Argument writing seems to be the writing standard that everyone struggles with teaching, from first-year teachers to veterans. Today Jessica Moman from A Girl With Some Glitter is guest posting about her thoughts on creating a successful argument writing unit for middle and high school students.
The added importance of the standard puts pressure on teachers, too – argument writing is perhaps the genre of writing students will use most in life. From emails convincing companies to lower their charges or posting reviews to persuade others to visit a new restaurant, argument writing is all around us.
Here are 5 tips to create a solid argument writing unit in the secondary classroom.
Pick an engaging topic.
A topic worth arguing over is half of the battle. If you give students a topic that there is really only one side to consider or something that doesn’t have immediate relevance for them, they tend to shut down. For middle school, one of my favorite topics to use is when does a kid become an adult. I have students that have more responsibilities than most adults. They tend to argue more about how maturity and responsibility determine adulthood. I have kids that argue that it is a specific age, like 16, 18, or 21 because of state and federal privileges allowed at those ages. For my 6th graders, choosing something gross or disgusting usually creates engagement, too. My favorite unit is one that we use along with Eric Schlosser’s book “Chew on This”. This book includes information about the fast-food industry that consumers should know but probably don’t. Students then choose arguments about school lunch regulations, advertising to children, taxes on sugary beverages, etc!
Plan for two weeks – no more.
Students lose interest in most topics after two weeks. Anything after that will be a struggle to get them to work. I now keep all of my units to a two-week limit, including argument writing units. With that said, I also know my students need repetition and lots of it before they master something. I do multiple two-week units for argument writing. This gives students multiple opportunities to read and discuss, work on structure, and building on the attribution of authors. If your pacing guide focuses on argument writing in one-quarter, you might try 3-4 units in one-quarter. For teachers who have flexibility in their pacing, they might try a mini-unit each quarter, allowing the opportunity for cyclical review for this writing genre.
Give the students their sources (or at least most of them).
I teach in a 1:1 school district. Even when I taught persuasive writing with the old standards, I would choose a topic that had only two sides (or so I thought) and would send kids to their Chromebooks to find sources. Then when they would start writing their papers, I would get so frustrated with the information they would find. Often it wasn’t great and it would make writing their paper difficult, sometimes making them feel like they needed to start all over again, or they would turn in a poor argument paper. I would think they couldn’t write an argument, but really they just couldn’t do great research. In reality, argument writing is a separate standard than research. In order to truly assess if my middle schoolers could write an argument, I now give them their sources. We spend a day reading one source, annotating the text, writing about what we read, and then discussing the article. We do that for each source.
Pick the claim after reading the texts.
I messed this up in a big way the first few years I taught argument writing. The first few years, I had students pick their claim and find resources. Guess what? After they actually did some reading, they wanted to change their claim. Reading helps gain a new perspective for students so we need to honor that. Give students sources that represent several different perspectives from the beginning. Let them think deeply about the topic. Then, let them create their claim.
Turn in the best final draft, not every final draft.
Since my argument writing units last two weeks at a time, I can get 3-4 units in per quarter. Students will turn each one in for a completion grade – I give it a quick look-through to make sure they have the structure and required elements. I ask students to then choose one paper to turn in for their assessment/final draft grade. Sometimes, students will pick their most recent piece because they realize how much they have progressed since their first piece. Other times, students will go back and WANT to make revisions to an earlier piece because they really enjoyed the topic. Either way, students are choosing which piece is a representation of their best work, and I’m not wasting time grading something that isn’t their best work.
Find more argument writing ideas here.