Tag Archives: Argumentative Writing

Mini-lesson Monday: Remembering 9/11 and a study of language

Our students are too young to remember the events of 9/11. And while we are not history teachers, I do think we have a responsibility and an opportunity to help them try to make sense of the horrors of that September morning and how it impacts their lives today.

hyrum

Pvt. Hyrum Chase Rasmussen

In church yesterday, the congregation stood and sang three verses of “The Star Spangled Banner.” This song has new meaning for me since my son Hyrum joined the Army this summer. It may have new meaning for you if you’ve been following the Colin Kaepernick-taking-a-knee-event-fall-out-and-discussion. I want my students to be able to make sense of their world and one way I can help them do that is to provide them with thought-provoking pieces that help them make connections. Maybe one of these texts will help them find their own “new meaning.”

In honor of September 11, the every day people and every day heroes who lost their lives, the families who still mourn loved ones, the soldiers who valiantly died facing foes in foreign lands, and the men and women willing to serve today in a time of unrest and war, this is the lesson that I will share with my students today.

Objective:  Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels, students will react to a first-hand account of 9/11 in their writer’s notebooks. They will formulate ideas on how this one story relates to our growing theme of what it means to be courageously human. Students will then analyze a text and compare the writer’s use of language to a text read previously.

Lesson:  We’ve already discussed the question, “What does it mean to be courageously human?” a phrase I borrowed from a text we read last week. (I read Chequan Lewis’ piece as a read aloud, wanting students to just listen and enjoy his use of language. Then, later we read it again and analyzed the literary and rhetorical devices he uses to create the meaning. I modeled how to annotate and asked students to write their own notes in the margins — something I will expect them to do throughout the year.)

Today I will remind students to read texts with pens in hand, noting the writer’s interesting use of language, any points of confusion, any words they don’t know, the structure of the text, and any and all devices the writer uses to craft meaning. Today’s text is the masterful piece Leonard Pitts, Jr. wrote September 12, 2001.

After students have time to read, annotate, and discuss in small groups, we will come together as a class and craft an anchor chart that details the moves Pitts makes in comparison to those craft moves made by Mr. Lewis. I will charge students to model these moves in their own writing throughout the year.

Follow up:  The anchor chart will hang in the room as a reminder that writers are intentional in the moves they make as they craft meaning. Students will be expected to be intentional in their own writing as they work on various forms of writing in class and on their blogs this year.

Mini-lesson Monday: Taking on the Thesis Statement

Right now, my students and I are writing spoken-word poems. I’ve wanted to play with language this way for a long time now, but finally mustered the courage — and figured out a way to make this kind of poetry fit into my AP Language goals and the needs of my students as they prepare for the AP Lang exam.

While watching and listening to many spoken-word poems, I realized that most of them are an argument, filled with not only beautifully crafted language — devices galore — but they also show craft in the use of the appeals. With the help of my student teacher, Mr. Zachery Welch, we designed a unit that centers around the rhetoric in spoken-word poems. And we are all writing our own. (This is a challenge for me, but I absolutely believe the the importance of a teacher writing beside her students. Thanks, Penny Kittle, for teaching me that!)

The performance task for this unit reads:  Craft a spoken word poem that addresses a personal conflict and/or a social issue, include rhetorical techniques and literary and rhetorical devices to convince your audience of the need for positive change. Perform your poem for the class live, or create an automated slide show with visuals, or a video recording as a way to digitally perform your poem.

This lesson stems from our work  — and the need for students to include stronger thesis statements in all of their argumentative essays.

Objective:   Using the language of the depth of knowledge levels, students will identify powerful lines in a spoken-word poem that serve as position statements. They will discuss and then categorize these statements in order of importance as it pertains to the poet’s overall theme. Students will then formulate three powerful thesis statements of their own and revise their drafts to include these powerful thesis-like lines.

Lesson:  Watch and listen to “Paper People” by Harry Baker. Ask students to pay particular attention to the lines of the poem that hold the weight of the poet’s position. They must listen carefully because Baker’s poem is primarily crafted with the alliterative “p”. Give students a copy of the lyrics, and on the second listening, having them mark specific lines they think represent Baker’s position. Then, ask students to discuss the lines they marked with their small groups. As a class, determine the line that best serves as Baker’s thesis.

Next, instruct students to write three thesis statements for their own poems. They should discuss their thesis statements within their groups and help one another develop powerful statements that hold the weight of the meaning in their poems. Then, instruct students to revise their poems, including all three of their new strong lines.

Follow up:  Students continue to revise and strengthen the arguments within their spoken-word poems. They should also remember to write three powerful thesis statements in their argumentative essays and challenge themselves to use all three in their writing.

Mini-Lesson Monday: Talking Tone and a Bit More Reasoning in Our Writing

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.”

Reasons:

  1. 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.
  2. Teenagers thrive on rest and relaxation.
  3. If families spent more time together we may have fewer problems in our society.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

 

#FridayReads — Oh, Mercy! Have I got a plan for this mentor text

Usually I read about four books at a time. This makes for a mess on the bedside table, the coffee table, the kitchen table. I rarely use bookmarks, which is a shame because I have quite a lovely collection.

I end up leaving books split open and sound asleep right where I left them –sometimes just so I can remember the parts I know I want to use in class. I refuse to read on until I capture the sentence or passage that gives me pause. Such is the case with my new now bent-spine-copy of Just Mercy, a Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. I’ve been stuck on page 18.

Here’s a portion of the passage I will use with my AP Lang students. You will, of course, find the rest of it when you buy the book, or here.

     When I first went to death row in December 1983, America was in the early stages of a radical transformation that would turn us into an unprecedentedly harsh and punitive nation and result in mass imprisonment that has no historical parallel. Today we have the highest rate of incarceration in the world. The prison population has increased from 300,000 people in the early 1970s to 2.3 million people today. There are nearly six million people on probation or on parole. One in every fifteen people born in the United States in 2001 is expected to go to jail or prison: one in every three black males babies born in this century is expected to be incarcerated.

     We have shot, hanged, gassed, electrocuted, and lethally injected hundreds of people to carry out legally sanctioned executions. Thousands more await their execution on death row. Some states have no minimum age for prosecuting children as adults; we’ve sent a quarter million kids to adult jails and prisons to serve long prison terms, some under the age of twelve. For years, we’ve been the only country in the world that condemns children to life imprisonment without parole; nearly three thousand juveniles have been sentenced to die in prison.

     We also make terrible mistakes. Scores of innocent people have been exonerated after being sentenced to death and nearly executed . Hundreds more have been released after being proved innocent of noncapital crimes through DNA testing. Presumptions of guild, poverty, racial bias, and a host of other social, structural, and political dynamics have created a system that is defined by error, a system in which thousands of innocent people now suffer in prison.

…..

     We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and — perhaps — we all need some measure of unmerited grace. 

 

Before we ever read the text, and I did pull much more of it than I’ve posted here, we’ll spark our thinking with an image like this, posted at The Sentencing Project, and then write our initial responses in our writer’s notebooks:

Next, we will TALK. I know my students will want to share what they think about this graphic. Many will identify personally with it because they know a family member or a friend who’s served prison time.

When I introduce them to Stevenson’s text, I’ll give them a purpose for reading — besides just comprehending the message (identifying the purpose is a breeze since he tells us the reason he writes the book) — I want my students to notice the structure, the progression between ideas, the repetition and patterns they will see in the language. All the clues that build the tone.

I will ask them to mark the text, noting their thinking about these things. Without a purpose for reading, too many of my students struggle with the stamina they need to make it through even a page when I ask them to read critically.

Next, we will TALK. Talking will help some students understand what they read. It will help other students clarify their understanding. Some students will have noted what I asked them to notice as they read. I will rely on them to help the others — skill level is just one way my students are diverse.

I will also hand them a stack of questions that prepare them to write. They will read something like this:

What do you know about the writer based on what he writes?

What is the Stevenson’s purpose? Why does he come out and tell us so plainly?

What are the facts in this piece? What are opinions? How do you know?

What do you notice about the structure, any patterns, repetition? What do they do for the message?

How does Stevenson move between ideas?

And then we will write. Maybe I’ll give a prompt like this: Based on the text, and our discussion, is Stevenson’s opening argument effective, why or why not?  Maybe I’ll ask students to come up with their own analytical-style question to respond to. (I like this idea a lot.)  [see Talk Read Talk Write]

That’s probably enough for one class period, but my mind is still stirring:

  • What if I ask students to problematize the issue? Who are the stakeholders? Think all the way around the issue. Why do they care? Why do we care? What kinds of questions do we have about the claims Stevenson makes? What kinds of evidence do we need to convince us they are valid? How and when could anything regarding this issue change?
  • What if I ask students to identify just one of Stevenson’s claims and then research it? I assume the author provides support throughout the book. I’ll know when I keep reading. But what if students did a bit of research and then collaborated on substantiating Stevenson’s claims. Collaborative writing can be a powerful learning experience.
  • What if I ask students to brainstorm other issues Stevenson’s text suggests? We could probably create a pretty elaborate bubble map of ideas. These could lead to student choice in research topics.

What do you think? Any other ideas?

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

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