To be an effective democratic citizen, the ability to engage in debate is crucial. For anyone remotely interested in politics (don’t worry, I won’t stay on this topic long, I promise!), debate is a hot topic as of late. The primaries are in full swing, and the shows candidates put on in the party debates are flashy and fierce. Watching the debates, I am struck by the fact that often conviction speaks louder than fact. Say something with a great deal of confidence and throw in a few statistics, and what you say will sound much more believable.
To support student writers in persuasive writing, it helps teach them to engage in debate. Preparing for debate requires the same thought and skill as does engaging in the process of persuasive writing. Research must be done, facts must be collected, evidence must be weighed and carefully selected. To strengthen an argument further, a counter point must be considered and debunked.
Lately, as debates on heated issues such as gun control and immigration rage around us, I am also struck by the fact that many single pieces of evidence are neutral. Very often, it is not the evidence itself that supports a side of an issue, it is the interpretation of that evidence. Thus, just as important as teaching writers to find and choose evidence to support their points is teaching them to build a case around each piece of evidence they select. In other words, we must teach them to interpret the evidence for readers.
I recently came across the following on Twitter:
According to the article, a 19-year-old young man in Charleston, S.C. robbed a Waffle House. He was shot and killed by an armed civilian who witnessed the young man leaving the restaurant.
I can understand how, to a firm believer in the right to bear arms, this story is evidence that civilians should maintain their gun ownership rights. This person might highlight the detail from the story that an armed citizen stopped the robber in his tracks, and might conclude that the armed citizen protected anyone nearby from danger. But I can also imagine how this story could be used as evidence by someone in support of stricter gun control. This person might highlight the details that the robber was shot fatally, which could be considered an extreme outcome of his actions, and that the robber was shot on his way out of the restaurant, thus decreasing the likelihood that restaurant patrons and staff were in danger.
I don’t bring up this story to enflame any of our readers or to take one side or the other on the issue. The reason I use this highly charged topic is that to many of us adult writers, this topic really matters. We can’t imagine how anyone on the other side of it could think themselves in the right. Our students get extremely fired up about their topics, as well. And often passion about a topic precludes the ability to see both sides neutrally and weigh evidence carefully. But imagine if we taught students to carefully weigh both sides of an issue before making a hasty decision. Or if we taught them that most evidence by itself is neutral, and to remain vigilant for biased interpretations of evidence when they are themselves readers or viewers of persuasive writing or debate. These lessons are invaluable, and they are the cornerstones of healthy debate, which is vital for a healthy community and a healthy democracy.
In a slightly less nationally recognized topic, in a school I recently visited, students were up in arms because of their lunchtime this year. These students are scheduled eat lunch at 10:40am, a time they say is much too early. Their astute writing teacher channeled them to draft letters to the administration as a way to channel their anger.
As a way to support her thesis that her lunchtime should be later in the day, one student, we’ll call her Lanie, crafted the following points: 1. The early lunchtime meant that she wasn’t hungry for lunch and 2. The early lunchtime caused too great a gap between her meals. I’ll use this essay as an example below.
When your writers are working on angling evidence to support a point, you might offer them one or more of the following tips.
- When choosing evidence, consider whether the evidence could be used by someone with an opposing view on the issue. If so, plan to explain how the evidence supports your point extra carefully.
- Preface the evidence with a brief introduction or connection to the point you are making. For example, a piece of evidence Lanie used in her writing was a story about a time she failed a geometry quiz in her last class of the day because she was too hungry to focus. She might preface this story by saying: A lunchtime that is too early can cause students to do poorly in afternoon classes because they have gone too long without eating. For example, in my geometry class…
- Highlight the parts of the evidence that go with your points. You might do this by only including the parts of a story that support your points, or by including more details about those parts. In this case, Lanie might include plenty of detail about how starving she was as she attempted her geometry quiz.
- After naming the evidence, connect the evidence to your point. It often helps to use phrases such as: This shows…, This matters because… This supports my point by… After telling her story about the geometry quiz, Lanie might say: This shows that students who are too hungry at the end of the day because their lunches are too early often do worse in school.
- Include some evidence that supports the other side of the issue, and explain why this evidence isn’t as strong as the evidence that supports your side.
Anna is a staff developer, literacy coach, and writer, based in New York City. She taught internationally in places such as Sydney, Australia; San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and Auckland, New Zealand in addition to New York before becoming a staff developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University (TCRWP). She has been an adjunct instructor in the Literacy Specialist Program at Teachers College, and teaches at TCRWP where she helps participants bring strong literacy instruction into their classrooms. Anna recently co-wrote Bringing History to Life with Lucy Calkins, part of the 2013 series Units of Study in Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing (Heinemann). She has been a researcher for Lucy Calkins, contributing especially to Pathways to the Common Core (Heinemann, 2012) and Navigating Nonfiction (Heinemann, 2010).