The last five weeks have been a whirlwind here between district third quarter benchmark testing and next steps into argumentative writing, the culminating activities of the front-loading skill work we did in February (see previous blog posts, please). I’d like to share our journey of reading, writing, and thinking with you by outlining the major learning activities and structures we’ve been working on for the last month.
Argumentative Writing Topics: Reading and Writing Strategically with Text Sets and Post-It Notes
Students voted earlier in the semester on their top three topic choices, and I tried to assign students to one of their top two choices. Students were assigned one of the following topics and an assigned claim to argue:
- Should federal and state governments do more to prevent and/or limit sales of vaping and e-cigarette products to young people under the age of 18 (minors)?
- Should animal cloning be allowed?
- Should students in grades k-12 be assigned homework?
Some students elected to work independently, and some indicated a preferred partner to read and write with collaboratively. Just like last semester, I assembled text sets from a variety of grade-level appropriate sources on each topic with a table of contents to help students read and research their topics. Students also received a colored manila folder to store their work and supplies in; these stayed in the room to make sure students didn’t lose their work. In addition, students received note taking templates and assorted Post-It notes to gather evidence that both supported and refuted their assigned claim:
Students had approximately five class days of time (we had to jump in and out of our work around benchmark testing) to read articles and take notes on both sides of their assigned claim. Students could take one note per Post-It; original thinking or reflection was composed on the template paper itself. I incorporated these requirements to help students take notes in bite-sized nuggets; in addition, I knew we would need to use the Post-Its for notes because we would need to peel them off for the next phase of our learning journey. Many students had no challenges reading the articles and taking meaningful notes, but quite a few struggled to focus and complete their work even with strategic seating and generous class time to work.
On our fourth day of note taking, I built in time for students to meet in “think tanks” by topic. In these topic think tanks, students shared out their most important evidence and what they still needed to know. This dialogue and exchange of idea within topic groups from both sides of the issue was helpful and enlightening to many students.
From Notes to Reasons and Evidence
Once we have completed our week of reading and note taking as well as topic think tank discussions, we began looking at our evidence and looking for patterns of information that could help us develop reasons. Students brainstormed possible reasons and chose their top two choices they felt they could argue best in their essays.
Once students completed this step, they received two plain pieces of 11×14 paper. Students were asked to replicate a chart template I provided students on each piece of 11×14 paper. Next, students wrote out each of their reasons to argue (we called these Reason A and Reason B). Students then pulled off the Post-It note evidence that aligned with each reason and focused on choosing notes they could use as textual evidence in their essay. This tactile activity generated tremendous conversation and critical thinking as some students realized they needed more notes; others revised their reasons as they did a deeper dive into their evidence they had collected. It also served as a formative assessment for me through observation as I listened to students talk about their charts and conferenced with them as they had questions or got stuck. This is the first time I’ve ever used this strategy, and though it took longer than I planned, I highly recommend it because the visual nature of it helped the students to really “see” how the evidence from their notes aligned with their reasons and to choose evidence that was on topic/relevant to each reason.
Once students mapped their evidence to their reasons, they then completed their kernel essay, a learning structure we practiced in context in February and used on our district benchmark argumentative essays. Once I cleared/approved the kernel essay, students then composed their three-part introduction.
From Reading and Planning to Drafting and Revising
Once students completed their kernel essay, they drafted their three part-introduction and moved to drafting their paragraphs. For Paragraphs A and B, students received several resources to help them write high quality paragraphs.
- A hard copy of a drafting template (see below) for each body “reason” paragraph complete with step by step instructions, explanations, and model sentences.
- A slideshow with examples of strong verbs, ways to write strong leads, and examples of strong commentary; this slideshow is embedded in our Canvas LMS.
- Several hard copy examples of models that we have talked through together as a class that were tickets in the door that did double duty as additional models of correct parenthetical references, strong leads/introductory phrases into textual evidence/quotes, and commentary (the ICE strategy).
- Instructions for highlighting each part of Paragraph A and Paragraph B posted in Canvas (topic sentence, textual evidence, commentary, and closing sentence).
Students had a total of seven class days to draft and work on their essays; in addition, they could work on the essay at home. Students completed all drafting and revising in Google Docs and shared the document with me. Our basic process was to draft a section and then to let me know the writer(s) was/were ready for feedback. As you can imagine, this was a pretty intense and hectic pace four periods a day with nonstop interaction and conferencing (hence, the lack of photos of this part of the learning journey!) However, the goal was to focus on the process while hopefully crafting a quality end-product draft. We did most of our drafting in the 8th grade lab across the hall for me, and it is a great work space for middle schoolers. We did our final day of drafting in the classroom using our class set of Chromebooks as well as sets I borrowed from two other teachers.
Writing strong leads into the textual evidence and writing quality commentary that went beyond summary or paraphrasing were the two major challenges across all four sections of my classes. I saw varying growth, but I am hopeful that the work we’ve done will “stick” with students and give them the next starting point for development as writers moving up to high school.
Reflections and Self-Assessment
We are spending the last two days prior to spring break this week working on literacy portfolios and reflecting our argumentative writing work. as well as progress with personalized reading goals for independent/choice reading. Students have a Google Form to complete on their essay; in addition, students will reflect on their work with argumentative writing (our February skill building work, their benchmark essays, and the final argumentative essay we just finished) using these self-assessment tools (see photos below) as part of their literacy portfolio work.
In the spirit of “less is more” with rubrics, I will focus on three key areas when evaluating the essays:
- Content and quality of the argument and evidence presented.
- Essay structure (format, textual evidence, commentary, ICE strategy)
- Grammar/Mechanics/Sentence Structure
One thing I already know for sure: my students have been challenged by these different learning experiences as readers, writers, and thinkers. Even students who came up short of where I hoped they would end grew, and most took some major steps forward as learners as 8th graders. Many showed significant writing stamina and perseverance as they were asked to dig deep and revise many times, a new experience for many students. The sustained cognitive stamina so many students showed is also impressive, especially in these weeks nearing our spring break.
My area for growth as a teacher is how to help students who struggle to grow the writing skills in this kind of writing even with 1:1 help, lots of modeling, many scaffolds, and plentiful class time to work. I invested a tremendous amount of instructional time into this unit, but I think it was well worth it since the writing standards for argumentative writing are important at this level in Georgia and become even more significant for them at the high school and then University of Georgia system level with their post-secondary English courses they will take.