Argument Writing – Reflections from a HS English Teacher

Incorporating argument writing into a literature-driven curriculum is a stimulating task.  This year, with the eleventh grade, it was integrated into a unit on the literary genre / philosophical movement, romanticism.  To begin with the concept of romanticism was explored through discussion, pictures and music. Then students read various short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, and Washington Irving.  As we read each text the classroom discussion focused on not just what happened in the texts plot wise but what aspects of romanticism the texts employed.  Furthermore, students examined whether the texts reflected a straightforward romanticism or did they possess a darker undertone: were they, in fact, dark romantic or gothic texts.  In the past Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow has been screened as part of their final assessment.  In this assessment students were required to explain how Burton incorporates characteristics of romanticism into his version of Washington Irving’s story.  I wanted to do something slightly different this time that incorporated argument writing.

It was getting close to the holidays at this point and when I discussed what I was thinking with my Department head she suggested Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas directed by Henry Selick.  Although aimed at a younger audience, the text itself was sophisticated enough to provide ample comparisons to the texts the students studied.  It was also holiday appropriate!

The problem at this point became what are my students going to argue?  At about the same time as I was struggling with this we had our professional development meeting and part of the discussion we had was if, when, and how to effectively include student samples into the classroom. On the way home I picked up the movie from the library.  That night while screening the movie I took notes.  From the notes emerged a writing prompt:            Argue how a motif in the film Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is incorporated into a particular aspect of the film (character, scenery, point of view, music) in a symbolic manner that reveals a larger meaning similar to a particular 19th century romantic or dark romantic text studied.

To prepare students for the task I created a study guide that they could fill out as they watched the film.  The study guide had sections for students to note instances of different motifs, including repeated use of shapes, lines, and colors.  It also had places they could fill in information about the characters, music, plot and setting.

The next day the study guide was handed out, explained and students began screening the movie. As they watched I reminded them to record examples of motifs, etc.  That first night I went home with my writing prompt and thought about the discussion of samples.  I would not have a sample to show the students as I had not done this before.  What exactly was I asking them?  I looked at the Common Core standards for argument writing.  I thought about what I would think of this as a student…. I then decided the best way for me to help my students understand what was required was to actually go through the process.  Hopefully, my sample would open up a dialogue about requirements, process and product.

To do this I selected a text I felt comfortable with and brainstormed commonalities between it and the movie.  After that I hand wrote my response.  Then I read it through, moved things around, restructured a few sentences, corrected my spelling, grammar and double checked my citations. At this point I typed it up and went through the same revision process again.  When I was satisfied I put it on the backside of the writing prompt and argument writing standards, had my department head preview it the next day (to make sure I was clear) and printed out copies for my students.

When the students completed viewing the movie we reviewed the study guide.  At this point I handed out the prompt / sample and went over it with them.  We discussed what the prompt meant.  I then shared my example and talked about the process I went through to produce it.  Students seemed interested and thoughtful about the whole endeavor (not always the response you get from eleventh graders in English class).  They were given both class time and time at home to work on the assignment.  As they worked in class I was able to conference with them about their writing.  They were required to turn in a rough draft, (several actually did a few) and when the final product was handed in I was pleasantly surprised.

Students created thoughtful, sophisticated arguments that analyzed particular aspects of both visual and written texts which reflected their knowledge of the literary genre romanticism.  Although not every student produced a perfect paper, a great majority produced work they should truly be proud of.  For me going through the process that the students would have to follow was eye opening.  I realized how hard it was to actually answer the prompt.  This helped me to articulate what I wanted the students to produce in a more effective manner.  I think that they also appreciated the fact that I had done what I was expecting them to do.  This created a dialog about what they were doing that put me in a much more approachable position.  They saw that I wasn’t just this person who knew everything about writing but struggled to create a meaningful text just like them.

NSHS English Teacher

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One Response to Argument Writing – Reflections from a HS English Teacher

  1. Lauren says:

    This assignment is very thoughtful on so many levels. I used to complete more assignments “as the student” when I first started teaching. Your blog reminds me how important it is that we still take the time to do that from time to time. I enjoyed reading your blog.

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