4 Ways to Manage Student Choice in Argument

I can’t believe that my last post here was within this school year! As you can imagine, given the months of absence, it has been an eventful year. I’ve found myself talking about argument units a lot lately, sharing the triumphs & the pitfalls of new approaches to teaching structured debate. From state standards to mandated assessments to curricular demands, argument units are becoming larger pieces of elementary through secondary classrooms.

Most teachers I know are always thinking about how to engage their students in any writing or thinking they bring to the classroom, & argument offers a unique challenge: teachers want students to have choice, but structure often gets in the way. In talking to many educators of different grade levels, here are 4 suggestions for keeping student choice alive & well in your argument units.

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1. Prepare a menu: Penny Kittle has written brilliantly about the importance of providing choices when encouraging students to write about what they want (check out the amazing Write Beside Them for this & more). Student choice isn’t as simple as saying, “Do whatever you want!” & seeing what happens; in fact, the results would not be simple at all. When designing your student-centered argument unit, create some topics that students can use as a menu, or a jumping off point for a whole class brainstorm. Remember, having the freedom to order anything you want for dinner, doesn’t mean you don’t get momentarily paralyzed by all the possibilities before demanding some guidance from your companions. We all benefit from some parameters.

2. Consider controversy with care: Often, in the pursuit of our students’ attention, & in our goals to encourage active citizenship, we bring in current & controversial topics. This is an important part of teaching – helping students connect to and process the events happening in their world is vital – & that’s all the more reason that these subjects deserve thought & care. Avoid assigning argument topics that have a “right” or “wrong” answer – like debates over human rights, rape, or justifications of historical atrocities. These examples may sound extreme, but I have spoken with teachers who had firsthand experiences of these argument topics coming up in 4th-11th grade classrooms. Some well-meaning educators hope to use the argument unit as an opportunity to guide students to a moral stance on controversial issues, like drug legalization or police brutality. I’m not saying those issues don’t belong in the classroom; on the contrary, I believe they absolutely belong there. But argument is not the place for an issue that you perceive as having a morally correct answer. Here’s why:

-It puts you in the role of either guiding or flat-out telling students what to think about a topic. This isn’t authentic argument; it doesn’t teach students to develop & defend their own stances because it is teaching them to defend your stance.

– Inevitably, you will have to tell at least one student who has taken the opposing view that he or she is wrong, & nothing shuts off listening & learning quite like being told you’re wrong by your teacher. Students will settle themselves even more firmly into their original thinking, & be less inclined to acknowledge other perspectives.

– It can seriously jeopardize your classroom community. Imagine for a moment being a queer student in a class arguing about trans rights, or the child of recent immigrants listening to your classmates defend closing US borders. I’ll reiterate: these issues should be discussed & processed in classrooms, but opening them up to argument incompletely addresses them & silences student voices.

Encourage students to argue topics that are current but do not create moral polarities in the classroom & save the controversial topics for deeper units of study.

improveyourargument3. Scaffold the research process: Most people agree that a good argument needs good evidence, but this is often when a promising argument unit starts to come apart. The two biggest evidence & research errors are at opposite ends of the spectrum: too easy and too hard. Sometimes, in hopes of having students do their own research, teachers reserve the computer lab or check out the iPad cart, get the technology into kids’ hands, & wait for the magic to happen. But without a road map & some idea of what to look for, students end up taking the first few results from a handful of poorly worded Google searches & calling themselves informed. Since so much of what they’re “researching” on those first few results will be opinion-based responses to the topic of discussion, many overburdened teachers miss the recycling of ideas when grading, & don’t realize how little their students have come away with during this unit on forming their own opinions. The flip side, though, is just as bad; in an effort to be taken seriously, some teachers direct students to developmentally inappropriate levels of academic research & expect a few days of staring at screens or highlighting printouts to yield well-supported papers or debates. Argument units require engaging and developing many literacy skills, reading among them. Access to technology can’t replace reading instruction for the argument unit; students need scaffolded approaches to finding, selecting, and analyzing sources of evidence. Take advantage of organizations like Newsela & ReadWorks, where you can find articles on a variety of subjects, or thematically organized text sets, & level as needed.

most-people4. Let them talk, & listen! Argument units are a great opportunity to practice listening & discussion skills, & not only in a formal debate style. Small group or partnered discussion can be a valuable part of the argument-building process, giving students the opportunity to talk through their thinking before they finalize their ideas. This is also a chance to work in active listening skills, encouraging students to acknowledge the validity of a contradictory perspective before jumping right into disagreement. Students can check in on their choice of topic & also learn a lot about their own opinion by listening to a different point-of-view, although the process will take practice. & while turn & talks are often considered an English Language Learner strategy, all students benefit from talking out their ideas & listening to others. If you’re working with a shy or antisocial student, try having her partner with you or record herself & play it back. Hearing one’s words is a powerful strategy for clarifying thinking.

These 4 tips are only some suggestions on how to help students invest in argument building and writing. Student choice can be daunting when it’s presented as a free-for-all, but some guidelines & structure will go a long way.

What are your go-to strategies for teaching argument? Share in the comments below! Thank you for reading. Please share this post if you found it helpful!

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