In the last post, I shared the new argumentative focus I’m experimenting with for the article of the week (AoW) assignment. Rather than choosing just any type of article, I’m looking for articles that argue. 
It’s not exactly the discovery of the polio vaccine, but still, it’s pretty cool.
I like this new focus because one of my key hopes for AoW is that my kids won’t merely become aware of something that’s happening in the world — like, in last week’s article, the growing popularity of largely unregulated e-cigarettes — but that they’ll also see current issues as argumentative conversations, held at water coolers and bus stops and in editorial pages and the blogosphere.
But I want more than that — I also want each article to allow my students to join in on the conversation.
Jacket on, jacket off
The problem with joining in on the conversation is that, although my teenage students (like yours) are passionate arguers in whatever topics they like to nerd out about outside of school — sports, fashion, video games, anime, or whatever — they often lack the tools for entering into argumentative conversations in academic, professional, or civic realms.
Basically, they are Luke Skywalker prior to his time with Yoda, or Anakin prior to his time with Obi Wan, or the karate kid prior to his time with Mr. Han.
And in case a horrible tragedy has befallen your life and you’re someone that has not seen the Star Wars series or Karate Kid — and seriously, you should fix this — here’s what I’m saying: my teenage students have got lots of spirit and energy, but they lack training and focus.
So it makes sense — beautiful sense — to offer them some scaffolding with which to support their thinking.
But what scaffolding, you may ask? Well, if I were teaching them karate, I might have them do something like this (click here if you can’t see the embedded video below):
But since we’re trying to teach them to enter into the argumentative conversation that includes our AoW, we need something like the simple, beautiful sentence templates created by power couple Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein in They Say / I Say.
But for AoW, I use a Graff/Birkenstein resource that’s even more explicitly scaffolded than the sentence templates: a two-paragraph They Say / I Say argumentative writing template (see below) that I first found in Graff’s Clueless in Academe. If you haven’t bought their books, let me recommend that you rapidly do so; and if you’re not feeling the price tags, write a simple, effective resource request email to your principal and make your school buy them!
Here’s the two-paragraph template:
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 _______________.
Get this: I’m requiring that every student use this template until I see they’ve fully internalized the moves it contains.
But Dave, the children! And their uniqueness! You are grinding down their souls with the mortar and pestle of conformity, you fascist madman!
Tranquilo — take some deep breaths. Here’s why I’m requiring the two-paragraph template:
- Like I said in the last post, my kids are struggling to even figure out what an author is arguing. They get sidetracked into random-land. When they debate, I see the same thing happening. This template, in its first sentence, allows me to see if they’ve got the general argument pinned. It also helps them internalize that the general argument is what an effective arguer focuses on — not debatable side points.
- True argument involves building off the ideas of others; it’s not simply spouting off your opinion and, if you’re really snazzy, giving a cursory mention of what someone else said. My kids/contemporary Americans struggle with this, and so I love that the entire first paragraph of the template is all about, as my friend E-Cash-Money says, “pulling apart the cotton” of someone else’s argument and really examining it.
- When making their claims, my students often fail to ensure their claim is clearly understood. The template has students state a claim, then state it more specifically, then give an example to illustrate it, and then deal with how a naysayer may respond to it. Boom. Awesome.
- Effective arguers naturally predict what a naysayer might say. Ironically, some are concerned that the Common Core’s emphasis on argument is going to create a more fragmented society, but I would argue that nothing is better than argument at helping people to see any given issue from a myriad of sides. I’m not aiming for pithiness when I say that real argument drives people together; I see it in my classroom every year.
And so, yes, maybe I am crushing the butterflies that are my students’ precious souls by requiring them to use the two-paragraph They Say / I Say template for every AoW from now until it’s no longer needed.
But I don’t think so. I think I’m helping them to put the jacket on and take the jacket off, like Jaden Smith in the Karate Kid mentioned above. And just like Jaden eventually saw that the jacket thing was slowly, imperceptibly training his mind and body to do some wicked kung fu, so, too, will this two-paragraph template help my students internalize the basic moves of argumentation.
“Daniel-San, this not tournament! This for real!”
Now, one reason my students are willing to do this kind of work is because they’ve tasted and seen that argument is good, through some simple, time-efficient, in-class debates. So far this year, we’ve held 7 whole-class arguments, on topics ranging from “Is America the best nation in the world?” to “Were the Mongols awesome or not, from a world history perspective?” These argumentative events help my students experience how the moves in the They Say / I Say two-paragraph template makes for a more cohesive, entertaining, rigorous debate experience, and that whets their appetite for doing the hard work in writing arguments.
Basically, to keep the Karate Kid metaphor going, these debates are the tournament where my students get to taste the fruits of their They Say / I Say writing labor.
I’d like to go into greater depth about how we use debates with AoW in a future post, but in the meantime, check out this post where I discuss them in some detail.
So that’s that. What do you think? How is argumentative writing going in your classroom right now? What are you doing to scaffold it and why?
Have a great week!
- In case you aren’t aware of this, Kelly Gallagher is the person from whose work I first learned about AoWs. More on that here.