Close Reading + Argumentative Writing Surrounding a Wordless Graphic Novel

As a continuation of our practice of close reading and argumentative writing, my students began their first U.S. History unit trying to answer the question “Is the U.S. still a Land of Opportunity?” Working from the ideas of Gerald Graff and Cathy Berkenstein’s book They Say, I Say: Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, we want to maintain the idea that if I—as a student—only talk about what I think, I’ll sound ignorant to the larger conversation going on around the world on a given subject. Students must recognize that yes, their opinions—the “I Say”—are important; however, their commentary needs to also reflect what others are saying—the “They Say”—regardless if they support or oppose one’s own argument.

As an entry event to our study of the Industrial Era, my students close read The Arrival by Shaun Tan, a wordless graphic novel.

“In a heartbreaking parting, a man gives his wife and daughter a last kiss and boards a steamship to cross the ocean. He’s embarking on the most painful yet important journey of his life- he’s leaving home to build a better future for his family.

Shaun Tan evokes universal aspects of an immigrant’s experience through a singular work of the imagination. He does so using brilliantly clear and mesmerizing images. Because the main character can’t communicate in words, the book forgoes them too. But while the reader experiences the main character’s isolation, he also shares his ultimate joy” (Summary from Goodreads).

To start, each student was assigned 3-4 pages of the book to close read. They were to write a brief argument, stating what message they believed Shaun Tan was trying to share with his readers. Students used sentence templates from They Say, I say to strengthen the academic awesomeness of their arguments.

Academic Templates for Introducing Something Implied or Assumed:

  • Although Shaun Tan does not say so directly, he apparently implies that _____________ due to ______________.
  • Shaun Tan  apparently assumes that ______________ based on ___________.
  • The artwork suggests/hints/implies ___________ because __________.
  • Based on my understanding of _____________, I have to assume _______________.
  • What I know about ____________ makes me think that __________________. Continue reading
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Use In-Class Debate as a Transition to Argumentative Writing

New Waves of InitiativesWhen it comes to the Common Core, many teachers today feel a bit overwhelmed by the barrage of ever-changing standards and top-down state expectations.  In terms of these changes, most of us will readily agree that we just want to be protected from the waves of new initiatives that wash upon us as school employees.

The agreement for protection, however, usually ends at this desire.  Some teachers are totally convinced that these changes are tsunamis or personal attacks on the beaches of their individual teaching philosophies. They maintain that they’ll lose all ownership of their classrooms with each new crash upon their shores.  Although I agree with these sentiments up to a point,  I am too optimistic to accept the overall conclusion that we’re turning into script-reading robots.

The Common Core Anchor Standards for Writing begins by stating that students should be able to “write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.”  While the CCSS is rolling out new language and structure, there is no need for teachers to freak.  Jaws is not approaching the beach!  Argumentation is something we’ve always asked students to do, regardless of grade-level, subject-matter, or standards-era.

They Say, I SayInitially,  I’ll admit. I was freaking out. Even the CCSS shift in semantics from “persuasive essay” to “argument,” threw me for a tizzy; however, with the support of my colleague Dave Stuart’s blog www.teachingthecore.com, I felt comfortable at least experimenting with these changing standards and argumentative writing expectations. This year, Stu introduced me to Gerald Graff and Cathy Berkenstein’s book They Say, I Say: Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, which as one reviewer said, this book “demystifies academic argumentation.” My goodness! I wish I could jump in my DeLorean, fire up the flux capacitor, and force 17-year-old me to read this book before heading off to college. It would have saved me many an all-nighters. <<More on the awesomeness of They Say, I Say later>>

In the following videos, you’ll see my sophomore Humanities students practicing their argumentative skills in our first in-class debate.  I began experimenting with argumentative writing by starting with debate. The awesome students I get to “hang out with” this year are not only very engaged socially but quite competitive. I figured they might internalize the CCSS aspects of speaking and listening before tackling the writing.

An example of student close reading notesDuring the week, students were first asked to independently close read an article about the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens. Like most of our Articles of the Week, I found the article on one of my favorite resources: The Week. <<Find my students’ version of the Article of the Week (AoW) here.>> At the end of the week, they divided into two teams, with one side supporting diplomacy and the other supporting military action.

Debate Requirements

Debate Framework

Following a modified Lincoln-Douglas debate format, students had a few minutes to organize who was speaking when, since I require all students to speak at least once during the debate. Each team has three minutes to speak during the opening session. Then each side rallies back and forth with two minutes each to shoot down the other side. This leaves each side four minutes to conclude and wrap up their arguments. As long they show social intelligence and encourage all students on their team to speak at least once, the remaining students can “reenter the arena” to expand the argument.

Be mindful that this was prior to instruction on the importance of They Say, I Say, so you’ll note that they’re not using it.


Following the debate, the most powerful learning happened when I had the students watch the footage of the other class’ debate. They critiqued and praised their fellow students, noting ways they could improve before our next debate.  When they watched their own debate , they cringed at all the things that they had just bashed now apparent in their own flawed arguments. Since this initial debate, I’ve found deep experiential roots for them to drawn upon as we practice writing some of our first CCSS argumentative writing tasks.

Obviously, we’re still experimenting with debates, so I’m wondering how have you begun experimenting with argumentative writing in your classrooms? What have you done to support student learning?