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Arguing for the Sake of Argument:  Logic in Student Writing

Arguing for the Sake of Argument: Logic in Student Writing

Written by Mary Lou Nagy
April 29, 2013

Arguing for the Sake of Argument:  Logic in Student Writing

By Mary Lou Nagy Background  

“A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” – Lao Tzu

Teaching writing this year felt like a perpetual case of whiplash as I careened from my reluctant writers in Intermediate Composition to my college bound juniors and seniors in Advanced Composition. Keeping students engaged in structured writing has always been the goal, but the arrival of the Common Core increased my anxiety that I was not doing enough and I felt even more pressure to create lessons that encompassed the tenants contained in the revised curriculum. In George Hillocks book, Teaching Argumentative Writing, he states in the introductionthat “students need the kind of teaching where students learn happily, willingly, even enthusiastically.”

As much as I would like to teach that way every day, it has become much more of a challenge with the time required for common assessments, ACT preparation and the Common Core Standards which emphasize argumentative writing.  

In prior years, I taught a unit on persuasive writing which engaged reluctant writers in ways that other writing assignments did not because that structure called for more emotion than logic. While teaching persuasive writing I often used terms from both styles of writing interchangeably. It was only this past year that I began to make a concerted effort to move away from the persuasive style. As the time grew closer to begin the unit on argumentative writing, I increasingly questioned myself as to how best to effectively teach both of my writing classes. I made the decision for ease of planning to cover argumentative writing in both classes at the same time.

While I had begun the shift from persuasive to the more complex style of argumentative in planning objectives, I had to reflect in more detail as to how best to engage the  students with the more structured format. The chart on page 8 contained in the following link was valuable in showing students the difference between the two styles. .

 Starting the Journey

“Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by.”  Robert Frost

I began by giving the Advanced Comp students an excerpt from John Holt’s book, How Children Fail, where he discusses how children all start out as “bright”  learners and how many of them turn into “dull” learners by the time they finish elementary school. Using Holt’s article and their own learning experiences, I directed them to evaluate Holt’s argument and provide evidence that refutes or proveshis stand. 

One reason for children becoming dull learners, according to Holt   is  “the repetition of meaningless tasks and the useless rewards students strive for in the beginning.” (par. 3) I asked students to think of personal examples to use as part of their evidence. While brainstorming, several students came up with the example of the repetitive process of preparing for the ACT.  

Initially, there was only a handful of students who were talking about the ACT but after a bit close to two-thirds of the class were having a heated discussion on the lack of value they saw in all the prep time.  While they understand the need for a competitive score for college, once they are admitted it is of no use to them. It is not a life skill, nor is it valued by anyone in college.

As their discussion swirled, my reflection on teaching argumentative writing took on new meaning. Was my writing pedagogy rich enough to take them from high school to college and beyond? Would they be able to discern viewpoints in political speeches or see flaws in sales pitches? Could they present a thesis, request a departmental budget increase, or write a letter to the editor? While they worked on the Holt assignment, I researched revisions to my unit on argumentative writing which would more closely align  to what the Common Core  required.

Moving On Down The Highway

One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” Henry Miller

The web site for the Argument Research Group gave me a great deal to think about as I started to explore the topic.  This quote from the site certainly provoked some thought:

“We have plenty of evidence…that…educational talk rarely if ever engages big ideas, important questions or complicated problems. Popular culture and media aren’t configured to promote understanding of complex ideas and issues…they encourage us to simplify, comfort or entertain. Likewise, K-12 policies have made minimum competence and standard methods of evaluating achievement the order of the day….thus de-emphasizing reasoning.”   

It has become a challenge in recent years to compete with the immediacy of information available to students. Technology is circumventing the student’s ability to think logically, or to grapple with an idea until it makes sense. Yes, they can find information quickly, but they take much of what they find at face value; not questioning the origin, or whether it makes sense or if it is based on any reliable research.

The explosion of speed and availability of information makes it easy to gather information on the one hand, but they don’t want to think too much about it after the initial discovery.  Teachers are accused of being mean or unfair when they do challenge a student to work through the process of thinking about the how or why of an issue. Students want to rush the whole process; thinking with reason or logic is not demonstrated on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook where the primary goal is to ‘simplify, comfort or entertain’.

While a number of the Advanced Comp students understand the use of logic in writing because they had taken a Logic and Reasoning course offered in our social studies department, they and the other students still needed to gain proficiency in the use of reason in their writing.

Are We There Yet?

Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” – Miriam Beard

I began the unit by sharing this article with them. It does an excellent job of introducing argument, defining terms and giving clear examples and explantions. The goal is for them to understand and appreciate that being proficient at this style of writing will likely lead to not only to more success in college, but also careers and daily life. The Youtube video on the Stephen Toulman argumentative method was a valuable find in my research. In six minutes the video succinctly explains a topic that can be dry and dusty. I then directed them to the Purdue Online Writing Lab to review the argumentative writing  terms and guidelines found there. With so many available resources for teaching evidence, claims, warrants, and counter arguments, I have found this one is easiest for students to navigate.

Next, they investigated theThis I Believe site where they looked at three essays that demonstrated strong writing. – What it means to believe; Discovering Logic; I Believe in Non-Belief. The essays also gave students material which they could be respond to with some simple logic. It did not work as well as I hoped since there was more emotion in their responses, rather than the logic I was hoping for. For example, one article, titled, “What Young Republicans Want” led tp a very heated political discussion with not much logic involved! I think we just rushed this part of the unit a bit but I was pleased with the discussion it generated in class.

Finally, I showed them the site, The New York Times Room for Debate. This takes some studying as it is a rich site. I would plan more time on this site in the future.. It is certainly worthwhile but not as manageable for the limited in-class time. A longer term homework assignment may be more appropriate. Reader’s comments that followed served an additional purpose. When prompted, students could find those that contained some measure of logic and contrast those with ones that contained no logic at all. I could hear conversations where students were disagreeing as to whether there was logic in a response.  The timeliness of the topics seemed to intrigue them. A story that had taken place that day or the day before was often discussed on this page. They love to discuss current issues (when they are aware of them!) and while this page was unknown to all of them, I saw them taking notes and some got out their phones to text the URL for future reference.

They had much better understanding about argumentation after exploring these sites to write a fuller response to the Holt article, which I used as a final assessment. There were some group discussions about political messages and commercials.

Watch Out for Bumps in the Road

Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.” Seneca

Despite my initial anxiety, presenting this to my Intermediate Comp students was easier than I thought going into the unit.  Before we started, I had to remember that the majority of the students in this class are not too awfully interested in work, let alone writing. My goal has been to give them strategies that, when put together, can produce competent writing. In his book, Hillocks said, “Rather than remind our students of their lack of competence, we need to ask them to be experts, even at the beginning of learning something new.…” (p.9)

My students in this class have been reminded too many times of their incompetence in writing and it is a continual challenge to give them a chance to find that opportunity where they be successful writers, be it a paragraph or something longer.

I started by using Lawrence Treats mystery puzzle “Slip or Trip.” This produced lively exchanges among groups trying to prove whether Queenie (in Treat’s story) was lying. Many of them called out at first, “Liar!” and other not-so-choice adjectives. When I reminded them that they had to come up with evidence and a rule, per the instructions, they really seemed to welcome the structure. I thoroughly enjoyed the individual conversations because I witnessed enthusiasm and willingness to try. This was a significant step.    .…/introAndChapter1.pdf

Some Construction and a Detour or Two

“I see my path but I don’t know where it leads. Not knowing where I am going inspires me to travel it.” Rosalia deCastro

Next, we brainstormed topics more common to argumentative writing. It took some work to get them focused and thinking in more detail. To examine  in more detail, I showed them the site, You Decide. Challenge Your Assumptions 

I like this site because it is interactive, concrete, and  takes them through the process  quickly, from choosing a topic to casting their vote on which side they agree with, , to viewing additional information, including graphs, charts and other resources. As a class we first looked at a sample question of whether the cost of a college education was justified. When they looked at the pie charts and bar graphs and learned  those are examples of evidence to support a position, it increased their engagement. This also prompted a discussion on surveys and using data.

We then went to Survey Monkey so they could see how to create a short survey. At the Survey Monkey site, there are ready made templates with questions which provided them with a survey for immediate use and feedback.  As a group assignment they chose the template which had seven questions on Social Media Use. It was an issue they understood, had some interest in and could send to friends knowing there was a greater chance of a response. Of course, while the survey activity looked good while we did it as a group, a number of students needed prompting and additional support to do this. It was a valuable addition to the unit and one that could be used with the Advanced Comp. students as well.

They followed up with an assigned essay on whether fast food outlets should be allowed in high school cafeterias. They had to support their position with statistics and research to support their position. Most of them wanted to try another survey but there was little follow through. I witnessed more enthusiasm with the Treat Slip and Trip assignment and the use of the survey.

The final assessment was a harder sell than doing the other pieces of the unit. I probably overestimated their ability to tie all of this together. I did think the topic about fast foods was relevant but they did not seem too interested overall. When someone asked the usual question “Why do we need this?” I discussed why they needed to know the fundamentals of argumentative writing. There was an uptick of interest when we talked about future employment and how they might have to present a logical rationale for a raise or to increase a budget for a department

Final Reflections 

“Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers…Pat Conroy

It has become a challenge in recent years to compete with the immediacy of information available to students. To ask students to think, to figure something out for themselves is to be accused of being mean, grumpy or a bad teacher. One of the more engaging rewards of teaching is to see students grapple with an idea and then see the light bulb go on when they figure it out. This has become more difficult as the time in class is devoted to more testing. This is where I have gained a new passion for the inclusion of argumentative writing since it will provide additional opportunities to where they have to look closely at an issue with higher order thinking skills.

Would I teach argumentative writing to both Intermediate and Advanced students again at the same time? My first thought is no based on the big differences in motivation and interest; however, there are advantages to doing both at the same time in terms of lesson planning. I just would need to go at a slower pace with the Intermediate students and do more exit slips or short conferences to better measure where we made progress or did not.  The Advanced class was willing to do more, liked being challenged for the most part and grasped the significance more readily as to why it was important.

The daily transition from the Advanced class to the Intermediate class was when I felt the worst effects of whiplash. I had to re-energize the Intermediate almost every day.  Next time I would use Survey Monkey with both classes and share This I Believe with the Intermediate students to show them additional examples of good writing. Hillock’s point that students need to learn happily, willingly and enthusiastically is certainly a challenge in this era of assessments, test prep and more test prep. But we do our students no favor by bemoaning the lack of time for more spontaneity in our teaching. The Common Core has arrived and as professionals we must willingly find our happiness and enthusiasm to help our students learn.

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