Supporting Writers in Progress: Paired Texts Study, Comparing/Contrasting, and Literary Argument Paragraphs

Earlier this month, we composed our first literary argument paragraph, a stepping stone to an extended piece of writing we’ll do in early November as part of our work from the writing unit, The Literary Essay:  Analyzing Craft and Theme.

Part 1:  Introducing and Immersing Ourselves in a Paired Text

Let me start by backing up into late September.  We had just finished our study of “Thank You Ma’m” and took a day to read/listen to “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye, a great paired text companion to this short story.  We began by reading the poem together and took a second pass at reading it by listening to Nye read it herself.  For the first reading, I simply asked students to listen; on the second reading, I asked students to complete these tasks as we listened and read:

  • Read along as we listen.
  • Circle any words that get your attention as being descriptive or vivid or unusual.
  • Continue to think about the mood of the poem and the words that create that mood or feeling.

We then reviewed our annotation strategies notes from Cris Tovani and Beers/Probst.

Next, we listened to Nye tell us a little of the backstory about the poem.  I then asked students to complete three high quality annotations of the poem, showing them an annotated model I had completed for another poem to help them.  Once students had time to re-read and complete three annotations, I asked them to choose his/her best annotation.  We then used the whole group share structure “Everyone Up!“; students were asked to share his/her best annotation and the passage he/she annotated.  Finally, we completed our thinking with a reflection Ticket Out the Door (see last photo below).

Part 2:  Comparing/Contrasting the Paired Texts

Our next step was to compare and contrast “Thank You Ma’m” and “Kindness” using this marvelous graphic organizer from Stacy Lloyd.  I actually modified it a bit to help my students cover all the bases with their thinking points and included some scaffolding at their table to help them remember the terminology.  It took most students two days to complete this thinking task.

Part 3: Drafting the Literary Argument Paragraph

Our culminating activity that is a stepping stone to an essay we’ll do in about two weeks was composing a literary argument paragraph.  After students completed the compare/contrast activity, we reviewed the writing task 1:1, and I asked students to choose the claim statement he/she felt he/she could best argue.

Students received plenty of scaffolding to help them draft their paragraph; I provided highlighters to help them color code each piece of their draft.

I placed plenty of these at every table in my neon sheet protectors to help students as they drafted.

For those who needed even more scaffolding, I put together a graphic organizer to help them see each piece of the paragraph as they composed and highlighted.

The result was some of the best writing my students have completed so far this year.  As they completed their drafts, we conferenced, and it was so heartwarming to see their confidence in themselves and pride in their work!


These learning activities pushed my students’ thinking, and the culminating paragraph was a big step forward for my 8th grade writers.  How do you support higher level thinking and writing tasks?

Argumentative Writing March Madness with Post-It Note Reading, Think Tank Conversations, 11×14 Reasons and Evidence Mapping + Essay Drafting

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.

Deconstructing Argumentative Texts from the Wild: From Small Group Analysis to Making Our Thinking Public with Our Peers


At the end of February, we began a gentle entry into a study of argumentative writing.  Though seniors have theoretically had instruction in this kind of writing the previous three years, it is part of our 12th ELA district ELA standards, and more importantly, I know a focal point of entry level English courses in most Georgia universities.  Students first began by reading and taking notes on the opening chapter of Everything’s an Argument; I chose this text since it is one frequently used in English 1101 courses.

Small Group Analysis

Our next step was to work in small groups of three that I organized and to analyze a piece of real world argumentative writing.  Each group received one of the three mentor texts:

I chose newspaper editorials as a logical starting point for a mentor text, but I also felt the reading level would be accessible though I discovered quickly that assumption was wrong since the texts included concepts new to many students.  However, this provided students an opportunity to do some informal research to help them fill in gaps of background knowledge.

Students had several analytical tasks; while some of the tasks were open-ended, I provided scaffolding to support them in their deconstruction of the text:

Task 1:  Outline or Mindmap Your Article

Students worked together to identify the structure of the article.  Some groups began by partner reading and mapping the structure as they worked through the text; other groups read silently and independently before coming back together to collaborate on the task.  Groups could present or formal outline or mindmap their work in a way that made sense for them.  It was fascinating to see the different approaches and how detail oriented some groups were while others were not.

Task 2:  Claims and Counterclaims

Next, I used a graphic organizer to help students identify a claim in the essay and a counterclaim.  If the writer did not present a counterclaim, I asked students to come up with one they would compose if they were writing or co-writing the essay with the author.

Tasks 3 and 4:  SOAPS

Using the same graphic organizer, students were asked to analyze the SOAPS of the essay:  Subject, Occasion, Audience, Purpose, and Speaker.  In addition, I asked students to go back into Chapter 1  of Everything’s an Argument and identify some specific information for:

  • Purpose–they were to identify which purpose they felt was the dominant one and why using the definition from Chapter 1 of Everything’s an Argument.
  • Occasion:  students were asked to identify which occasion for argument best fit the essay and why, again using the definition from our text.

Task 5:  What’s the Word? or Word Wheel

Using this tool from the graphic organizer pack, this task asked students to think about diction and choose 8 words that stood out from the essay.  I also asked students to be prepared to explain their choices and how they felt it impacted the argument presented by the writer.

Task 6:  Analyzing Logos, Pathos and Ethos

We used another graphic organizer help us identify textual evidence for each rhetorical appeal and explain language used to create logos, pathos, and ethos in the essay.

The small group work took students most of our 90 minute block last week.  Nearly every group spent the majority of their time on the comprehension aspect of their articles, something I didn’t anticipate as I thought I had selected texts at an accessible reading level, but I realize now I underestimated their background knowledge of the topics of each of the three essays.

Making Our Thinking Public

One thing I have done regularly this year with all my classes–juniors and seniors–is to give them low stakes opportunities to speak in front of their peers.  Though some students sometimes chafe—some because they are shy, some because this activity forces them to be accountable for critical thinking—I think this experience is important for many reasons, but I especially see value in students being able to articulate their ideas to their fellow students, and for students to practice their listening skills and to learn from their peers.  Today groups got together and took about 12-15 minutes to revisit last week’s work and to plan how and what they wanted to share from their work.  Each group then presented using our new document camera.   The document camera was especially helpful today as students presented (each group took about 10-12 minutes to share) since their work was so visual, so they could SHOW as they told us their thinking.  Here are some screenshot of their work I captured easily with the document camera software:

As groups presented, the rest of the class took notes with this graphic organizer.

Not only do these low-stakes presentations give students an opportunity to practice speaking skills and sharing their ideas publicly with their peers, but these presentations also provide me an opportunity to engage in formative assessment to see patterns of understandings as well as gaps.  After listening to all my groups today, I know we need to revisit the types of purposes for argument as well as the occasions for argument.  In addition, I can see students understand ethos and logos fairly well, but they need help articulating how and why language can serve as pathos.  Students can also engage in informal self-assessment; as they listen to their peers, they can easily see if their work had more or less depth.  In addition, they can see and hear ideas, argumentative elements, details, and noticings that they missed OR that they saw that others didn’t.

At the end of the presentations, students had a chance to do a short written reflection and share which group best enhanced their understanding of argumentative writing structures and elements and why.  Moving forward, we’ll now do some targeted inquiry, analysis, and writing of argumentative texts to develop our understanding of elements that need additional study and revisiting.