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 to 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 discover 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?
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 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 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.”
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.
But the thing I’m trying to train my students to do is, rather than focus 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 than 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 things 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 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!