Friday, October 20, 2017

Three Tips for Better Argument Teaching

I have new hope for the next generation’s ability to negotiate civic conversations! I just collected the best argument essays I’ve ever gotten from my AP Language students. Why were they so good? I'm not exactly sure, but in my 3rd year of teaching the class, here are 3 little things I did differently this year than last year: (1) required at least 1 source on the other side of the argument, (2) had students compile their own mentor argument sentence stems, and (3) taught a mini-lesson on fact-checking.

First, early in the research process, students had to find at least 1 source on the other side of their argument. This made students aware at a whole new level of the straw man fallacies we frequently use within our homogeneous groups. Halfway through the writing, some students were modifying their claims. In their reflections on their final drafts, several students voiced observations similar to these students: 
  • You have to consider and understand the counterargument. It gives you a more well-rounded argument and broadens your perspective.
  • When people would mention argument, I think about fighting. When I read in the textbook, it said it’s not necessarily fighting, but more of a type of conversation.

Next, as we read and analyzed other arguments, I used the inductive method of asking students to compile 1 sentence stem from each that they found useful in argument development. These we posted on the classroom wall (see photo above). (This in contrast to past years deductive method of telling students a list of sentence stems to use for introducing different parts of the argument.) After reading their first drafts, I told the class I was amazed at how sophisticated and smooth their arguments were. One student said, “I think I used every sentence stem on that poster—I kept checking it while I was writing.” I said, “I could tell.”

Finally, I taught 1 mini lesson on fact-checking sites. I really think that information awareness strategies are something we need to just keep teaching, drip method, a little every course, every year. (See this blog for last year’s 10th grade lesson.) After all, I’m continuing to learn how to be more savvy about sifting the deluge of online information. This week we discussed what we do when we come across information online that catches our attention in any way. Then I asked them to read the Edutopia article “Turning your students into web detectives: Five vetted resources students can use to separate truth from fiction online.” Finally, I asked for a 2-sentence exit ticket on students’ fact-checking strategies. Here are some of the answers I got:
  • I do tend to fact check on a daily basis about pop culture topics. I used to check the URL of the website and see if it was a .org, .edu, .gov, etc., because I remember learning that it's a way to check if a site is credible. I didn't even know that these fact check websites existed, so from now, I think I will use them also.
  • Honestly, my biggest thing was seeing if it was published by a company or organization, and also check the credibility of the author. Now I will use some of the websites provided to figure out whether my sources are credible or not.
  • I generally don't trust other fact checking websites, so first I check for facts when I feel suspicious about the presented "facts" and evaluate the validity of the site itself for the url, publisher, company, etc. If the website is within my criteria of credibility, I look for other websites that meet the same criteria and compare the two (or three/more depending on how skeptical I am) and look for bias and misalignment between the facts/information between the sources.
  • I usually only look for sources that back up my argument, not so much my counterargument. So the sources I use are going to have a bias, SO it's better to have an open mind and get things checked. I should definitely start checking if something is correct, not just that it favors my claim.
  • I used to just read through a site and look at the url and figure out by myself if it's credible, but now I realize that I need a better way to fact-check because anyone can make a website and write false things. I will use the websites listed to fact-check. They are very helpful.

Here are a few additional things students wrote in their reflections on their final drafts:
  • I learned how to make and argue a point that I believe in. I know how to find sufficient evidence for argument. I need to be able to address both points.
  • I had to make sure that I was using a credible source and not falling for “appeal to false authority.”
  • When people would mention argument, I think about fighting. When I read in the textbook, it said it’s not necessarily fighting, but more of a type of conversation.
  • You have to use familiar examples/interesting methods to make very obscure things interesting for an audience uninterested/unfamiliar with it. (This for an argument on whether copyright law supports artists or big business.)
  • Some forms of rhetoric are so ingrained in us that when presenting an argument, we may use it without noticing, and we must be careful to avoid fallacies.

What could be more important in today's world than learning to identify important issues, think through all sides of an argument, discern truth and bias, dismantle rhetorical fallacies, and respectfully enter the conversation? How have you had success helping students do this?

Friday, October 13, 2017

Baby Steps in Differentiation

Colleagues discuss differentiation.

Trying new things can be hard--even (or especially) when you're over 50.
I have 2 mantras that get me through: "baby steps" and "something is better than nothing." Having a few good friends helps, too.

This week, the new thing I tried was some differentiation. I had to, because I’m currently in a faculty book discussion of How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms, and because I had to set an implementation goal at our last meeting and report on it this week, and because the goal I’d come up with was differentiating assignments in response to editing papers in 10th grade English.

So as I went through each revised draft, circling the first 10 editing errors, I came up with a few important types of grammar/convention/style weaknesses for each student. I noted the 4 most common types and just did a Google search for the topic: passive voice verbs, commas in compound sentences, semicolons, and commas in restrictive/nonrestrictive phrases. Boom—4 worksheets (with answer sheets) in 10 minutes. 

During the editing period, I assigned students to groups based on the topic they were working on, gave them 10 minutes to practice the topic based on the worksheet, and then the rest of the period to edit their paper, correcting their 10 marked errors (and anything else they could find). I conferred with students about questions they had on why things were marked. 

I’m not feeling like this was an amazing breakthrough—except I’m rather please with myself for actually trying it! Finding the exercises was surprisingly simple. Probably the most complex thing will be tracking which students have done which exercises, so they don’t repeat the same ones. Or, I guess, if they have a repeat, that would be an important thing for both the student and me to note—that they need more than just an exercise. Students began personalized editing watch lists to check when they edit. I was pleased to see them using the language of the exercises—speaking of comma splices and active voice verbs. 

I was also pleased that the following day, when students submitted final drafts and wrote reflections on their writing process, what they had learned, and what they wanted to learn next, the whole worksheet experience hadn’t trumped the rest of the process, and there was still plenty of reflection about other things: 
  • I would like to improve in making connection between the text and real-life examples.
  • I learned that I work best when I take the writing process in little chunks. It gives me time to review a few times before submitting my essay—revising and making my paper better each time.
  • I learned that when first writing a paper, the rough draft is just to get ideas down and it is nowhere near perfect/finished.
  • How can I write short, clear, and concise paragraphs?
  • I want to be able to write a big, strong, persuasive introduction….I don’t know how to end the introduction.

So—baby steps, baby steps. I’ll keep working on differentiation. Glad I have my book discussion group to keep me accountable and to share stories with!

What is it that you need to try? Gather a few good friends, and take some baby steps.

Students reflect on their final drafts.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Teacher Self Care: Count Your Classroom Blessings (the Unsung Best Practice)

What gave you joy this week? How many moments of joy did you have? 

It’s time for a break from blogs focussed on goals and pedagogy. While I believe teaching well is hugely about planning—the meaningful goals of knowledge, skill, and understanding; the assessments that will demonstrate students have attained the goals; and the engaging, differentiated instruction that will equip students to do well on the assessments—and also about modeling my own growth mindset by continually getting better in my own pedagogy…sometimes life gets harried and breathless, and I just need to breathe and open my eyes and notice the little moments of growth, connection, curiosity, epiphany, joy that are blossoming around me and in me. 

As the PSAT and the end of the quarter and school accreditation responsibilities loom in rapid succession, these are the moments that brought me delight this week, the moments that keep me teaching…
  • A student I had last year stops by to borrow Half the Sky to use in her senior Bible presentation. 
  • The AP Language textbook has the U.S. Declaration of Independence as an illustration of argument, and I ask if the class has ever read it. They all explode, “We just read that in history!” So in English we can build on that base, just breezing through first lines of paragraphs to illustrate inductive and deductive reasoning. (Love cross-curricular connections! See also next item....)
  • Students walk into class after their first reading on logical fallacies and say, “This is like what we just did in Bible class for our debate!” 
  • I introduce the logical fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc (or correlation is not causation), and a student remembers, “You taught us this last year when you subbed in biology!” (This may be the first time ever a student has remembered something I taught that I had forgotten!)
  • I mention that post hoc ergo propter hoc always reminds me of the US political TV drama The West Wing because there is an episode with that title, and none of the US students in the room have heard of the series—only a student from New Zealand. (Irony of situation. Gotta love it when it shows up in real life.)
  • A student walks into AP Language with a comment about the Nobel Prize in Physics announcement—because he did a presentation on the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for me last year when I subbed. Later he asks for the link to that periodic table I used that has a video for every element. (Maybe that subbing stint was worth it after all.)
  • Listening in on student conversations and answering their questions when they see my display of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature announcement. (Real life book discussions!)
  • In the practice PSAT selection on writing that I give my students, the first question refers to the line “lose a yearly sum of $63.2 billion annually.” One student thinks it sounds right, but another student confidently asserts, “It’s redundant, and I know that because in my essay I said something was ‘inevitable; it couldn’t be avoided,’ and Mrs. Essenburg told me it was redundant.” (They do pay attention to my comments!)
  • I bring in a Facebook meme, and most of the students immediately identify it as both satire and faulty analogy. I mention a breaking news headline that is an example of hasty generalization, and several come in the next day talking about it. (Real life applications and connections!)
  • I try something new—asking students to write down and share one argument stem (a sentence structure or beginning phrase) from each piece we read that they find interesting or effective and might want to try using sometime. We’re compiling them on a poster. It remains to be seen how effective this will be, but we’re experimenting—What will help us pay attention, read as writers? (This is a little scary, but also energizing. See photo above.)
  • I went back to my blog from this summer on the book Making Thinking Visible to copy the list of thinking activities for a school blog on critical thinking. I revisited the list of protocols I said I wanted to use during the year, and—ah!—"Claim, Support, Question" is just what we’re doing right now with argument! Have to remember to use that next week. (That’s why I captured my thinking this summer!)

Making connections—to what was learned last year, what happened in another class—and transferring that learning to new situations: It’s what I love to do; it’s what I love to see students doing. It’s growth. It’s what keeps me teaching.

Are you feeling rushed and overwhelmed? Stop and make a list of the moments this week that gave you joy. If you’re a teacher, make a list of the moments that gave you joy in the classroom. 

Maybe this discipline isn't a break from best practice. Maybe it is a best practice. One that gives us the energy to do it all again tomorrow, next week, next year.