Crafting Compelling Claims: A Lesson With Loose Parts (inspired by Angela Stockman)

I first heard about “making” in a writing workshop a few years ago and to be honest, I was skeptical. It felt like busy work. Sure, it would be engaging, but weren’t we already doing the work of making in our writing workshop?

Then I discovered Angela Stockman. I started following Stockman a year or so ago and have been percolating on her ideas around Hacking the Writing Workshop for about that long. I thought it looked interesting, but I wasn’t quite sure how to incorporate the work into the secondary classrooms that I support as a literacy coach.

Then last month Stockman, who is one of the most generous educators online, started posting about how to use what she calls loose parts to support argument writing. The teachers I was working with were getting ready to enter a new round of argument writing, so I followed Stockman’s posts eagerly.

When Stockman shared images of students using loose parts to find their way into arguments, lightbulbs sparked. Partnering with a few willing teachers, we decided to see what would happen. I hit up the Dollar Tree, stocking my basket with bags of shells, rocks, toothpicks, and q-tips. I raided my son’s Lego collection, and pilfered the play-doh basket in our closet. I added beads and buttons. We were all set.

“Today we’re going to play with loose parts,” I explained to the sophomores that morning. I invited them to explore what was on the tray in front of them. They looked at us wide-eyed: “are we playing with play-doh?” Every kid who cracked open the can lifted the dough to their noses and breathed deeply. They let beads filter through their fingers. They began sorting buttons and shells. The joy on their faces as they explored was something we’ve gotten too far away from in high school.

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Each group of students received a tray of loose parts to begin their claim writing.

The students had already generated ideas around argument topics — they’d written beside Wislawa Szymborska’s poem “Possiblities.” They had made quicklists. They had mined their notebooks for patterns.

After letting them explore the loose parts, we gave them three post-it notes to pull out topics that were ripe for argument. They scribbled their topics down: global warming, school funding, screen time, recess for high schoolers, vacations. The topics were as varied as the students.

“Now,” I began, “we are going to use these loose parts to write a claim.” I had, as Stockman recommends, been walking around with my own fistful of playdoh. I shaped it into the shape of a phone. “Remember how I said I want to write about how much screen time I let my kids have? Well, I’m making this into a phone.” I held up my sculpture. “What could I add here to communicate my claim?” Students offered ideas.

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My claim developed from my topic about giving my kids too much screen time.

And they were off. These kids got it. They began to dig into the trays, shaping clay, piling buttons. Frankly, we hadn’t been sure what was going to happen. As they often do, the students blew us away.

We circulated the room, nudging students to add nuance to their creations. We asked probing questions. “What could you add here to communicate that idea?” We asked for clarity and students knew what to do.

I watched one freshman add details to her sculpture and then scribble more thinking onto her post-its. She had started with the idea that locally, too many new houses were being built. She used q-tips to create homes. She decided to add gray legos. She took a moment to look at the composition in front of her. Then she went back to her post-it, adding the layer about pollution. I was inspired.

We noticed that this lesson did something we didn’t expect. Over and over again, we noticed the students were developing sophisticated claims. This work helped us teach something that had been elusive about argument writing — how to develop a nuanced claim. Using learning from the National Writing Project’s work around argument writing, for years we’ve been teaching students that strong claims are debatable, defensible, and nuanced. The first two qualities were easy to teach. That third one had been trickier.

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This student started with a topic “The benefits of therapy” and ended up with the claim “Everyone needs a therapist to relieve stress, knowing you can count on someone, and being able to express themselves.” 

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This student started with the topic of “screen addiction” and worked his way towards a claim “People should enjoy the outdoors instead of being indoors on their phones.” 

The loose parts were key.  Suddenly students were digging deeper into their thinking. They were thinking through implications, making considerations, and adding layers.

After about 15 minutes, we asked students to start to put words to their compositions (see Shawna Coppola’s latest book Writing Redefined for more about honoring non-alphabetic ways of composing). Their claims were some of the strongest we’ve ever seen. They were debatable. They were defensible. They were nuanced.

“This is the most fun I’ve had in English class all year,” one student declared.

I am convinced that making has a place in the writing classroom. We writing teachers need to crack open what we mean by “writing” and honor all types of composition. We were validated when students at all levels were both engaged and successful.

Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in Cincinnati, OH. 

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