argumentative writing

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.

Extending and Applying Our Inquiry Work with Kernel Essays: Next Steps

In my last post, I shared how I’m frontloading our argumentative writing unit with an emphasis on key concepts and text structure as we explored mentor texts and applied Gretchen Bernabei’s kernel essay strategy to help students organize ideas.  In this post, I’ll share how we extended that work and how students had opportunities to apply those strategies collaboratively and indivudally.

Revisiting Our Zoo Article Work, Part 1

We took our next steps by revisiting the two zoo articles we had read and lightly annotated/took notes on about two weeks ago.  For this second pass at the articles, students received a copy of both articles, but they also received a new graphic organizer for taking notes.  Students were given class time to reread the articles a second time and revisited the evidence they were adding to the new graphic organizer while going deeper and looking for evidence they may have missed in our first pass at reading the articles.  On the next day of class, students were asked to review their evidence, choose a position/claim they felt most strongly about, and complete the kernel essay graphic organizer independently.  This work took approximately two class days of 50 minute class periods.

Once students completed this work, students were assigned partners or small groups of three the following day, and I projected these on the board with table assignments so students knew where to go.  I chose these randomly and grouped students based on the claim position they chose.  We moved our chairs and met knee to knee, face to face yet again to compare and contrast the evidence we found to support each claim (see the graphic organizer).   Students also compared their independently written kernel essays.  Partners then used a fresh green template to collaboratively compose a new and improved kernel essay together.  They could revise and use pieces each partner had contributed; they could also compose new content together.

Our final step was to share out what we had collaboratively composed; I walked about the room using my iPhone and Epson wireless projector app to project each new collaborative kernel essay; partners led a brief discussion around their work, the choices they made and why they made them, and received feedback from peers.   This whole group share of work by partners and small groups of three is a vital part of the learning experience; having access to an Epson wireless projector and being able to move about the room to show work via my iPhone as a mobile document camera in real time is a game-changer!


Part 2, Extending Our Collaborative Kernel Essay Work:  Introducing Mentor Texts for Introductory Paragraphs to Argumentative Essays

The following day students began with a writing/thinking warm-up to see what they thought should go into an introductory paragraph of an argumentative essay.   We moved from the warm-up to our station walk where students had the opportunity to visit seven stations following the station walk guidelines below:

Students read the mentor text paragraphs and recorded their noticings about sentence 1, sentence 2, and sentence 3 of each paragraph on their graphic organizer.  I borrowed three of the station mentor texts from other sources; I composed the remaining four pulling in local and current events.

Once students complete the walk, I asked them to look at their responses vertically and to discuss with a table partner what each cluster of sentences might have in common in terms of content, sentence type, or purpose/role in the paragraph.  This part of the activity was definitely a stretch for my 8th graders, but they rose to the occasion and did not disappoint!

Through this approach, we engaged in small group talk and then moved to a large group share out where we discussed our noticings.  This discussion led us to notice that our mentor texts all had these elements in common:

  • Sentence 1:  A strong hook using one of the three strategies:  a provocative question about the topic that cannot be answered with a yes or no; a startling or shocking fact or statistic about the topic; inviting the reader to imagine or picture a situation or scenario related to the topic.
  • Sentence 2:  the “bridge” that builds on the hook and helps connect it to the claim.
  • Sentence 3:  the claim statement with reasons.

From Station Walk Noticings to Composing and Revising Our Own Introductory Paragraphs

Students then worked with their partners or small table group of three to collaboratively compose a draft introductory paragraph based on the collaborative kernel essay they had written together the previous day.   Each partner set/small group was given a neon lined sticky note for writing their draft.  This drafting activity built on the claim and reasons students had previously identified so that hopefully, writing a strong hook and bridge would be the most challenging part of their work.  Some groups did well with this first pass, but I noticed others losing some writing and thinking stamina, something that was not surprising given the challenging nature of the work they had been that day and the previous day in class.  I collected their work at the end of the period and made copies of each draft the following day before classes met.  This step took some time but made the next day’s learning activities much smoother with no down time.

When students arrived, we shared our drafts and talked about strengths and weaknesses of our work with a “ticket in the door” writing activity and share aloud.  Because each student had a copy of the previous day’s collaborative work, I then asked students to look at that work and take a second pass at revising and writing a second draft independently to emphasize the importance of revision but to also make sure each student was held accountable as a writer and fully participating.

We used a scaffolded graphic organizer to help us revise thoughtfully and strategically; when students finished, they attached this new draft to all their previous work they had completed in stages over the week.  This scaffold helped students take a first draft to a higher quality second draft with confidence.

Final Thoughts

These activities were challenging for my students, but I think the inquiry driven, student-focused work was worth the investment of class time and set the stage for beginning our own argumentative essays we’ll start Thursday, February 21.   I intentionally wanted them to have an opportunity to “get their feet wet” so to speak writing a strong introductory paragraph so that as we begin our own argumentative essays this week, they already have a vision of the critical starting point with a strong introduction and how all the steps we practiced together with our zoo work is a model for how we will approach our own interest driven argumentative essay this week.  I also stressed to students how our note taking process and kernel essay writing can be used in a regular writing assignment or to help us think quickly and thoughtfully in a timed essay writing assignment like a benchmark assessment or state test.  I have never front-loaded a unit of study on argumentative writing like this and do worry about time (what teacher doesn’t?!), but I hope it will give them a strong foundation and focused tools to move forward in any writing situation with an argumentative task.

Finally, I want to share that this instructional design process was fairly organic.  While I had the big picture of learning activities in my mind, I also was sure to observe student work closely and listen to their conversations to fine tune each step of our mini-journey of inquiry.  In this age of pacing guides, deadlines, and never-ending challenges to juggling instructional time, I think it is important to pay attention to what we see happening with student learning in front of us and to be responsive to that.  I have learned much side by side with my students this month, and I’m excited to share in my next blog post our next steps with our argumentative essays we’re starting tomorrow!

How do you weave inquiry into writing study with your students?

Inquiring into Argumentative Writing: Deconstructing Text Structure with Kernel Essays

Last week we moved from our exploration of features of argumentative writing to text structure.  On Wednesday, we began with the following writing activity using these images I projected onto the board with the LCD projector and these prompts:

Once students had time to think and write, we came together for whole class discussion to share our thinking aloud.  The final prompt brought us to a conversation about how the progression of the kernel to fully popped popcorn paralleled the process of completing a draft of writing.   Next, In introduced the text structure of an argumentative essay, and talked about  how writing a kernel essay could help us develop a writing plan in both regular writing tasks and timed writing assignments like our benchmark assessments and state tests.  Gretchen Bernabei defines kernel essays this way:

A writer writes about the topic, using the text structure as a guide, creating one sentence per box. These sentences are called a kernel essay.

Students then had an opportunity to read our first mentor essay, “Red Light Cameras Save Lives”, independently and to jot down anything they noticed about the essay.  We then moved to partner work as students chose a thinking buddy and pulled their chairs out to sit knee to knee and face to face to discuss and compare their jot notes.  After a quick group share, partners then revisited the mentor text and jotted down the kernel essay for our mentor text.  We then shared our responses aloud and engaged in conversation about our kernel essays based on what we saw in the mentor text.  We repeated the process for the second mentor text, “A Drinking Problem”; however, this time, students did partner read alouds with the second essay and took turns reading to each other before collaborating on the composing the kernel essay for the second mentor text.


If you want to mix it up, you can have students change partners for the second round. The face to face, knee to knee aspect is key to engaging students, and the partner read aloud is also critical to energizing students and forcing them to really read closely.  These two factors fueled meaningful conversations between students; in particular, my two afternoon classes excelled and blew me away with their focus and thinking.  I can honestly say this was one of the most interesting and successful learning activities I’ve done in my entire career! I was impressed by the maturity and work ethic I saw from many students—they were working more like high schoolers than 8th graders!  Overall, these activities took about 2.5 days during 45-50 minute class periods.

We’re now re-reading two articles on zoos we read two weeks ago for our “pro con” ping/pong and competition activities with our annotations and notes.  I’ll share more in my next post how we are using these articles to gather evidence and come up with a kernel essay of our own using the argumentative essay text structure as a guided practice before we move formally into our argumentative essay writing assignment late next week.

Introducing Claims with Task Card Walk Goodness

Last Wednesday, we began our formal exploration of claims, counterclaims, and rebuttals, some core concepts I felt needed to frontload with my 8th graders based on the results of a survey they had completed about 10 days earlier.

One of my favorite ways to use task cards is for an gallery walk style learning experience.  I purchased an excellent set of task cards on Teachers Pay Teachers, printed them, cut them up, and placed them around the room.  After introducing claims with some notes and guided practice together, students participated in our task card walk to identify the claim statement in the paragraphs on the task cards.  Students could complete the walk in any order they wanted, and we followed our usual rules of quiet work during the walk and no more than 2-3 people per task card area at a time.  Whether they chose to work with a buddy or approach the task card walk independently, my students excelled at this activity:

Once students completed the task card walk, they turned in their answer sheets and used the remainder of class to read their choice library books.  The following day we swapped papers  and went through each task card answer choice together as a class; this “check and correct” review activity gave us a chance to see patterns or gaps of understanding and to talk about the reasons as to why a statement was indeed a claim.

This activity is simple, but I find my 8th graders enjoy task card walks and are engaged as they contemplate their learning challenge on each task card.  I also love this kind of activity because it gets students up and moving, something I think it is important to incorporate into my classroom at least once a week.

How do you incorporate task cards into your instruction and classroom?

Introducing Argumentative Writing with Four Corners Debate, Table Talk, Ping/Pong Pros and Cons, and Team Debates

Taking a page from the playbook of Jennifer Gonzalez at Cult of Pedagogy, I decided to introduce our new unit on argumentative writing with some informal debate.  On Day 1, we started with this ticket in the door that surveyed students on what they knew about debate.  Students engaged in partner talk (I recommend the “knee to knee, face to face” method)  first about their responses; we then moved to whole group discussion as students shared their responses and thoughts.

Next, students completed the Four Corners debate graphic organizer to prepare what they might want to say on the following statements:

Once students completed their graphic organizer, we started with a couple of rounds of informal debate via Four Corners.

At the end of the day Wednesday, I felt the Four Corners strategy—for whatever reasons—was just falling flat and not working for my students, so I decided to regroup a bit the following day with variations on table talk.

On Thursday, students could choose their groups; the only restrictions were:

  • You must leave your current table group.
  • You may not sit with anyone from your table group.
  • No more than four people per table area.

We began our table talk by sharing what we had to say about each topic and why.  We then moved to a more focused round of discussion and collaboration.  Each group was assigned one of the topics to lead for discussion using the following protocols:

I was pleasantly surprised that this simple approach yielded some lively discussion within table groups and in our large group share.  For several of my classes, this activity generated some of the best work and richest thinking I’ve heard all year.

Next Steps:  Debating with Evidence

For our next round of informal debate, I wanted students to find evidence to back up their stance or claim.  Students were first asked to write how they felt about zoos–are they a good idea, and what makes you say that?  Students composed this response on a lined sticky note.

Next, students were provided two articles about zoos.  On January 23, students received this graphic organizer and began looking for evidence to support each claim.  Students could use mini sticky notes to gather their evidence and/or write directly on the graphic organizer.  I differentiated between my classes by letting two of my sections collaborate and work with a partner; for my accelerated classes, they did their initial thinking and gathering work independently before having a chance to share with a partner on the following day of class and to finalize their work.

Students had half the period on Thursday and half the period on Friday to gather as much research as the could and discuss with a buddy.  For Periods 1, 4, and 5, students lined up on either side of our center table area; I designated one side as the group that would share reasons zoos are beneficial; the other side was designated as the side to share evidence to argue that zoos are not ethical or good for animals.   Students were standing directly across from each other and we did what I called “Ping Pong Pro/Con” debate with a person from one side presenting evidence and then the opposing side would present their evidence.   The primary rule was that you could repeat evidence that anyone had shared, so students sometimes had to drill down into the evidence they had collected.  I was so busy moderating and listening to student responses/taking notes as a formative assessment that I did not get any photos!

This activity was a gentle way of letting students share evidence-based responses and differing views without overwhelming them with rules of formal debate.  In addition, the activity was a fabulous and easy formative assessment because you could quickly hear in the verbal responses if students had correctly pickled relevant evidence for their assigned claim and if they understand the evidence.

For my final class, I decided to do a variation on the activity and have team competitions instead.   Sometimes Friday afternoons with 8th graders require you to be resourceful, and a good old-fashioned competition is an easy to energize tired 8th graders on a Friday afternoon during the last period of the day.  Students compared evidence and prepared what they felt were their five most compelling pieces of evidence for their assigned claim.

Both teams presented well enough that we had to go to sudden death round with teams choosing one final piece of new evidence to make their case!  The team element plus some “Let’s Get Ready to Rumble” music amped up the energy!

In my next post, I’ll share how we moved from these first steps to exploring concepts of claims, counterclaims, and rebuttals.