Things fall apart…

This year has been a huge learning curve. The thing that I found to be the most eye-opening was recognizing what students are capable of both at the elementary and middle school level.  As a high school teacher, we sometimes fall into the mindset that we, somehow work harder and that only our students produce sophisticated work.  Recognizing that students could articulate an argument persuasively at the second grade level was astonishing.  Seeing that students could produce a complex, highly organized, extended argument piece that integrated facts to support their response made me personally rethink what my students should be capable of producing at the eleventh grade.  Knowing that students where researching comprehensive topics at the middle school, where they were given topics, practice assessing material, and required to utilize counterclaims in their arguments made me wonder why my students were not doing this in eleventh or twelfth grade.

Having seen the work that younger children were producing when we did the sample argument at the end of last year – the reusable bags versus plastic bags prompt – made me approach this year feeling that I should really raise the bar as far as what I felt that the students should produce at the eleventh grade, which was the grade that I was focused on.  Early on I addressed what argument writing was; I screened short clips, we looked at the rubrics and check sheets, we analyzed what an argument should look like for their grade level as well as a few previous years.  I then assigned them an extended response argumentative essay on why the Salem Witch trials happened.

It all fell apart.

Few students built anything close to real arguments.  I had scaffolded the material.  I provided them with appropriate support material that could support an argument.  Some chose not to utilize support material – therefore they had no support for their arguments except their own ideas.  Few could analyze the material and separate out appropriate quotes that they could weave into their arguments.  If they did, in fact, have a counterclaim it sometimes undermined their own arguments. They seemed unable to document where their material was coming from.  Although organization was there in rudimentary form there was little that anticipated the audience’s knowledge level and concerns- there seemed to be little thought as to who the audience was in the first place.  This was very disheartening. Why could they produce complex arguments in second, fourth, seventh and eighth grades and not at the high school?  What was I doing wrong …?

After struggling to grade the resulting papers I decided to back track.  I stepped away from the fancy terminology and unfamiliar rubrics.  I then spent the rest of the year practicing analyzing texts.  What was the author’s argument I would ask.  Why did they (the author) think that way?  Does it reflect their (the author’s) upbringing?  Does it reflect the time they were writing in?  Does it reflect the culture they were a part of?  How do we find this information?  Go back to the text – what does it say exactly?  Why did the author utilize those particular words? What do the words mean?  What are their connotations and denotations?  Every class we would do this orally.

It got to the point where I would read a quote and they would identify who said it, why it was important to the text as a whole, which theme it tied into and why.  They could now, at least orally, argue how the author’s experiences and culture shape the texts they produced.

Finally, I had them produce a short writing piece that required them to make a claim about a theme in a text (in this case The Great Gatsby) and support it with appropriate textual evidence that is further bolstered by acknowledgement of both their own, and the text’s, strengths and weaknesses and that show a clear awareness of both the audience’s knowledge level and concerns.  The resulting constructed response arguments reflect a more refined and mature understanding of how to analyze and make clear their position on a particular topic.

What I learned, in the end, is that all teachers, in all levels work hard and are dedicated.  That all students, no matter how young, are capable of producing clever arguments that reflect their own beliefs and that sometimes it’s better to spend months subtly practicing a skill without the students being aware of it than intimidating them with fancy words, professional articles and unfamiliar rubrics.

Hannah Cevoli

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