Friday, January 29, 2016

Learning by Example: Argument

I started erasing this after class before I realized I wanted to capture it for my blog because it was such an effective lesson!

I know that looking at professional models and practicing the moves we see is as good an idea for aspiring writers as it is for basketball players. (If you haven’t seen this kid copying Stephen Curry’s moves, you really should!) And last week I wrote about getting student writers to do this with poetry. But I don’t have a good track record of getting myself or my students as excited about looking at the craft of the essay as at the ideas in the writing. 

Yesterday, however, I scored. 

The reading was “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted” by Malcolm Gladwell, part of my AP Language unit on the individual and community. It’s a longer argumentative essay, originally published in The New Yorker, consisting of 6 multi-paragraph sections. 

I divided the whiteboard into 6 columns, and assigned each student one of the sections of the essay. (If I had more than 6 students—yes, I know how lucky I am—I would probably assign groups to a section, like jigsawing, and give each group a piece of butcher paper.) I asked them, in their column, to briefly summarize the section—the sub-thesis, type(s) of support, and transition from/to preceding/following sections. Then we could look at the whole thing and see how Gladwell build his argument. 

What we noticed: 
  • Sections 1, 3, and 5 are structured around the narrative of the Greensboro, North Carolina, Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in that started Feb. 1, 1960. 
  • Thesis statements come mostly at the end, once in the middle, and only once at the beginning.
  • Several sections are about counterargument and rebuttal. These have a lot of small examples and appeal to experts, pro and con.
  • Along with the Greensboro lunch-counter sit-in narrative, definition is central: definition of strong ties and weak ties and the pros and cons of each.
  • Voice given by (sarcastic) allusion, including “tweets from a Birmingham jail” and the essay-ending “Viva la revolucion.” (Search the phrase in quotation marks. The first result is a relevant definition from Urban Dictionary. The second is a bunch of images of Che.)

But the lesson most on my mind was this: Transition from section to section is almost always implicit in the first or second sentence of the new section. Only at the end of the first section of this article is a new idea introduced for transition to the next section. After several paragraphs of narrative and commentary about the Feb. 1960 events in Greensboro, and the civil rights movement that spread from it, the final paragraph ends, “These events in the early sixties became a civil-rights war that engulfed the South for the rest of the decade—and it happened without e-mail, texting, Facebook, or Twitter.” And section 2 addresses the new social activism that happens in social media. 

With this exercise yesterday, my 11th graders realized a lot of things about structure, support, counterargument and refutation, and transition. And it has taken a whole semester of reading nonfiction to come to the point where we can appreciate the bearing that “how it’s said” has on “what is said.” 

Can I get to this point sooner? Can I get there with 10th grade? I need to do more nonfiction with them, I need to try this exercise, and maybe even more importantly, I need to really believe and work and intrigue kids with an essential question about “How is WHAT I say impacted by HOW I say it?” Hmmm…good idea…I’ll definitely fiddle with that some and implement it in both courses next year.

A real, live, driving question, and models. In writing, like in basketball, where the real, live, driving question is, “How can I be like Stephen Curry?” How can I provide that for my aspiring writers in high school English class?

How do you provide it for your students—the question and the models—in your class?

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