I sat at our staff Christmas party talking to a colleague about the essays my students just drafted. We read and analyzed several pieces by Leonard Pitts, Jr, talking about the effectiveness of his style, arguing over his opinion, justifying our own. The task was to write their own OpEd piece, responding to a topic in the news or a topic of their choice. Most chose interesting topics: How the world defines beauty, Should armed guards protect our schools, Does keeping a home clean matter in the long run..
A few students wrote clearly articulated arguments that show intentional craft moves.
Many showed intentional craft moves but wrote little in the way of argument — or anything close to critical thinking about their topics. In short, some of my writers say pretty much nothing, but they say it very very well.
Therein lies the problem: How do I get some of my students to think critically about their topics so they can write critically about their topics?
Sitting at that dinner, my friend and colleague, Mary Heffner, shared an activity she’d recently done with her students to help them understand tone. I decided that not only would it help my students understand tone (which most failed to consider when they began writing — “Do I have to remind them of every little thing?” she says with a sigh), but it could help them reason through the beliefs they have about their topic and write stronger sentences they might use when they revise.
Objectives — Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels: Define the tone of your essay; Construct reasons to express why your topic should be expressed by that tone word; Create sentences and synthesize your knowledge of punctuation, syntax, and sophisticated vocabulary to express your reasons while using this tone; Revise your writing to include these well-constructed sentences.
Lesson — (Prior to reading their drafts, I asked students to identify the tone of their pieces and write it in the top right corner of their papers. I determined quite easily that many of my writers thought they felt a certain way about their topics but were having trouble expressing that tone.)
First, I ask writers to clarify their choice of tone word by putting a short list of common adjectives that describe tone on the board: infuriated, excited, confused, sorrowful, scornful, exasperated, concerned. We quickly define what each word means. I then tell students what I noticed when I look at the tone word they wrote on their papers and when I read their essays. “Some of you have a misconnect — you think you’re taking a certain tone, but you have little or no evidence of it in your writing. (Time permitting we might revisit one of Pitt’s pieces that we read as our mentor text and analyze the tone.)
“The other thing I noticed in your writing is a lack of reasoning. Today we are going to practice getting both a clear tone and powerful reasoning into our arguments.
“Once you have your tone word, and you know this is how you feel about your topic, you will write five reasons that support your topic and demonstrate this tone. Sometimes you can even use the tone word, or a synonym of it, in your reasoning sentences.”
Then I show students my own reasons I wrote to add to my writing. My topic “longer vacation time over the holidays.” The tone “emphatic.”
- Two weeks vacation time hardly covers the travel time when a family must drive far distances to share just a moment with their loved ones.
- Teenagers thrive on rest and relaxation.
- If families spent more time together we may have fewer problems in our society.
- Teachers work too hard, sometimes even taking work home over the break, to not enjoy more one-on-one time with their families over the holidays.
- With a longer, more relaxing, break, students and teachers would return to school more rejuvenated and infused with energy to embrace the love of learning.
As they read through my reasons, I ask students to talk to one another about my word choice: How do I show I emphatically care about this topic?
Follow up — Students will revisit their drafts and work on clarifying gaps in reasoning. They will add their five new sentences to make their arguments stronger and more logical.
Reflection — As we move into our next writing piece, I will be more purposeful in directing students to think about tone. We will spend more time thinking through our reasoning before we begin writing.
Sometimes I assume too much, and I end up having to take us back and start again.
Writing critically is hard for many of my students — although their style is improving. I remind myself that I must continue to give them interesting and thought-provoking things to think about — their words and many of their worlds are so limited.