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A First Day of School Activity that Teaches Argumentation

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Next Tuesday, when our Michigan students come for their beautiful, post-Labor Day first day of school, I'm going to bust out something hot.

In our school, we have to set goals for ourselves that can be measured with data. My goals are focused around W.CCR.1 and R.CCR.10 — writing argumentatively from a variety of complex texts. This is not because I'm a Common Core baller; rather, it's because, during CCSS-ish experimenting with my courses last year, I found that students had little argumentative know-how and that argumentation was a lens through which so many of them began flourishing as intellectuals.

A walkthrough of a sweet argumentative warm-up that has never been tested

So anyways, here's the hotness: to help me get to know my students, and to introduce them to the awesomeness of argumentation on the first day, I'm going to have each student brainstorm five or so clear and precise arguable claims that tell the rest of the class something about them.

I'll begin by modeling something like this:

Okay, some of the things that are important to me are my beautiful wife and daughters, Jesus, tacos, teaching, and reading. Some things that I did this past summer include camping out west, renovating a house, and hating/repeatedly singing “Call Me Maybe.” One of my core beliefs about students is that hard workers come out ahead of lazy smart people.

So that's probably enough for my five. Now, how can I turn these into debatable claims? In other words, how can I state them in a way that you could argue with me? Let's just try it:

  1. The three most beautiful women in the world are my wife, Crystal, and my two daughters, Hadassah and Laura.
  2. The most important person to have ever lived is Jesus.
  3. There's really no contest — the best food in the world is tacos.
  4. The number one best job on the planet is the one that I have: teaching you.
  5. The most relaxing way to spend a rainy day is by curling up on the couch with a good book.
  6. The best campground in the United States is Granite Creek in Wyoming.
  7. The absolute worst song in the history of mankind is “Call Me Maybe.”

After I share each arguable claim, I will ask students to give me a thumbs up or thumbs down on whether it is debatable. I will then use index cards to call on students and ask them to make a counterclaim. Once I've modeled this and a few students have successfully done it, I'll ask them to go to work writing their own claims that tell us something about them.

After five minutes or so, I'll have them share all of their draft claims in their triads, and I'll ask triad-mates to help each member choose which claim they should read to the whole class.

Finally, each student will read a claim to the whole class, and we'll do some mad clapping, and we'll move on.

Why do this?

I have several goals for this activity:

  1. Begin learning and making arguments on Day 1.
  2. Begin demonstrating the collaborative, creative, and awesome nature of arguments. The point of an argument isn't winning, but rather it's getting to the bottom of things. (<–Totally tweet that.) If we were to indulge in a (probably short) argument about the degree of horribleness of “Call Me Maybe,” in my class it wouldn't be about winning; rather, it would be about collaboratively finding ways to prove such a claim and ways to argue against such a claim and, perhaps, to get to the bottom of what makes good music.
  3. Break the ice in my class in an academically meaningful way.

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36 Responses to A First Day of School Activity that Teaches Argumentation

  1. Jonetta Jonte August 31, 2012 at 12:05 pm #

    What an awesome idea! I am beginning argument next week and think I will steal your idea. We have been in school since August 1 and this would have been a most excellent way to begin the year.

  2. Jonetta Jonte August 31, 2012 at 12:08 pm #

    Just thought of something I do with juniors and seniors to practice refutation. I play for them “If Ever I Woule Leave You” from Lerner and Loewe’s musical Camelot! Then I present my argument that this is the best love song ever written. My students must then either defend, challenge, or qualify my argument. This makes a great lesson and an interesting way to learn refutation of an argument.

    • davestuartjr August 31, 2012 at 2:04 pm #

      Jonetta, now it’s my turn to steal! 🙂 When we get further into the year, I’ll use this activity to teach refutation. How do you explain qualifying an argument to students?

  3. Erica Beaton (@B10LovesBooks) August 31, 2012 at 9:12 pm #

    When you said that you posted “a rockin’ idea for an argumentative ice breaker,” you were right on. I love this. I’m excited to observe the results!

  4. Mike Tokarczyk September 2, 2012 at 6:38 pm #

    Okay… I only read the first two paragraphs of your post because I’m on the run, but I will definitely be back to see what’s in store for your students after Labor Day. I’m all about taking a look inside the classroom of a “CCSS Baller!”

    I too could use a little argumentative pick-me-up! Keep the CCSS 411 coming!

    • davestuartjr September 4, 2012 at 8:51 pm #

      Mike, I hope you enjoyed the rest of your Labor Day vacation! Now, mind you, I’m *not* a CCSS baller — just a wannabe!

  5. Mary September 3, 2012 at 9:47 pm #

    Great stuff, Dave! (And Jonetta, too!) I shared your blog with teachers in my middle school via my Scoop.it. They in turn shared with the district, so all of our 6-12 teachers can benefit from your ideas!

    • davestuartjr September 4, 2012 at 8:50 pm #

      Mary, you are the bomb. I hope they enjoy the blog and can benefit from it. It’s more about the community of awesomeness that we establish collectively — that’s what I love. I really appreciate your Scoopin’ it up — thank you!

  6. mrsdaman September 6, 2012 at 1:12 pm #

    There is a book by George Hillocks Jr. called Teaching Argument Writing Grades 6-12 that is a great help for this. I am working on this as well, thanks for the idea!

    • davestuartjr September 7, 2012 at 4:54 pm #

      Thank you, Mrs. Daman! I want to check that book out ASAP!

    • Rosemary Fugle July 17, 2013 at 3:21 pm #

      I used Hillocks with my at-risk students this year. Amazing activities that students were excited about (and frustrated too!) really good stuff

  7. Angela Peery September 21, 2012 at 9:38 am #

    Dave, this is terrific. One of my colleagues and I are developing a one-day seminar on teaching argumentative writing – mainly for non-ELA teachers. I will continue to keep up with your blog and resources as I develop all the materials we work with at the Leadership and Learning Center.

    • davestuartjr September 24, 2012 at 3:14 pm #

      Hi Angela,
      I wish I could attend the seminar because it sounds fantastic. Gerald Graff has helped me see the centrality of argumentative writing to so much of the conversations in both academic and non-academic settings. Please let me know if I can be of service; I now have a video giving an overview of how I use in-class debates to help students become better arguers, both as speakers and writers: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l5FW2rWoJgE

  8. Mary Lou Baker September 21, 2012 at 7:14 pm #

    I love this idea! Speaking of data analysis, we are also doing pre and post tests on a couple of a standards at a time. We are wondering if we should give the same passage on the pre and post test in order to ensure that we are comparing apples to apples (i.e. how do we know if they just didn’t understand the passage or if they just didn’t understand the theme of the passage). Could you do an entry on how to assess reading (since we’re not sure that we could get accurate data if using different texts on pre and post test)?

    • davestuartjr September 24, 2012 at 3:44 pm #

      Dear Mary Lou,

      Thanks for being friendly and encouraging, and also for asking a really good question! 🙂 I’d love to do a post on it, but first I want to make sure I understand.

      Let’s say you want students to identify the theme of a passage (if I’m tracking with you, this is what you’re after, and this would be based around R.CCR.2, the 2nd reading CCSS standard). When you give the pre-test with a passage that students have never read, you’re essentially testing them on their ability to understand an unfamiliar text AND determine the central idea or theme of that text.

      Now, if you gave them the same passage as a post-test, you would essentially be assessing them for less — due to some degree of text-familiarity, they would now have less basic comprehension work to do and therefore more likelihood of nailing the theme, assuming that they understood what that was.

      In other words, your pre-test would be measuring what Kelly Gallagher calls “first draft reading” whereas your post-test would be measuring “second draft reading” — so you wouldn’t get the apples to apples that you are wisely seeking.

      To get apples to apples, I think you’d need to find two different passages that are as similar as possible in the following three areas:

      –Quantitative difficulty (e.g., word count; # of unfamiliar words for your grade level; using some type of scoring system, perhaps Lexile if it’s a passage from a book)
      –Qualitative difficulty (e.g., how many levels of meaning are in the text, how conventional is the writing, how clear is it, how much prior knowledge does it require?)
      –Reader and Task considerations (e.g., for your particular students: how exciting will this passage be, how unfamiliar will the setting be?)

      For more information on how to determine these three factors of text complexity, check out this post: http://davestuartjr.com/ccr-anchor-standards/in-reading/whats-the-big-deal-about-text-complexity/

      Thanks again, Mary Lou! Let me know if more depth or a different kind of response would be helpful! You are asking the right questions!

      • Mary Lou Baker January 22, 2013 at 11:13 am #

        Thank you so much for your in-depth reply. I really appreciate it!

        • davestuartjr January 22, 2013 at 1:20 pm #

          Of course, Mary — I hope that it all worked out for you. Keep in touch if I can help in any other way!

        • Erin March 30, 2013 at 11:57 pm #

          Mary Lou,
          I would love to know what you did for this! We also have to have “data” goals and I’m thinking about doing one with Nonfiction, but not sure yet what I’d look at/focus on. Author’s point of view maybe? Not sure. I’ll take ideas!!

  9. Sylvia January 9, 2013 at 12:26 pm #

    I love this idea for my classroom, however, I plan on using this as I facilitate a program called “Next Steps to a Vital Congregation” for several church groups. Awesome, all around. Thanks so much!

    • davestuartjr January 9, 2013 at 2:16 pm #

      That’s really great, Sylvia. As a guy who sometimes does church trainings, I’d be curious to know more about how you plan to use it!

      Have a good one,

      • mrskvacik January 10, 2013 at 9:39 am #

        The focus of our program will be for the churches to develop into outwardly-focused entities. Your “the point of an argument isn’t winning, but rather it’s getting to the bottom of things,” really resonated with me in this particular situation. The churches will have to work together and overcome some things in order to become the best forms of themselves. I will present your icebreaker at the first meeting (duh) to get them thinking about looking at more than one side of an issue…and to get to know each other a bit.

        • davestuartjr January 10, 2013 at 3:00 pm #

          This is a fantastic idea — I wholeheartedly commend your efforts to get churches thinking this way about arguments. The lack of unity in so many parts of the church today is a shame; this mindset about argumentation could really help promote unity.

          • mrskvacik January 10, 2013 at 3:19 pm #

            Our first meeting is on Saturday. I’ll report back with how this idea went with the churches. 🙂

          • davestuartjr January 10, 2013 at 3:24 pm #

            I’ll look forward to the update — thanks for being so willing to share; this is very exciting.

  10. Mary Lou Baker April 4, 2013 at 11:00 am #

    To be honest, we are still struggling with this. We are finding it hard to focus on just one standard since most pre made assessments hit many standards and we just don’t have the time to create ones from scratch. We did try to isolate point of view for one and purpose for another. We are also finding it hard to find passages that are similar in difficulty. Our 10th grade teachers are using classscape in NC and I’m curious to see how those benchmarks compare with the common core test taken for the first time this past semester. I know that most kids passed; I think the county was generous in how they handled the scoring, but rightly so on this first time.

  11. Katey August 12, 2013 at 7:58 pm #

    I was looking for a fresh idea for the first full day of school about five hours ago and then your email showed up with your blog post and here this is and … got my idea! Can’t wait to give it a try. One question that I should know the answer to, but don’t: when you say “arguable” and debatable” (After I share each arguable claim, I will ask students to give me a thumbs up or thumbs down on whether it is debatable.), are you using these words as synonyms?

  12. davestuartjr August 12, 2013 at 8:18 pm #

    Oh yeah, Katey — great question! I totally am using them interchangeably. (It’s a bad habit!) I’m so glad this works for you — actually, I think I’ll throw it out there to the community on social media channels to remind them of the activity. Feel free to share it with your peeps as well!

  13. Lynsay April 21, 2014 at 11:41 pm #

    1.5 years this later, this is still the bomb. Thanks.

    • davestuartjr April 22, 2014 at 7:20 am #

      Lynsay, you made my morning — thank you and I’m glad it’s still rocking 🙂

  14. Lynn September 2, 2014 at 11:48 pm #

    Awesome idea–and my first day is tomorrow, so the timing is EPIC!

  15. Abbie McCracken July 25, 2015 at 10:01 pm #

    If you want a pick-me-up, I am planning on using this as my first day activity this year. I just discovered your blog, and I love it!

    • davestuartjr August 2, 2015 at 1:01 pm #

      Abbie, that’s a sweet pick-me-up — thank you, and enjoy!

  16. Rihab Abba September 16, 2015 at 5:01 pm #

    Thanks a lot, such a fun idea to start the year with! I wonder how long it’d take to complete the activity for a class of 20 students, since I have 2-hour-long sessions. Do you think it would fit? I also wish to share a writing activity I use during the first day: I ask the students to write down a paragraph starting with: “I’m absolutely sure this academic year will rock for me because…” . After collective discussion, I keep the individual paragraphs and give them back to them during the last session, so that they can self-assess their progress

    • davestuartjr September 29, 2015 at 2:22 pm #

      Rihab, cool activity! My response here is late, but yes, I’m sure it would fit!

  17. Kelly Lynn September 29, 2015 at 12:25 pm #

    I am a student teaching for public speaking and start our unit on Argumentation at the end of this week. I have been looking for an engaging way to introduce the topic. Um…*THIS*.

    Thank you for sharing so I can also look like a rockstar for my university observation!

    • davestuartjr September 29, 2015 at 2:21 pm #

      Rock on, Kelly! Have fun with it! 🙂

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