“Argument,” mentions Appendix A of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), “is the soul of an education” (p. 24).
According to Neil Postman, argument forces the arguer to consider the strengths and weaknesses of multiple perspectives (p. 24, CCSS Appendix A). In other words, arguing helps you see the complex nature of things; it gives you the habit of viewing things from many points of view.
The problem is, argumentation is boring. Right?
By the end of this last school year, my students got giddy when it came time to read, write, listen to, speak, or pick apart arguments. Okay, “giddy” might be a strong word when speaking about all of my students, but they genuinely did enjoy argumentation (some so much that they came in and did it during lunch; see the clip below). I'm still scratching my head a little bit on why that is, but I've got some hunches that I'd like to recommend.
1. Read Gerald Graff
Last summer, I spent an afternoon with Gerald Graff's Clueless in Academe. This beautiful book (which, by the way, is mentioned in Appendix A of the CCSS!) takes a serious look at postsecondary schooling, finds it disjointed and its students disoriented, and concludes that the only way for students to find sanity in academia is to see that it's just one big argumentative culture.
In other words, Graff helped me see that a lab report in science and an essay in history and an analysis in psychology and an exposition in English… that all of these pieces of writing, when done well, are simply various types of arguments. They make a claim, and they support that claim with reasoning and evidence.
And here's why Graff is worth the read: if Graff is right (and he is), then teaching kids the ins and outs of arguments — and simply the centrality of arguing in academia — is going to help them flourish outside of your classroom.
Students flourishing outside of my classroom? That had me pumped. When my 9th grade students met me in Fall 2011, it didn't take long for them to figure out that they'd be doing a lot of arguing in my class.
In fact, I'll never forget when, sometime during the first couple weeks of school, one of my large, confident males responded to one of my argumentative writing prompts for The Odyssey by calling out, “I was born to argue!”
Rock on, Caleb.
2. Explicitly teach the centrality of argumentation
The immanence of arguments doesn't end with academia; all of life is pervaded with them. We are passive recipients of arguments (an advertisement argues that you need to buy something; teachers and parents argue about the makings of a good life) and eager participants in arguments (which video game system is the best? what was the best song of Summer 2012?). Some arguments are planned (asking the boss for a raise; advocating the change of a school policy), and many are spontaneous (do you think it will rain today? what did you think about the Miami Heat winning the title?).
When students start to see arguments in their daily lives, they'll have more buy-in the next time you bring up arguments in the classroom.
3. Explicitly teach the parts of an argument
Here's how I explain arguments to my kids.
An argument begins with a claim. The claim is then explained using reasoning (or a warrant), and it is supported using evidence (or data). It's also important to know that an effective argument acknowledges and deals with its naysayers.
When dealing with naysayers, it's imperative to use respect. This is the final piece of an effective argument. I didn't explicitly teach this at the start of last year; my students and I learned it by evaluating the effectiveness of arguments that did not respectfully treat the other side.
I'll teach and reteach these things (and the many complexities inherent in them) over the course of the year. They begin to take on meaning when students start both making arguments and examining those of others (this latter task ties nicely into R.CCR.8).
4. Share student examples
Early on in the school year, I begin sharing examples of arguments created by students. By projecting a paragraph or two onto the screen, I can get students to see specific skills or struggles that I want them to focus on.
This is a great way to focus in on written arguments, but there is perhaps no better way to share student examples than one simple strategy…
(Drum roll, please.)
5. Debate your faces off
Perhaps no form of argumentation so perfectly lends itself to teachable moments than the debate. There are endless variations on the types of debates you can hold; I've had in-class success with formats no more complex than Lincoln-Douglas and as simple as back-and-forth between two teams. Also, don't be afraid to create a rubric for debates, and definitely don't be afraid to find ways for every student to participate in the actual arguing.
The key with holding effective debates in class is simply getting started. Having debates is the only way to learn how to make them as lean and mean as they can be in your classroom.
I plan to do a post on the types of debates I used in my classroom during this past school year, but a few encouraging comments below can make that happen sooner rather than later 🙂
Have a great day!