Develop Thinking and Writing with Argument

Argue with Me: Argument as a Path to Developing Students’ Thinking and Writing
By Deanna Kuhn, Laura Hemberger, and Valerie Khait
(Routledge/Eye on Education, 2nd Edition, 2016 – Learn more)

mary thompson for cordiReviewed by Mary Langer Thompson

“Yes it is. No it isn’t. Yes it is.” This is how children argue from the time they can talk, and some never develop their skills to think critically, let alone add evidence in their writing. In Argue with Me, the authors present a full curriculum and results of their study with low income students.

argue w me thompsonWhy argue for argument? It’s empowering, there’s increased attention to non-fiction text, and we need to focus on thinking that underlies writing. Argument is a skill that can be developed, and the path to developing argumentative thinking and writing is dialogue, especially with peers.

Constraints are acknowledged. Teachers rarely ask students what they think about the things they (or their peers) say. Students are conditioned to passive learning and giving “right” answers. While that depends on the teacher, Directive Teaching is “in,” and the Socratic method disappeared years ago.

To use this curriculum will take support and buy-in from administrators, fellow teachers and parents, especially since it is recommended the curriculum be used for two years. It’s also a curriculum that doesn’t promise immediate results. In the “Sample Class Description for Students and Parents,” I’m not sure parents will be satisfied when they read that students won’t  be able to “…write down a list each week of ‘here’s what I learned.’ You may even wonder whether you have learned anything at all.”

A dream-come-true curriculum

Educators know that much of what they teach is part of a process of learning, but teachers are under the gun to write observable behavioral objectives and are even being evaluated on results, so though this curriculum is aligned to the Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards, I would like to see more attention given to daily measurable outcomes.

That said, the curriculum is a dream come true for innovative teachers who recognize that even adult argumentative thinking is often weak and based on feelings alone. I also believe the curriculum will be of high interest to students who will be expected to take controversial issues (explore eResources here for examples), commit to a pro or con team, discuss with peers, and prepare for the culminating “showdown,” about a six-week process.

There are specific examples of filled-out worksheets and reflection sheets, the use of index cards and rank-ordering of arguments, debriefing ideas, and suggestions on how to adapt the curriculum because of time constraints. The authors want students using information rather than just being exposed to it, so they include question and answer sheet suggestions on topics like Social Security. There are also several on-line videos – for example, coaches giving opening instructions.

Argumentative writing

Section three discusses writing. Students will be expected to transfer the learning from the speech part of the curriculum and go beyond the five-paragraph essay to thinking more deeply about complex issues. Teachers will be looking for acknowledgment of the other side (“On the other hand,” then “However”) that shows progression of thinking.

What makes this curriculum complex is that teachers will need to go through the book more than once and think about their students and their pre-knowledge, especially when it comes to writing. How skilled are they with the five-paragraph essay, particularly in middle school? In other words some teachers might want to have lessons on listening and responding or building a life philosophy before they prepare students for a “showdown.” Perhaps the social studies teacher and the English teacher can collaborate, with one working on a history topic for the showdown and then the other guiding the writing.

Argument is important to citizenship

Some schools already have debate teams or a speech elective, and some of the activities in this curriculum may work best for those students. For transference to argumentative writing, this process will need to become on-going and not just a one-time event. And although the book is recommended for middle and high school students, I think college students, particularly pre-service teachers, would also benefit.

What would be ideal is if this program could become one that included staff development in schools with mentors who would help guide the teachers and students.

It is crucial that we develop student thinking so that we educate students to become concerned, involved citizens who know how to respectfully argue and weigh evidence and make informed decisions. Even teachers who cannot use the full program will find ideas to improve student thinking.

Dr. Mary Langer Thompson, a retired secondary English teacher and elementary principal, is a published poet and author who now writes full time. When a teacher, she taught a speech class that was a requirement for ninth grade students and led the school debate team that traveled to different schools to compete. Her resulting article, “Speak Up! The Place of Speech in Any Curriculum,” was published in English Journal, vol. 71, No 6 (Oct., 1982), pp. 52-3.

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