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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Argumentative Writing is a Key Focus in Common Core Standards

I've been examining the Common Core Standards and the upcoming assessments lately in an attempt to tease apart this huge seismic shift that is about to go down. And while I think it will have its challenges, I have to admit that I like what I'm seeing. For one thing, they prioritize a more accurate alignment of school life versus real life, seeking to blur the lines more than ever.

I applaud this, as my own motto this year as a teacher is, "If it doesn't apply to the world outside of school, then it isn't worthy of being taught within school." One of the best examples of this is how the CCS highlights Persuasive, or rather, Argumentation, across the curriculum.

For it's true that in life everything requires persuasion. Therefore, in school, every problem, every subject, and every task should come from that perspective as well.

Across the Curriculum

If you look through the Common Core Standards, you'll see words peppered all over the place that point to persuasive writing: interpret, argument, analyze. The focus isn't to provide evidence as the sole means to prove, but rather to make an argument and bring in evidence that one must then justify through argumentation.

For instance, rather than merely solving a math problem, the equation serving as the answer in itself, and moving on to the next question, there is a possibility that persuasive writing will come into play that has the student selecting what formula to use, making an argument, and using the computations as evidence to back up that argument.

In my department, English Language Arts, we are already spinning Literary Analysis into a literary persuasive composition in order to address the future of this more meaningful writing. Rather than teach two compartmentalized writing genres, doesn't it make more sense to blend the two and have the student convince the reader of the theme or the character change or the author's intent? It comes at analysis from a different, more authentic angle.

And speaking of authenticity, this concept of scenario-based assessment is one about which I am very hopeful. Now, I have been a Dungeons & Dragons player in my time, but that's not what I mean by role-play. I mean putting a kid in an authentic scenario, one in which he might find himself trying to solve "out there in the real world," and giving him the skills to apply to the problem. This kind of role-play seems like a legitimate skill to me. If we are preparing them for college and career, should we not put them in some shoes, perhaps some Birkenstocks and pumps, to try to prove their readiness?

The CCS asks that vocabulary, academic language, is not learned through memorized lists, but rather through conversation, discussion, and debate. Again, argument appears even in the Speaking and Listening standards.

The CCS asks that students collaborate and give peer reviews, critique being another form of argumentation, before having their writing assessed independently.

Preparing Teachers

The CCS asks that argument writing rear its head in many subjects.

However, the question I have as a English language arts teacher is, who is responsible? Will the ELA teachers have the sole burden of teaching and assessing the inevitable formative and summative arguments that are sure to come in all subjects? Will math teachers and science teachers and history teachers have to teach writing? I think it's neither one of these options but rather a dividing up of the responsibility to come. As for me, I think that the ELA teachers have a responsibility to help other teachers get up to speed regarding some of the intricacies of argument writing so that other teachers can confidently hold students accountable for standards taught during English class.

Here are three mini-lessons that could perhaps help to prioritize a workshop on argumentation for teachers:

  • #1 The Thesis Statement/Main Topic Sentence The thesis is the map of the essay. It not only states the argument but also gives an indication of the organization of the essay. All subjects must standardize the need to see one in a student's argument regardless of the content.
  • #2 Evidence Evidence is the quote, the computation, the data, the statistics, and the findings. Evidence backs up the argument made in the thesis statement. This is the content that the teacher as subject matter expert must verify. But it doesn't end there.
  • #3 Commentary Commentary is the original thought. It doesn't just translate the evidence to the layman; it brings in a new layer to the information that brings the argument home.

There are other components of course: counterargument, transitions, organization, word choice, conclusions, etc. But these must be taught in the ELA classroom. Nevertheless, with just a few little lessons taught to teachers by teachers, I believe other core content and elective teachers will be able to easily hold the students to a certain standard of writing persuasively.

Life is persuasive. A lawyer persuades a jury. A job applicant pitches oneself as a potential employee. A scientist competes for a grant. A writer sells her idea in her query letter. This is the writing that unlocks a world of possibilities. It is a skill that we see at every stage of life from writing the inevitable cover letter to one day hopefully writing a letter of recommendation.

School must reflect the world around it, and writing persuasively is a key skill for college and career readiness regardless of the path a student takes.

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