As English teachers, we have so much to cover. The balance between content and skill is incredible. If you are an English teacher, you know exactly what I mean. If you aren’t…let me explain. English teachers are asked to not only cover vital skills, such as reading (poetry, nonfiction, fiction), writing (informative/explanatory, argumentative, poetry, and narratives), and speaking/listening, but we also need to cover content that is either decided by our state, district, or grade-level. For instance, 9th-grade teachers may be asked to teach skills using Romeo and Juliet, The Odyssey, Fahrenheit 451, The Book Thief, and a variety of poems and non-fiction texts.
For a new teacher, this can feel very overwhelming. How do I possibly get through everything in an hour a day (or 90 minutes every other day)?
I’ll let you in on my little secret.
I don’t get through everything in a year. Sometimes I get close. Other times, it is just virtually impossible. Different groups of students need different amounts of time to read the same stories, practice the same skills, and so each year is just different.
There is one non-negotiable in my classroom though.
It doesn’t matter if we are reading poetry or opinion pieces, writing a how-to or recipe, I always include an element of argument. I want to go into a bit of detail about why I include argument in nearly every element of my lessons and the steps I take to do that.
Perhaps you’re wondering why I would want to include argument. Don’t students argue enough? Aren’t we trying to keep them from arguing so much? Doesn’t the world have enough people arguing as it is? Well, yes. And no. We have a lot of argument, but not all argument is effective and I want my students to leave my class knowing how to engage in academic discourse and argument in a professional, articulate, and confident manner.
Argument creates community. It’s true. I have seen my classes grow closer as a result of engaging in an argument. Students are forced to really listen to another student’s point of view and consider which points they agree with and which points they disagree with.
Argument creates empathy. I’ve seen students express their views and beliefs in such an eloquent and impassioned manner during a debate, conversation, pop-up debate, or piece of writing. When students feel comfortable to share, the rest of the class gains empathy. They understand that student. They respect that student. They learn that others may have different views and beliefs and, you know what, that’s ok.
Argument creates empowered young adults. I want my students to leave my class feeling confident in their ability to stand up for themselves in whatever work environment they pursue, college class setting, or any other place they wind up.
Argument creates critical thinkers. When students are asked a question that requires claims, evidence, and presentation, we are asking them to do much more than simply comprehend the text. We are asking them to interact, manipulate, synthesize, and articulate. Argument requires students to question the text and their beliefs.
Argument creates speakers. Students with voices. It breaks my heart when I see a student without a voice. Trust me, most students have voices. In fact, sometimes I am asking them to quiet those voices momentarily. But every once in a while, I encounter a student who is too scared to speak what she (or he) believes. She keeps her viewpoints, her objections, her thinking silent out of fear of ridicule or rejection or shame. If I do my job correctly, this student will leave my class with a sense of community and of belonging. She will understand that her opinions are a vital part of our class infrastructure. This is achieved only through giving my students opportunity to engage in various forms of argument.
Lastly, argument creates engagement. I have never met a group of teenagers that doesn’t like to argue. I may have quieter students that would prefer to observe rather than debate, but they are still actively involved in monitoring the arguments that are being put forth. It’s important to me that my students are engaged in their work and various forms of argument work allows this to become a reality.
Pop-Up Debates: I routinely use the methods outlined in Dave Stuart Jr’s blog to host pop-up debates. I like this activity because it has all the elements of a debate, but follows the structure of an academic conversation. Students must respond to each other’s ideas and remain civil. The end goal is to understand the counterclaims in order to better understand one’s own beliefs. I wrote more about this here.
CommonLit.org. I love to use CommonLit.org to assign various readings to different groups. These readings have the same guiding questions or themes, which allows students to engage in debate with evidence from different sources. When students are asked to make arguments with students who are pulling different pieces of evidence, they are forced to reevaluate their own evidence and determine which is most relevant, accurate, or meaningful. This mimics real-world discourse where we engage in argument with different histories, context, and ideas.
Book circles. Having students reading the same text is a great way to create community. Allowing them to engage in argument-type conversations is even more effective. I want my students to understand deeply that different people make different meaning from the same text (or scenario, or issue, or movie, or what-have-you) based on their background, life experiences, books they’ve read, etc. This is a valuable lesson for any individual to learn.
Article of the Week. Kelly Gallagher has introduced the world to Article of the Week and many of us have followed in his footsteps. If you don’t know about AOW, read about it here. Dave Stuart Jr. went a step further and added “They Say/I Say” commentary to his article of the week. This is a better form of argument (as opposed to traditional 5-paragraph essays) because students are first asked to accurately summarize what the article is saying and then add their own opinion afterward. Read about that here.
So there you have it. Argument is my non-negotiable in every unit and nearly every lesson plan. What are your thoughts?