The Power of Argument in an English Classroom

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Last month I had the pleasure of co-teaching a class with other English instructors, which was specifically for English teachers.  The focus of the class was CCSS and Argumentative  Writing, which I thought I knew much about, but quickly learned was not necessarily the case.  I agreed to take on the challenge of helping to teach this class so I could learn more and apply that knowledge to my classroom.  Honestly, it’s been a few weeks since the class has ended and my head is still spinning with all the new information and ideas gained from the readings, conversations with other teachers and collaboration during the two weeks the class was in session.  Tonight, I sat down to start looking at my curriculum for next year and to think about how to incorporate all these new ideas and I immediately felt overwhelmed.  So, I decided to write down some of the main ideas learned during the class and why not put them into a blog post?  Here are the main ideas/thoughts/resources I need to remember and implement this upcoming school year within my English classroom:

1.  Argument Writing and finding and using textual evidence should be the main focus in a CCSS-based classroom. This is especially true if you are teaching in a PARCC state since the Performance Based Assessments (PBA’s for those who love acronyms) given in February/March are very argument heavy (though disguised in PARCC as “Literary Analysis” and “Research Simulation” rather than using the same terminology as CCSS’s “Argument”, “Explanatory/Informational”).  All require evidence-based answers to back up and validate claims.

2.  There are true differences between Persuasive and Argumentative Writing which students need to know about.  In a nutshell, Argumentative Writing needs to acknowledge the opposing point of view to be a valid argument.  Here is a handy side-by-side chart comparing Argument vs. Persuasive Writing which I will be sharing with my students this year (Thanks, Angeline for this invaluable resource): http://www.mesd.k12.or.us/si/Pennys_PortaPortal_Docs/ArgumentvsPersuasiveWriting.pdf

3.  Students need to verbally debate in class in order to apply these skills to Argumentative Writing. Dave Stuart, Jr., has created a blog called “Teaching the Core-The Non-Freaked Out Approach to Common Core Literacy” which is my go-to for all things reading, writing and speaking in regards to CCSS; you can check it out here: http://www.teachingthecore.com

This fantastic blog has resources, information about and commentary on teaching Argumentative Writing and using debate in your classroom.  Stuart is very much an advocate of teaching students how to debate in order to help them become stronger writers.  His “Articles of the Week” (tweaked from Kelly Gallagher-http://www.teachingthecore.com/resources/article-of-the-week-aow/) and ideas for having kids speak in front of others (technique called “PVLEGS”-http://www.teachingthecore.com/pvlegs-public-speaking-acronym/) are practical and doable – not simply theoretical, pie-in-the-sky techniques which sound good in theory but never work. I’ve tried many of his resources and have had much success with all of them.  Would highly recommend his blog as you venture into the world of Argument Writing and debate.

4.  There are some other great resources out there for implementing Argumentative Writing and Debate.  Here, I will list a few that I’ve found and have learned about from others:

5.  Students really struggle with explaining why the specific evidence they’ve used in their writing is important; “They Say/I Say” Templates help students to do so effectively.  We’ve all been there – students add in textual evidence to a writing piece with no explanation as to why the evidence is important to the argument.   The evidence is just dropped in the paper and sitting there awkwardly, screaming for an explanation or validation.  Well, “They Say/I Say” templates can come to the rescue.  They allow students to explain evidence and the templates have enough flexibility to allow student voice to come through without sounding mechanical or boring; this really helps students strengthen their Argumentative Writing.  Check them out here: https://docs.google.com/a/tctchome.com/document/d/1_qH6AU0qPxZLAcHEm0DZfvbxXrcR_im1gZXTqwIqKgI/edit

In addition, Dave Stuart, Jr. uses these templates with his “Articles of the Week” to have students practice pulling out textual evidence from the article to back up an opinion and explain the evidence using these templates.  Excellent strategy!

Hopefully this information will help as you begin to incorporate more Argumentative Writing and Debate into your curriculum.  As for me, I have much work to do as I tweak and change my focus this year to ensure my students are debating, backing up ideas with evidence, reading and writing frequently and becoming all-around better critical thinkers.  But, as usual, there’s never enough time in a school year to do all I feel I should, so I’m sure this time next summer I’ll still be tweaking and making changes…

Musings on Common Core…

I’ll be very honest.  When Common Core came around a few years ago (2009-2010 school year) I was enthusiastic.  The original Ohio Standards that I had used for years seemed clumsy and cumbersome, mostly due to the overwhelming amount of them along with the ever confusing benchmarks and indicators.  I always felt as if they were not clear and not simple to read nor interpret. While working on my master’s degree, I read many books and articles by Robert Marzano, who focused on “Power Standards”.  The premise was there were too many standards to realistically teach in one academic year, so teachers should pull out those standards which they feel most important and teach them with depth, rather than simply trying to “cover” all the standards in a very shallow and superficial way.  So, I used that approach and felt more comfortable teaching the standards, although I still never truly understood those benchmarks and indicators.  The green standards book would lay on my desk collecting a layer of dust, mocking my ignorance of those damn things while I turned my back on it and happily taught my “Power Standards”.

Then I explored Common Core State Standards and immediately jumped on board.  I appreciated how they seemed to be more simplified:  Reading Literature, Reading Informational Text, Writing, Speaking/Listening and Language.  These were essentially the “Power Standards”, the standards which were most important for students to know in an English Language Arts classroom.  We, as a department, spent much time exploring the CCSS, becoming familiar with them, and slowly incorporated them into our lessons.  Everything seemed fine, then the whirlwind of negativity began to surround CCSS and anything even remotely related to them.  

I’m not sure when it started but I believe I know why the attack against CCSS started; once the standards were connected to high-stakes testing and new teacher evaluations (OTES) is when educators, schools, administrators and even some parents began to look at them a little more closely and did not like what they learned.  Even teacher unions like the NEA, who once advocated for CCSS in an effort to raise standards for students all across the country, saw how debilitating the high stakes testing environment was for teachers and students and they backed away from their support as well.  Now states are slowing pulling out of the consortium, Louisiana is the latest state whose governor is asking to do so, and parents, schools and educators are up in arms and want their states to do so as well.  It’s funny, most of the publicity came to a head in the last few months when comedian Louie C.K. took potshots at the Common Core when he tweeted his dislike in the following tweets, taken from this Huffington Post article written by Diane Ravitch: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/diane-ravitch/louis-ck-common-core_b_5250982.html

My kids used to love math. Now it makes them cry. Thanks standardized testing and common core!— Louis C.K. (@louisck) April 28, 2014

Everything important is worth doing carefully. None of this feels careful to me.— Louis C.K. (@louisck) May 1, 2014

Teachers are underpaid. They teach for the love of it. Let them find the good in cc without the testing guns to their and our kids heads.— Louis C.K. (@louisck) May 1, 2014

I trust a teacher over Pearson or bill hates any day of the week. Don’t all be so  defensive and don’t be such bullies.— Louis C.K. (@louisck) May 1, 2014

Unfortunately, as is the case most of the time in our country, once a famous actor, singer or comedian begins to talk about a specific topic is the moment when the public begins to take more notice.  Regardless, once people heard more about CCSS, the more they did not like what they were learning.  Hence, the beginning of the War Against Common Core.

Here’s what I honestly think now about the entire CCSS, PARCC, OTES, SLO environment (“The Era of Acronyms”?) in which teachers and students are living and working.  We all entered the field of education in order to work with, motivate, teach, support and positively influence students.  We all entered the field of education to share our passion for our subject.  We all want the best for our students and their education, however, I feel all this negativity and focus on testing is not what is best for our students; it’s what is best for politicians vying for votes, it’s what is best for big business corporations like Pearson who want deeper pockets, it’s what is best for for-profit charter schools (who do not run under the same mandates as public schools) to swoop in as the savior of the “evil” public school system in order to turn a profit.  I feel there are too many hands in the pot of education, all trying to make as much money as they possibly can and kids are being left out of the equation.  It’s all a political game and I feel it’s heading for disastrous consequences unless parents, teachers, educators, and schools all begin to really educate themselves and pay attention to what is going on in education

Having said all this, I am still a strong advocate of CCSS; I believe the focus of the attack has been misguided. I feel students rise to the standards in which we give to them and they deserve to have the expectation of high standards.  It shows we have faith in them as students and as future contributors to society.  Students have to be challenged intellectually and academically, otherwise they will not grow and will remain stagnant; a well run society is an educated society.  The United States has a very transient population, so having common standards as students move state to state is important for those students to stay on track and not fall behind or fall “into the cracks” where they can possibly be lost forever.  Again, I appreciate the simplicity of the standards and how streamlined and user-friendly they are for both teachers and students.  There are many, many aspects of CCSS which I really like and as a result, I consider myself a supporter of them and hope we, as a state, continue to implement them.  However, having said that, I can adamantly state that I am not a fan of PARCC and the high stakes testing environment into which we are throwing our kids and teachers; this is where people need to pay attention and educate themselves regarding these tests.  As a teacher, I find it scary and disheartening that my 15 years in education could come to an end simply because my students do not test well, or because of a lack of computer proficiency and confidence which cause students to fail a test.  As a parent, I do not want my two girls to only receive 106 days of an education only to endure over 20 days of standardized testing.  They should be reading, discussing, analyzing, writing, researching, presenting, creating and interacting in the classroom with their classmates and teachers, not spending 20+ days in front of a computer screen completing a “one size fits all” standardized test, while frustrated and bored and resenting school as a result.

Obviously, early supporters of CCSS are now realizing how a good thing has turned ugly and they are now backtracking a bit to save face (I’m thinking specifically of Bill Gates and his director of education, Vicki Phillips, as they have called for a moratorium on high stakes testing.  The letter is here: http://collegeready.gatesfoundation.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=wPhuLSxJgV4%3D&portalid=0).  I do believe that some sort of assessment is necessary to ensure CCSS are truly working; assessment is the backbone of solid educational foundations.  However, a standardized test written by a for-profit “educational” business such as Pearson, whose test is not even truly aligned with CCSS, simply one interpretation of the CCSS, is not the answer to this problem.  I’m hoping politicians, educational leaders, administrators, parents and the general public will pay attention and listen to teachers as we can come up with alternative assessments to show proficiency in our students.  Afterall, education and assessment are our fields of expertise and we need to be trusted to do right by our students.