Thursday, April 4, 2013

This is not an Argument: Helping Students Develop Argumentation Skills in Writing

by Daniel A. Bruno, M.Ed., NBCT

If you haven't had a chance, check out Steven Heller's Engage Now! offering this month. This blog post is about his superb research project.

One of the greatest lessons I ever learned about classroom teaching came from a short Italian man who looked, I kid you not, like Mario (as in the one with the brother named Luigi). The resemblance wasn't helped by the deep red that adorned everything in the building and all of our faculty shirts. He took the comparison in stride, as was his nature, making light of it as much as we did. He was especially popular with his self-contained emotionally disturbed classes because they could relate to him via the magic of Nintendo. What Frank understood about his students is something we could all use whether we teach emotionally disturbed students or not (although, one could make the argument that being a teenager in our lightning fast culture may qualify one as emotionally disturbed from the beginning). Frank knew that sometimes teenagers just want to fight; in particular, they want to argue. Frank had a simple solution. He would always respond with "This isn't an argument."

Have you ever seen a kid who is in self-contained classes for BEATING on others try and make sense of this type of behavior? Priceless. If you haven't seen this expression, do the following:
  1. Assign an argumentative research paper.
  2. On the due date, find one of your weaker writer's work.
  3. Read through and notice how expository the argument seem to be.
  4. Look in the mirror.
Nothing is more frustrating than a student writing a book report when you want honest analysis of a novel, poem, or even a current issue. I call them "Yep." statements. In fact, I even write the note "Yep." next each one my students come up with. For example, on a recent research foray into the critical analysis of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one of my lovelies wrote this riveting opener: "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a bildungsroman of the antebellum American South, was written by Samuel Clemens; he was more widely known as Mark Twain." Think of a reaction. The best I have been able to muster without causing physical or emotional harm is "Yep."

Arguments by their very nature are dialogic. When someone shuts the dialogue down, the person not in on the trick becomes very confused. Arguments should call out for response, should challenge the audience to remain silent. Oftentimes, high school students aren't comfortable with the role of expert author, so they head down the road of passive bookworm; after all, better to get a wedgie than to have someone ask a question. Steven Heller's research project is brilliant in its slyness. Students will have no idea, unless you tell them, that they are writing argument because of the way he formulates the research question. Rather than prompting them to take a stand, Heller asks students to answer the following prompt:
What factors of _____________ (selected issue of a general topic) must a citizen be aware of in order to make a more informed decision? [emphasis mine]
How much less stressful is it to write a response to this question than to take a stand on an issue of which you may only just be developing knowledge. What seventeen-year-old really knows what he or she personally believes about Immigration, Health Care, or Education (outside of the let's-abolish-schools-and-hang-out platform)? With this prompt, the student is simply researching what a citizen must know. Where's the risk in that? Expository setup for an Argumentative paper.

Students are also encouraged to consider the dialogic side of argument because they must analyze the rhetoric of their sources and turn in annotations demonstrating their engagement with the text. If I had a penny for every time I go over a brief nonfiction piece with a class and I have to badger them into taking out a penny, the state could keep my pension. To add another layer to the dialogue, Heller places students in research teams. John Donne would be proud; in Mr. Heller's class, no student is an island.

What makes this lesson handy for teachers is the inclusion of evaluation criteria for the paper and the integration of various pedagogical checkpoints. I can honestly say I have never seen a teacher include vocabulary drawn from student research before.

As I write this post, I am eyeballs-deep in Huckleberry Finn research papers. I am done with expository writing masquerading as argumentative analysis. Next year, I am incorporating some of Mr. Heller's methods: maybe he can help me turn some of my "Yep." statements into "Wow" insights.

Again, if you wish to get the complete lesson from the NCTE connected community, you can follow this link to access Steven Heller's wonderful research unit.