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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.

Analyzing Literature with Graphic Essays

The Georgia Department of Education English Language Arts division has its very own Twitter account and has been hosting a weekly series this academic school year of “Twitter takeovers” from different schools and educators around the state to showcase and highlight best practices in English Language Arts instruction across K-12.   In late October, I saw several awesome ideas from the Language Arts teachers at North Atlanta High.  Two tweets on graphic essays featuring the work of Casey Christenson immediately got my attention:

I was so excited and impressed by this idea that I emailed Ms. Christenson, and she graciously responded by sharing her handouts and resources with me.  I took her ideas and materials and modified them for them my students by crafting a graphic essay assignment for my 11th ELA Honors students; I used this idea for students to share their interpretations and analysis of transcendentalist themes in excerpts of Walden by Henry David Thoreau that we were reading at the end of the first semester.  In my modified version of the assignment, I framed the content portion with the Schaffer two chunk method we had used in our regular literary essay writing because I knew my students would need some sort of conceptual structure to include textual evidence and an in-depth response/commentary on the textual evidence.

In addition to using the models from Twitter with my students, I created a “steps to success” handout to scaffold my students.

I provided copies of the text excerpts, colored pencils, Sharpies, colored markers, craft and regular scissors, tape and glue, and 11×14 pastel paper as well as plain and colored paper for students to use to craft their project.  Students had approximately two whole days (we are on a modified block, so each class session is 90 minutes) plus the weekend to complete their projects.  Below are some of the exemplary projects completed by students:

 

 

While some students expressed a bit of trepidation about the artistic component, most discovered they could create visually interesting anchor images and designs without having to be a gifted artist.  Overall, I think most students did a solid job on their work for their first effort and especially for it to be right at the end of the semester.  I was especially impressed with the way several students really became engaged with their work and dug into the text to think more deeply.  In addition, many students worked together and used each other as sounding boards for their design ideas or their thinking with their concrete details/textual evidence and commentary.  One of my classes in particular really stepped up with a “we can do it” mindset and level of effort I had not seen from them all year, so I am happy this mode of visual writing appealed to them.  The two areas where some students struggled:

  • Choosing a relevant anchor image—this challenge surprised me a little, so we’ll talk a little more this semester about choosing symbols and images for graphic essays.
  • Finding sufficient concrete details and developing appropriate commentary:  these skills have been in progress all year, so every student is at a different place on the spectrum.  We’ll continue modeling exemplars and strategies for growing our skills in this area.

Looking ahead, I am excited to pilot this writing option with my CP level students this semester; we used sketchnoting (a separate post is coming on that soon) as a stepping stone for them in place of the graphic essays in December, but I feel they are now ready to take on this next level of visual writing and thinking.  This option of a graphic essay will also be available to the Honors 11th ELA students in the new choice we are starting next week on Dickinson and Whitman.   In addition, graphic essays will be on our menu of products students can create to show their understandings of their choice/independent reading we’re beginning late next week, too!  Have you done graphic essays with your students?  If so, I’d love to hear from you!