partner work

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.

Annotations + Rhetorical Analysis + Document Camera= Learning with Joy and Relevance

Last week, my juniors read “Gettysburg Address” (Tuesday for A day classes; Wednesday for B day classes) and then Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?”  (Thursday for A day classes and Friday for B day classes).  I paired the texts back to back so that students could analyze the use of rhetorical devices in each speech as well as the SOAPS (speaker, occasion, audience, purpose, and subject.  For “Gettysburg Address”, we watched a few short clips from the Ken Burns PBS series Civil War that gave students context of the speech as well as a professional reading of the speech.  We then engaged in rhetorical analysis using a copy of the speech from Common Lit with students annotating the text and marking rhetorical devices they saw in each paragraph.  We then did a large group share of our findings.

For “Ain’t I a Woman”, I began to think about how I could kick up our analysis work a few notches and build on thes strategies from Tuesday/Wednesday.  Again, I utilized Common Lit to provide my students a copy of the text that they could keep and annotate (note:  the version that appears as of this blog post publication is a different and shorter (original) version than the one that was available just a week ago).  With my A day classes, we watched two videos:  first, a short biography that I followed with a reading of the speech by Alice Walker.


We then did a quick review of key rhetorical devices, and I kept them projected on the board as students than did individual annotations and rhetorical analysis of the speech.

Once again, we projected the speech on the board as a PDF and worked our way through the speech exploring the rhetorical devices with students volunteering to lead the discussion for each paragraph and our class engaging in a collaborative large group exploration of the speech.  However, for this round of text analysis I asked students to then  work with a partner to do some additional reflection questions on the speech.  While my classes did a fantastic job digging into and reflecting on the text, I wondered if there was not a way for students to actually show their annotations  and thinking to the rest of the class as they took turns leading the conversation.  I began to think about how to make this “visible thinking” happen the next day on Friday.

Initially, I thought about having the speech blown up into posters and doing a sort of gallery walk approach to the annotations and letting students then present from each station.  However, this idea was not very practical due to the lack of time or ease of access to a poster printing machine.  I suddenly remembered a training we had on new document cameras prior to our holiday break last semester; I messaged our media specialist after hours and asked if she could reserve one for me the next day.  Not only did she do so, but we also have enough of these document cameras for teachers to keep them through the year (click here to see our marvelous model ).     It is much smaller than it appears in the photo below; you could easily fold it up and put it in your purse or tote bag.

This document camera model is by far the best I’ve used in the last 10 years.  It is petite, lightweight, super easy to set up, and focuses quickly.  The image resolution is also superb.  Most importantly, it was easy for the students to use.

I repeated the same initial steps of the activity with the video on Friday, but I then had students work in pairs and trios to do collaborative thinking and come up with collaborative annotations of the text as they talked it through together.  I was so inspired by the rich conversations I heard as I walked around the room and heard students really talking to each other and debating the use of rhetorical devices in the speech.   Even my quietest students were suddenly rather animated and participating in the discussion with a partner or partners.   One student was almost in tears as she told me how moved she was by the words and how she was realizing through her work with her two partners how beautiful the speech was.  She exclaimed, “I love Sojourner Truth!  This speech is amazing!”  I am sure there is not a standardized test to measure that kind of learning and growth!

After having about 12-15 minutes to work together, groups could then volunteer to lead discussions and share their analysis and show us their work with the document camera.  As soon as the first group presented, hands were up and students eagerly volunteering to come up to the document camera (which connected to my laptop via USB and that I placed on a student desk for ease of use by groups).    I saw an enthusiasm and level of engagement I have not seen from some of my classes, and I think the ability of the document to suddenly make visible and public the students had done with their partners was the game changer.  Several students told me how much they loved the activity and hoped we’d be using the document camera again (we will!).

I am so excited to have found a way to make a good learning activity BETTER and that elevates student work, talk, and ownership of the conversation to a higher level.   Suddenly, rhetorical analysis and annotation have new depth, meaning, and purpose for my students, and I’m truly eager to see what else we can do the rest of this spring.