Going Big on Argument with the Article of the Week

argument-writing-is-on-the-wall

Esther, keep arguing!

Here’s the issue:

My kids begin the year pretty darn bad at determining what an author’s central claim is, especially when it doesn’t come in the first paragraph. I’m not blaming this on my kids or on their previous teachers–this is hard work. And yet it’s also critical work if my students are find any kind of flourishing within academia or (intelligent) public discourse, or even within a marriage.

One way I’ve sought to remedy my students’ inability to pinpoint a claim is by requiring them to paraphrase their peers during debates. But what about when engaging with written arguments?

Here’s what I’ve been realizing lately–the AoW (Gallagher, 2009) can provide kids with background knowledge (the original reason I started using it in my history class) and help my kids discovering what in the world someone is arguing before arguing with them. (It turns out this is important in good arguments.)

She’s arguing Americans are dumb… right?

Um, no.

Let’s look at a classroom example. Here’s a link to Esther Cepeda’s timeless “The Writing is on the Wall.” In this article, Cepeda starts by referencing the film Idiocracy; she then connects that film’s premise with recent NAEP scores showing that roughly 25% of US students can write proficiently. During her treatment of those scores, Cepeda briefly touches upon how they differ (or don’t differ) based on whether students took the test with paper or on a computer; she then cites several factors that share partial blame for the problem of a nation of mediocre writers; and then, finally, she makes her claim: that writing is hard, and no one likes hard work anymore.

I give this article to my students at the start of every year because it is beautiful and amazing and brutal and tricky. It’s perfect fodder for close reading because it’s timely and promotes great discussion and passionate writing, and it also helps us see one of our central purposes for the year: developing a taste for challenge. But every time we read this article, guess how many of my students are able to correctly identify Cepeda’s central claim after one reading?

Yep — none. And my students have a diversity of reading scores, ranging from well below grade level to crazy above.

Jerry Graff is building an incredible legacy in education. Check out this guy's books now!

Jerry Graff is building an incredible legacy in education. Check out this guy’s books now!

Jerry is not surprised

If you’re familiar with the “non-freaked out approach to the Common Core,” you’ll likely know that I favor going big on argument. This is because I’m a Gerald Graff fanboy. I’m a Graffist because I agree with the central premise of Graff’s work, that argument is the unifying thread through all of academic and public discourse, and that therefore argument is the pedagogical key to unlocking the latent intellectual in each student, democratizing academia, and about 50 million other things we’re banging our heads against in US education.

Unfortunately, the centrality of argument in academia and in our students’ lives is sorely under-realized and thus under-exploited in secondary and post-secondary institutions. This is why kids tend to struggle with figuring out what Cepeda’s point is–they’ve just done so little formal grappling with argument.

And in case I’m not clear yet that this isn’t a finger-pointing session, how’s this: the students I had last year are still struggling with this.

After a whole freaking year with me, Mr. “Go Big on Argument.”

Nice.

And part of this is because, even though I’ve been digging Graff for a couple of years now, I’ve only recently (as in, two weeks ago) realized this can totally tie into the AoW assignment. For most of my 2+ years of AoW implementation, my AoWs have been a smorgasboard–sometimes arguments, sometimes a collection of various opinions, and sometimes purely explanatory (check out my lists). While I don’t think this was a horrible thing, I do see it as kind of haphazard. I’m excited to now be focused on just providing my students with argumentative pieces (here’s a recent example from Leonard Pitts Jr.–special thanks to Erica Beaton for finding and preparing it).

Now, before Dr. Graff rightly corrects me, let’s be clear: many of the articles I’ve used in the past are, indeed, argumentative–many, in fact, contain multiple arguments. But the thing is, I want my kids to improve at seeing, paraphrasing, engaging with, and responding to arguments, and thus the articles I’m trying to provide now are thoroughly developed arguments (like the Pitts example) that focus on one, central claim.

But even that’s tricky.

For example, in the Pitts article mentioned above, there are several points at which he makes claims that one could, if one wanted to, argue. Here are three:

  • That the term “ignorant bigotry” is tautological (yeah, I had to look it up, too);

  • That Nina Davaluri deserves better;

  • That beauty pageants are degrading and outdated.

The central claim here is less difficult to decipher.

But the thing I’m trying to train my students to do is, rather than focusing on minor debatable points (like whether bigotry and ignorance are synonymous), or  strictly philosophical arguments (like whether humans inherently deserve equal treatment), or large debatable points that the arguer is intentionally defusing in order to make clear his claim (like when Pitts mentions that, regardless of your beliefs about beauty pageants, let’s stay focused on the basest evil in this situation)–rather that go down those bunny trails, let’s try to figure out what the central claim of an author’s argument is. Why? Because this is what the author is after. My hope is that this focus on central claims will make them better listeners, better debaters, better writers, and better readers.

And so, in the case of the Pitts article, the central claim is that America’s promise–that “here you are free, here you are equal, here you may rise to whatever height aspiration and hard work will take you”–is being threatened by bigotry on social media.

And here we can legitimately argue both sides; here is a conversation we’re right in the middle of as a society, and here my kids can jump in, write argumentatively with passion, and think a bit more critically about things like the American promise, the freedom of speech, and whether or not there’s anything we can truly do about people who tweet like “Congratulations Al Qaeda” when a young American woman of Indian decent becomes Miss America.

And so this is the kind of article I’m shooting for now. If you’re following along with the list, AoW’s #9-12 are the first four articles provided with this new focus in mind.

In the next post, I discuss the They Say / I Say template that suits this kind of article perfectly.

In the meantime, are you implementing AoW in your classroom? What’s working with it? What’s not? What’s holding you back? Holler at the Teaching the Core community in the comments!

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17 Responses to Going Big on Argument with the Article of the Week

  1. Chad Walden October 22, 2013 at 9:37 pm #

    Dave – I’ve been using AoW for a few years, ever since I got my hands on Readicide. I LOVE the tweaks you’ve been making. Great work, man. I just picked up They Say, I Say (on your recommendation) — looking forward to seeing where you go with this next.

    • davestuartjr October 22, 2013 at 9:46 pm #

      Chad, thanks for the feedback and for the tweet earlier. I’d love to hear what you think about They Say / I Say — and, stay tuned, because the last I heard Gerald Graff is working on a new edition that will (hopefully) make more explicit how to use the book’s work for secondary classrooms.

      Thanks again, Chad — I will get to work on Post #2 in this series! :)

  2. Deborah Owen October 23, 2013 at 8:14 am #

    Another great post Dave, thanks! I will be sure to pick up Graff’s earlier book and the new edition as soon as it comes out!

  3. Giana October 25, 2013 at 3:40 pm #

    You said you do article of the week with your history classes. How do you see it working with English classes?
    Also, some of my 9th graders come in sick of AoW because their middle school teachers used Kelly Gallagher’s site to assign articles each week. How can I make them interested in reading and AoW and not just see it as another meaningless homework assignment?

    • davestuartjr October 30, 2013 at 9:47 pm #

      Hi Giana,

      I apologize for the lateness of my reply — I was demoralized when, upon my first attempt, my cogent, meaty response was annihilated by me accidentally pressing the power button on my computer–fail! :)

      I haven’t used this in my English classes, although if I only taught English I think I’d try–to me, it’s that worth it. However, an inherent challenge in AoW is doing it right without letting it suck up half of your Monday and half of your Friday. And and intriguing question that I continue to wrestle with is this: is the AoW perhaps worth more time? Or does it merely contribute to what’s already, in most schools, an all-over-the-place curriculum?

      I think the key thing with AoW is to communicate the key things kids can get out of it in a manner that connects with kids hearts. No matter what they plan to do after HS, AoW can:

      –build grit; and here’s an article to reinforce that: http://ideas.time.com/2012/09/05/why-grit-is-more-important-than-grades/

      –make us aware of what’s happening in the world

      –show us the argumentative conversations that surround us and invite us into them

      These are just a few; basically, with AoW I am providing an opportunity for my students who want “it”–a chance to struggle, a chance to get stronger and to know more–to get it.

      • Giana October 31, 2013 at 2:45 pm #

        Thanks for your response, Dave. I really like what you said about being deliberate in communicating to students why AoW is important and what they can get out of it. Keep up the great posts!

  4. Chrissy D. October 30, 2013 at 9:30 pm #

    Dave–I’m wondering how much you find you have to differentiate or modify for your special education students in the AoW exercises. Glancing at many of the wonderful articles you’ve chosen, I already know which students, at this point in the year and as only 9th graders, will simply not be able to read through it without immense frustration or actual inability to read complex texts. Any suggestions? I just shared your site with my whole English department and we’re all pretty psyched on you right now–thanks so much for all the great insight and strategies!

    • davestuartjr October 30, 2013 at 9:55 pm #

      Chrissy D, thanks for sharing the blog with your department, and I am scared that you all are psyched on me. Truly frightened :) Thank you :)

      For the kids who can do it but only through immense hardship, I work on explaining grit and praising their effort and grit. By this time in the year, I know who has to work their but off to complete an AoW — I try to praise those kids when I see them focusing on the task or when I see them turn in work that I know took sweat, frustration, and hard work.

      At the same time, there are also those kids in my class who tested at elementary reading levels (according to SRI — take it for what it’s worth), and that means they may have more than 10 words per PARAGRAPH on the articles I’ve chosen that they simply don’t know. I still expect them to show grit and work on these articles; through conferring and inviting them in during lunch or after school, I try to help them develop strategies for increasing their ability to manage these texts, most of which I think are at a 9th grade complexity level.

      And with all that said, Chrissy, if you’ve been around the blog a minute you know I make mistakes all the time, and some of the AoWs I choose are just too hard or too unfocused for my students. This is a constant struggle for me; one way I’m working on that is, like I describe in the post above, choosing articles that argue and focusing in on that argument. Another way is by balancing AoWs between topics closer to their lives (e.g., the e-cigs article I’m using this week) and topics further out (e.g., world opinions on the government shutdown).

      The reason I keep fighting this AoW fight is because I believe it offers an opportunity to grow, in prior knowledge and world awareness and grit and reading and writing, and I want to make that opportunity available for my kids.

      Some might say, then, I should not require it and make it optional. I don’t agree; I think it’s worth requiring.

      That’s where I’m at right now, Chrissy — thanks for keeping me thinking and sharing what you all are wrestling with in your school!

      What state are you guys in, by the way?

      • Chrissy D. October 31, 2013 at 12:45 pm #

        We’re in CT, who has gone whole-hog on CCSS, including using the SBAC for state assessments after ditching our previous (and much less difficult, IMO) state-wide assessments.

        • Melanie November 23, 2013 at 10:03 am #

          I have used the newsela.com website to get leveled versions of the same articles for my students in SPED. They are able to read them, choose the main idea and find supporting evidence about the same content as all the other students, and no one in the room knows the difference. I think it has built confidence in those kids. I send some of the higher level articles to their SPED teacher to work on during that period too. ;-)

          • Chrissy D. November 23, 2013 at 9:15 pm #

            Thank you so much for the link, Melanie! I’ll be sure to explore it–it looks awesome!

  5. mtsedwards January 7, 2014 at 1:55 pm #

    Hullo, Dave! So I’m an 11th grade English teacher who’s been using class blogs to post blog assignments each week. My blog assignments feel very similar to your AoW and would probably dovetail nicely. I, too, believe in the power of argument and would love to train my students to be convincing. So here’s my dilemma: if I post the articles online and have my kids respond to them online and use your two-paragraph template, wouldn’t one kid be doing the thinking for all 34? That is, once the first student posts his/her paragraph, and since the paragraph is a template, wouldn’t others just be copies of the first? Or do I mandate that their opinions differ from their peers? Any advice/suggestions would be most appreciated. :D

    • davestuartjr September 29, 2014 at 2:35 pm #

      Hi MTS, sorry for being epically late on replying to this, as it’s a very interesting question. I have not figured out how to manage student blogs yet, so you are ahead of me on that journey (a journey, by the way, that I think is highly “worth it” — without blogging, I would not have the community of educators at Teaching the Core to bounce ideas off of and learn from.

  6. Evan Freemyer February 11, 2014 at 2:36 pm #

    Hey, Dave.

    How much of a focus is the AoW in your curriculum? I ask because I teach in a district where homework just doesn’t really happen. I have to allot time for kids to read, analyze, and respond to writing in class, and that ends up being 2-3 days of class time. Felt a little like overkill last week.

    Is AoW the centerpiece of you curriculum, or is it a side dish?

    Evan

    • davestuartjr April 4, 2014 at 9:43 pm #

      Hi Evan,
      I’ve been a la-la land — please forgive my lack of a response. It’s definitely a side dish, and I too struggle with getting 80% homework completion (this past week, just before spring break, it was below 50%). I view AoW as an opportunity for students to gain knowledge and skill, and as a result I’m willing to keep making the 15 minutes to introduce it on Mondays and the 15 minutes to collect and discuss on Fridays.

  7. Stacy April 17, 2014 at 10:13 am #

    I’ve been a follower of your blog for some time and use NewsELA, TweenTribune, etc for my AoWs. I’d love to see your list and the free book, but how do I get to it already being a subscriber? Thanks! Love your blog…very helpful and I’m constantly sharing thing with my colleagues.

    • davestuartjr April 22, 2014 at 1:54 pm #

      Hi Stacy,
      I responded to this via email — thanks for being in touch and THANK YOU A TON for sharing Teaching the Core!

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