Tuesday, November 6, 2012


Thanks to the new books that I recently received (Crime and Puzzlement, recommended by Hillocks in Teaching Argument Writing), I'm ready to teach a new lesson on argument writing.  I hope to use one of the visual mysteries from these books to help students craft an argument based on evidence.

To help promote engagement (and to promote this type of writing among my colleagues), I want to try screencasting this.  In Hillocks' book, he describes several lessons where students and their teacher are collaborating on a text, a kind of think-aloud about writing (sometimes called the "language experience" approach).  I want to try this, and I want them to get deeply involved in the text that we are co-constructing.  So, I'm trying to blend all of these things together.

We'll see how things go.

For now, here's a demo of the tool that I want to try using:


Here's a link to the video on vimeo:

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Common Core and Argument

So we've started the process of aligning our district standards (or "power" standards) with the newly adopted Common Core for Illinois.  This process is going to take a while, at least in my district, and it's a great conversation for teachers to have.

I have mixed feelings about national standards, and I understand that not all of the motives behind the national standards movement are wholesome, student-centered, and progressive.  However, the standards have been adopted, and they are not all bad.  There are a lot of good things about the standards, and a lot of potential for good outcomes.  I choose to look on the "bright side" here.  

For me, the best part of Common Core is the emphasis on writing.  (For example, consider standard CC.7.W.10: "Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences.")  While I'm not a huge fan of "informational" writing, as a label, there is a general tendency in the standards for more sustained writing instruction.  I have always felt that writing instruction is the most challenging, the most important, and the most neglected aspect of middle school instruction.  As a high school student, I felt that writing was "easy," because I was exposed to so little academic writing, and I did well on the few assignments we were given.  It wasn't until I became a college writing instructor that I realized how little I really knew about academic writing, and how much I had yet to learn.  

Let me throw in some links here, before I forget:

Common core home page - http://www.corestandards.org/

PARCC - the Common Core state test website - http://www.parcconline.org/about-parcc

Illinois State Board of Education standards page - http://www.isbe.net/common_core/default.htm

IL Common Core ELA resources page - http://www.isbe.net/common_core/pdf/elawebsites.pdf

There's a lot out there.  I think, though, that a lot of the emphasis - at least in ELA at the 7th grade level - is on "argument."

Joking aside, it's a useful technical term that has fruitful links to colloquial understandings of the term. At bottom, an academic argument is not that different from a "regular" argument.  There are claims, moves, reasons, and positions.  Most kids are going to enter the classroom with a thorough understanding of the basic principles of argumentation, whether they can articulate those principles or not:

1.  State your position.

2.  Provide reasons or evidence for your position.  

3.  Provide counterarguments or refutations of opposing arguments.  

I like to think of "argument" as a bigger, more inclusive term than "persuasion."  TV commercials and used-car salesmen are "persuaders," but they also make arguments.  Argument is a Big Idea.

Where do we see the term in the standards?  Here are four explicit references to "argument" in the 7th grade standards:
CC.7.R.I.8 - Trace and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient to support the claims. 
CC.7.W.1 - Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence. 
CC.7.W.1.e - Provide a concluding statement or section that follows from and supports the argument presented. 
CC.7.SL.3 - Delineate a speaker’s argument and specific claims, evaluating the soundness of the reasoning and the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.
I would estimate that at least half of the rest of the standards make reference to argument-specific vocabulary (such as "claim" and "evidence"), as in this instance: 
CC.7.R.L.1 - Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
I think the most important thing about this isn't just that students are expected to learn how to write arguments, as part of a large collection of things they are supposed to learn.  Argument becomes an essential part of all of the English Language Arts - these standards come from almost all of the various strands (reading, writing, speaking, listening, etc.).  

So, learning about argument isn't just about writing instruction anymore (if it ever was).  Now, it's more explicitly tied to reading, speaking/listening, and synthesizing research.  

And that, I would argue, is a good thing.