Academic journal article English Journal

In Search of Authentic Argument

Academic journal article English Journal

In Search of Authentic Argument

Article excerpt

Acording to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), by the time students leave high school they will have spent a great deal of time learning to write "arguments." For the past two years, we have been facilitating professional development focused on argumentation.1 Although national studies find that "students are not writing a great deal" (Applebee and Langer 15), the teachers with whom we work want to assign high-quality writing assignments. They see how essential argument writing is to their students' futures and are excited to read the CCSS's description of "students who are college and career ready in reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language" (National Governors). However, like many other teachers across the country,2 the teachers in our area struggle with how to teach argument writing. Many admit that they don't fully understand argumentation themselves.

The CCSS authors assert that the standards are a description of what students should be able to do, not how teachers should teach; consequently, reading Writing Standard 1 offers little practical help. Turning to the CCSS student samples (Appendix C) for guidance is problematic. The samples present a limited picture of what argument writing could be. Although the standards don't explicitly require a five-paragraph essay structure, of the seven student samples in argument writing from grades 6-12, five of them are five paragraphs. In our work with teachers, many of them frustrated with a set of standards they don't know how to tackle, the idea of a formula is comforting. But, as educators who have spent years advocating authentic writing assignments, we are dismayed.

In CCSS Appendix A, CCSS authors contend that teaching argument is akin to teaching critical thinking; those who can write arguments are able to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of various sides of an issue in the quest for deeper understanding. This may be true, but the CCSS's own student samples, samples that rely on a formula that has been described as fostering a "deficit model of education" (Brannon et al.) and limiting critical thought (Hillocks) undermine this goal. But what do we offer teachers instead? How can we promote more authentic uses of argument, uses that may result in a variety of final products rather than a single format (Newell et al. 277), uses that might help students "train themselves so they can carry such work out of the classroom into their thinking lives" (Dombek and Herndon 34)? How can we use argument to push students to think critically and evaluate all sides of an issue rather than hunt for discrete pieces of information to plug into a formula?

The "Experiment"

To answer these questions, we started by asking even more: What would happen if we invited the ELA teachers with whom we had been working to a weeklong summer seminar focused on authentic argument? What would happen if we recruited professionals who engaged in argument to present each day? What would we learn that could be applied to our teaching? What would we come to understand about the complexities of argument, writing, and teaching?

To find out, we crafted a letter that invited potential presenters to do the following in a two-or three-hour interactive presentation:

* Describe the kind of argumentation that you do as part of your work.

* Provide participants with an example data set to read and discuss.

* Allow participants time to look at the data and offer claims.

* Demonstrate how you look at that same data and what kind of claims you might make.

* Discuss how you consider evidence and how you think about arranging reasons to support your claims.

* Give teachers examples of the kinds of writing that you do regularly in your field to read and discuss.

We received positive responses from an English professor, a historian, two scientists working for the state department of conservation, a lawyer, and a former clinical psychologist and current university dean in charge of accreditation and assessment. …

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