these same questions:

  • Q: How can my students start practicing the language of scholars?
  • Q: How can my students learn formal structures without losing their autonomy? –and how could I teach those structures without selling my soul to some standardized test?
  • Q: How can my students write effective arguments, according to a standard of excellence?

Over the summer, I spent time reading and researching these problems with the Lake Michigan Writing Project.  My LMWP friends pushed me in my role as a teacher-researcher, urging me to explore how writing instructions needs to teach kids to stretch their thinking, to extend their analyses, to pull apart their claims and examine the details of an argument.

“Stretching the Cotton” became one of the metaphors I began using with my students to discuss the importance for a writer to elaborate her argument, highlighting the tiny fibers which hold it all together.

Another way to get these ideas to stick is this simple chant we’ve been using for years: “Blend-In, Quote, Talk-About-A-Quote. Blend-in, Quote, Talk-About-A-Quote.” Trust me when I say, I try to make it as annoying as possible, so it gets stuck in kids’ heads when they’re writing non-narrative essay.  So annoying, in fact, that we have accompanying dance moves for the chant.

Mentor Texts & Models

My students and I read, analyzed, and emulated the arguments of published authors, like Gallagher suggests in Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing Though Modeling and Mentor Texts.  Namely, we studied “Articles of the Week” that had an argumentative slant, like those found at The Week and The New York Times Room for Debate, and, more specifically, we frequently examined the work of Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Leonard Pitts (I love, love, love his work).

To do this type of text study, we use our “First Draft Read” to explore the texts for content, and our “Second Draft Read” invited students to share what they noticed the writers were doing, like structure, tone, and use of research.

Along these same lines, I regularly wrote arguments in front of my students, whether it was modeling their assignments in class or and sharing my process of writing my Master’s project at home.

In particular I wanted to model for my students how I use sentence starters or “brushstrokes” from Graff and Birkenstein’s book They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. I know, I know, I’ve mentioned this book many times before.  A lot of colleges are requiring this book for their freshman writing classes; however, I think that it should be in the hands of all high school freshmen.  My high school’s English Department included some of the They Say, I Say templates in our high school’s Academic Writing Handbook that we distribute and host online each year. This way all students and staff have access to the same common language.

Great news! Jim Burke, author and teacher extraordinaire, just announced that he’s teaming up for the third edition of They Say, I Say high school edition!

Quick Writes

Keeping the end in mind–writing effective academic arguments using the language of scholars–, I worked backwards to meet students at their level of proficiency.  We began with high support: the two-paragraph “They Say, I Say” argument structure presented in Graff’s Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind.

The general argument made by author X in her/his work, __________, is that __________. More specifically, X argues that __________. She/he writes, “__________.” In this passage, X is suggesting that __________. In conclusion, X’s belief is that __________.

In my view, X is wrong/right, because __________. More specifically, I believe that __________. For example, __________. Although X might object that __________, I maintain that __________.  Therefore, I conclude that __________.

I love how clearly this structure breaks down the They Say (Paragraph One) and the I Say (Paragraph Two), and within that, the structure explicitly guides students through “Blend-In, Quote, Talk-About-A-Quote” with multiple opportunities to elaborate and “stretch the cotton.” It gives them various brushstrokes to try out as they learn the formal structures of academic writing.

In the beginning of the year, I required that all students use this format to write their Article of the Week one-page responses. As we’ve moved through the school year, students have been individually “released” from this high structure when they have shown that they’ve mastered it.  Students next step is to begin trying out the various sentences stems on their own. The hope is that–with time and repeated practice and modeling–they will use these strategies independently.

Student Examples

The following example is an argument written during Trimester #1 last year. This multi-source essay asked students to argue whether or not the United States is still a “Land of Opportunity.” In doing so, students had to support their arguments with well-explained evidence/quotes from their choice of texts we read in English and U.S. History.  This is one, especially truant, sophomore’s essay:

Is the U.S still a “land of opportunity”? I would say yes. I say yes, because in the U.S you can grow up in a poor family. But if you work hard and put in the detection [dedication], you could eventually be in the middle class or even the upper class. Another reason why i say yes is because, back when the U.S was first discovered people would come over and start new lives. Like people today, we still have the same opportunities. Its just harder to get it. my last reason is because there are a ton of scholarships for you to get, And that can help pay for a lot of the college coast.Today in America if you graduate high school with a 4.0, you can get into almost any college you want to. You don’t always have to go to a college thow. We have the option to go to a trade school. If you go to a trade school. The only thing you need is your high school diploma or a GED. In America you don’t even have to graduate high school, you can take a test and get a GED.

They Say, I Say Options -Anchor Chart

They Say, I Say Options -Anchor Chart

Aside from the lack of “They Say” research support, you can see that because this truant student has missed out on the opportunity to study mature mentor texts, he is following a very elementary organizational structure: starting off with the question, answering with a yes/no, and the very unsophisticated idea transitions (ex. “Another reason why I say yes is because…”). It’s obvious that the student doesn’t know the language of scholars, so he has to fall back on language that is beneath him.  Furthermore, he hasn’t expanded his argument to really develop his claim of the United States being a land of opportunity.

Conversely, this is just an excerpt from the same student’s argument during Trimester #3. (Note: His attendance didn’t really improve, but his writing did make some gains.) This time, students were asked to argue whether or not it’s justified to do immoral or illegal acts in response to threat. Many spoke specifically about how we, as global citizens, responded to the threats of WWII. Again, the students had to ground their argument in textual evidence.

we did not respond appropriately to the japanese internment camps. Here many critics would probably object that the camps were good because they took the people that were a threat to us and they held them all up. There was then no other way they could get information from us, through spy work. In other words, the spies aren’t free, so they couldn’t get involved with our military or armed forces. On the one hand, they are right to say that spy work was going on. On the other hand, it is still true that they were taking pretty much what was going on in Germany and doing it in the US. They thought that they had more of a reason. Basically, Germany was having a genocide going on, and that was the whole reason for the war. When we took people and put them in a camp, it was just like Hitler was doing in Germany. to put it another way, he was taking Jews from their homes, taking their jobs, and pretty much destroying their whole lives, by making them into animals. 

According to PBS’s “Internment History, “They were forced to evacuate their homes and leave their jobs; in some cases family members were separated and put into different camps. President Roosevelt himself called the 10 facilities “concentration camps ” (PBS ). In making this comment, PBS argues that this was the same concept that was going on in germany to the jews as what we were doing on are home to the Japanese-Americans. Ultimately, what is at stake here is that they’re mistreating the Japanese-Americans, like they’re not humans. Everyone should have equal rights, no matter what is going at the time. Just because someone’s ancestor is bombing their new homeland, it doesn’t mean it’s their fault; therefore, they’re not to blame for the attack….

Although this scene may seem of concern to only a small group of people, it should in fact concern anyone who cares about citizens of the United States, because they are American citizens, so obviously they have the same rights as any other American citizen. Clearly, we did not respond appropriately to the japanese internment camps.

This go-round, it’s obvious that he was able to develop his argument, add research evidence, and maintain a more sophisticated tone.

Student Feedback

When I asked my sophomores what they thought about using “They Say, I Say” brushstrokes, they responded as follows:

“I like how they give me a place to start, because they help you set up your argument and save you a lot of time.” – Sean

“The templates gave you a set format to start and end an argument, so that no matter what–if you were well-prepared on both sides–you had it in the bag.” -Nate

“[They Say, I Say] helped me by giving me a place to start, looking for a side to argue, and putting in the evidence I can use for both sides of the… argument.” -Becca

“They helped me in a lot of ways. I worked to get better in areas where I needed it, and I actually improved in the areas that I was already good.” -Aaron

“It helped me develop how I argued and made me sound more like I knew what I was talking about.” -David

What are your experiences?

Seriously, I wanna know! As I continue to research this dilemma, I’d love to collaborate with you, hearing what works and what doesn’t at your various grade-levels.

  • Q: How do you find a literacy balance between the love/freedom and rigor/realistic demands of life?
  • Q: How do you help your students start practicing the language of scholars?
  • Q: How do you support your students as they learn formal structures without losing their autonomy? –and how do you teach those structures without selling your soul to some standardized test?
  • Q: How do you teach your students to write effective arguments, according to a standard of excellence?

Thanks for the help and your support! 🙂

10 thoughts on “Getting Real with Argumentative Writing

  1. E-cash, I love it. Thanks for producing such a comprehensive look at argumentative writing in your room, and for toeing the debate we always talk about 🙂 I’m with you, E!

    I’m most compelled to answer your question about teaching structures without selling our soul to a standardized test. To me, it all comes back to what do my students need to flourish in the long term? And so, when it comes to Graff’s structures or even the six-paragraph essay or a structured debate, I think those things are valuable en masse so that our kids can internalize the “moves” that underpin virtually all intelligible, intellectual discourse in (at least) the USA. That being said, I work hard to be transparent with my students about the utility of those structures and why we use them so much.

    That’s my two cents, anyway — thanks again, E-money!

    • Stu, thank YOU for introducing me to They Say, I Say and the dynamic duo of Graff & Birkenstein!

      Also, you know it already, but I’ll say it publicly: I so appreciate your constant focus on students’ needs in the LONG-TERM. Unfortunately, I feel like many teachers tie up their instruction in modes of student interest and attitude–which do have some role; however, they need to focus more on the curriculum demands that are most pressing to their students’ futures. Because this is how we can fulfill that promise of equal access to college and beyond.

  2. Hi Erica,
    Thanks for this! I was just finishing grading a stack of essays today (I teach 8th graders in Hudsonville) and struggling with the lack of scholarly language. (They are writing sentences like, “One piece of evidence to prove my claim is…” Ugh!) It was apparent to me that I’m not giving them enough practice/instruction on how to craft strong sentences. I am going to add the “They Say, I Say” argument structure to my lesson plans. Thanks again for sharing! I’m sure I’ll be returning to re-read this post again as I teach, process, and re-think plans.

    • Dana, it was so nice to meet you at the Kittle Workshop last month! Thanks so much for saying hello. I’d love to hear how it’s going using They Say, I Say with your eighth graders. I’m always curious how teachers modify the ideas for each grade level.

  3. Thanks, Erica. Always love reading your posts. They push my thinking a lot.

    It’s so funny, I actually include “use language of exposition” on class rubrics but I know I’ve done a mediocre if not pathetic job of teaching them how to use that language. This makes it crystal clear. I’m looking forward to the third edition of “They Say, I Say” coming out soon and hopefully finding a way to structure this between the 6th-8th grade teachers at my school so the scaffold gradually fades and/or is replaced with more sophsticated analysis.

    All types of writing can utilize freedom, love, and a disciplined approach.

    • YES, Ben! You say it so perfectly! As ELA teachers, we CAN find balance in freedom, love, and a disciplined approach. It’s not just a one-or-the-other mentality.

      Also, I totally appreciate you sharing how–like me–you may have botched an aspect of the instruction that was on the rubric. How crazy it is that we expect kids to master some skill when we haven’t properly scaffolded it for them!

      Finally, be sure to hit me up with the link to your blog post, where you explain how to work out the 6th-8th grade They Say, I Say structures. I’d love to share that with the rest of my Social Studies PLC.

      As always, thanks for all the good conversation, Ben! 🙂

  4. Erica,

    Thanks so much for sharing. More specifically (!), thank you for sharing a student’s authentic before-and-after work using the moves. Can you say more about how you gave that student feedback on his work that provided some focus and direction for this growth? Is there a rubric for argument that you’ve found effective?

    With love from New Orleans,

    • This is a great question about feedback, Lynsay!

      Specifically, when working with students at the “before” stage, like I show in the Land of Opportunity essay, I start by having the students highlight the necessary components of their paper by marking them in different colors. For example: Blend-ins in yellow, Quotes in green, and Talk-About-the-Quotes in blue. It sounds simple but even from afar, they can tell if their paragraphs are missing textual evidence or if their “I Say” analyses aren’t the bulk of the essay. This is normally the big hitter for revision, because kids can independently develop their work from here.

      If they don’t know which direction to go after it’s highlighted, I start offering coaching questions: “What do you notice about your choice of quotes?” or “Looking at the blue Talk-About-the-Quote section, how might identifying one of your naysayers stretch your argument?” or “How do your Blend-Ins compare to the Blend-Ins in our mentor text?”

      Finally, it’s not until they have reworked and edited the essay do I shift into the role of Editor, pointing out last-minute errors in grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling; Reader, sharing personal responses; or Evaluator, grading the writing. I don’t have solid rubric that I love, namely because I struggle with the gaps that rubric present.

      I hope this explanation is helpful. I gleaned a lot about feedback from reading Peter Johnston’s book “Choice Words” for feedback language or Jen Van Der Heide’s article “Changing Roles: Providing written feedback to student writers by moving from the ideal-text bearer to the roles of coach, reader, and editor.”

      Best of luck! And thanks again for the great question. 🙂

      • Such a helpful response, Erica. The Van Der Heide paper gave me a ton to think about. Most of my 9th graders come in writing far (think 3-5 years) below what one would expect for a recent 8th grader, so I’ve often told them exactly what to correct out of urgency. That approach hasn’t led to much retention or ownership, though, so it might be time for a change. I want to do more thinking and experimentation around how I can execute the “coach” role in a way that will expedite kids’ achievement– maybe combining it with a clear criteria for success and highlighting the criteria where the work falls short. Or is that too ideal-text-bearer-ey? (Yep… That’s a word.)

        Also, you mentioned a “before” stage as if it were a routine in your classroom or in the writing process as you see it? Can you describe what this is, when it happens, and what the other stages are? If you’ve done this somewhere else on the blog, link me!

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