Category Archives: Writing

Argumentation and the School

I may have created a monster…well, maybe 95 of them. I gave my students the assignment of choosing a school issue and then use the rhetorical triangle to organize their ideas. They loved it!

Now they want to flood the administration with their proposals, and I am proud to admit that some of them are quite good. Woe to the administrators when they get these kids flooding their mail boxes and offices.

What a great few days!

The Rhetorical Triangle

This year I’m going to start my College in the High School class (American Literature) with the rhetorical triangle. We will focus on creating solid arguments which use all three appeals: emotional, logical, and ethical. Each time the students construct an essay, they will be required to map out their support (sometimes known as warrants) using these three appeals.

Lesson Idea!

Sometimes I put the intended audience in the middle of the triangle to make sure the students understand that their arguments must be focused towards the intended audience. This becomes very useful when tackling a controversial or broad issue and allowing the students to see that a change in audience results in a change in arguments.

For example, after drawing this triangle on the board, I tell the students that we are going to formulate arguments within each type of appeal with the purpose of explaining why year-round school is a good idea, and local parents are the intended audience. Once we come up with valid arguments covering pathos, logos, and ethos, we stop and I draw a second triangle next to the first.

Now, the audience is the student body. As we formulate arguments for this new audience, the students will see how they must tailor their ideas for this new audience. The purpose is the same, the appeals are the same, but the arguments begin to change.

Do you use the rhetorical triangle? How do you use it? What else do you use?

Move From What to Why!

We and our students are immersed in media today. Look at the numbers:

Arguably the most frightening statistic is that 95% of the media is owned by five companies (Time Warner, VIACOM, Vivendi Universal, Walt Disney, and News Corp). So, how do we teach our students to wade through this morass of information, this new world of constant persuasion?

We teach them to be discerning, critical readers. We teach them to be rhetors.

However, an important shift must happen in our classrooms, especially for those of us teaching high school English students. Our students are pounded over the heads with setting, character, and theme from the time they enter elementary school and on into high school. They get the basics, but we sometimes drive the kids to look only for those ideas, ideas that can be found almost literally on the page.

We need to move from what and where to why.

What I mean by this is that we often ask students what the meaning of a literary term is (the what) and then to find examples in the text (the where), at times actually having the students touch the page for the location of the term’s employment. This is a basic skill, a rudimentary skill at the lower end of a taxonomic scale (usually Bloom’s or Marzano’s).

Let’s move kids beyond this and get to the why. Why did the author choose this setting? Why was alliteration used in that name? Why was this the best metaphor to use (or was it)? Why is the paragraph structured this way? Why is this sentence structured in such a way?

This leads the kids away from searching the text for answers and towards searching the text for meaning. This allows for nuance, not black and white assignments and activities. This moves the kids towards true analysis.

Ultimately, I want to see my students understanding the reasons authors make choices. Whether I use a novel, short story, editorial, advertisement, virtually any text, I want my students discussing the why when we analyze a text and this requires a close textual analysis. This means I have to move my students from defining and locating to analyzing.

It’s a daunting task at times but a necessary one if I want my students to become successful navigators and explorers in this Information Age. If I want my students to become citizens who contribute to our democracy, I need to help them critically read, question, and discover the nuances of argumentation and the means of persuasion.

Pre-Writing or Pre-Procrastinating

Last semester my juniors composed a thesis paper, and it was a rousing success. I had a series of three editing days where students worked in groups editing papers using a process I created, and then the students completed an editing session with me leading the class. The papers were fantastic, and I felt like a very successful teacher.

Then, I gave the same two classes a personal reflection assignment two weeks ago. We went over the expectations as a class, created a list of non-negotiables, and formulated some topics the students could use. I assessed them over the weekend, and now I wonder what kind of teaching I did (or didn’t do).

I couldn’t tell what I had taught and felt like I didn’t know these kids. We had:

  • practiced vocabulary, grammar, and punctuation weekly,
  • used pre-writing practices repeatedly,
  • composed multiple pieces of prose and poetry,
  • used three different editing processes, and
  • reviewed the writing process numerous times.

Still, it looked to me as if the students had simply written something the night before the due date. I think we’re going to have a conversation Tuesday about what happened.

In the meantime, I think the diagram below (from here) sums up my suspicions.

Integration Is Key

I’ve been on vacation and upon returning I had a full inbox of questions about how to integrate multiple language arts elements into a single assignment. I thought I would use an example from my own curriculum to illustrate the idea of integration.

One novel we teach during the Sophomore year is Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, and we also teach SAT-frequent vocabulary words and grammatical skills. Thus, I now have three elements to combine. Many teachers prefer to teach each of these items separately–which may be fine for introductory lessons–but I prefer to combine them in the application stage.

A possible in-class assignment could be as follows:

Describe two types of courage in Part I of To Kill A Mockingbird using at least two cited quotations from the novel. In a response of at least two 3-5 sentence paragraphs, use at least four of our vocabulary words correctly and use each of the sentence types learned in this class (simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex).

This seemingly simple assignment forces the students to do the following:

  • identify and describe two types of courage in the novel (analysis),
  • locate, incorporate, and cite two quotations into the response (evidence and citation use),
  • organize the two types of courage into two short paragraphs (organization/structure of ideas),
  • apply the use of at least four vocabulary words (vocabulary application), and
  • incorporate the four types of sentence (sentence fluency and variation).

Of course, now comes the difficult part for the teacher. How do you score or assess the student products? Or, do you?

Possibly, one may decide not to score the products for the purpose of the grade book (an assessment of learning) but may decide to use this assignment as a means of improving the students’ skills (an assessment for learning). I would most likely not enter a score in the grade book with the students’ first attempt but might use this as a rough draft assignment to be edited and improved over time or as an introduction to another assignment using the same elements.

However, when I do decide to enter something like this into the grade book, I would recommend one of two methods. Either score each element separately for the grade book (the analysis, citation use, organization, vocabulary application, and sentence fluency) to reveal the students’ abilities in each of the five areas, or use a rubric separating each of these elements into a distinct column resulting in a final total score.

Regardless, the students need to know how well they performed in each of the five areas. I would hope that these five areas also relate to the course’s core requirements (learning outcomes, Power Standards, etc.). These five areas would either be end of course learning targets or skills leading to the end of course learning targets.

By integrating the elements in a course, the students can begin to add complexity to their products while also saving the teacher time. Plus, this mixing of skills allows students to see the interconnected nature of the course’s learnings.

P.S. I tend to have the students label each element for me before they turn in their final drafts. For example, I would have the students circle the four (or more) vocabulary words, label the four sentence types (and possibly the individual elements of each non-simple sentence), and number each description of courage (a 1 and a 2 would suffice). This simply forces the students to identify what they have and have not done as well as help me identify where problems may lie, much like showing one’s work in math.