When it comes to learning, sometimes a little competition can be just the ticket. Last November, I had the great fortune of attending the NCTE National Conference held in Baltimore, Maryland. I will admit it was my first time to attend, and I can honestly say the experience was absolutely life-changing (those of you who have attended in the past can attest to this, I am sure)! I found the energy created by the collective presence of so many thousands of literacy educators to be truly inspiring.
In contemplating what to attend among the multitude of sessions on Saturday afternoon, one in particular seemed to jump off the page. It was around argumentative writing. The workshop was entitled, “From Argument to Inquiry: Building Discourse Communities,” facilitated by Mary Dibinga and Pamela Doiley. Argumentative writing can be uniquely challenging for young writers for a variety of reasons, and yet it occupies a particular level of importance within the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). So important is argument, in fact, that the authors of the standards (2010) dedicated a special section to it, writing, “Such capacities [in argument] are broadly important for the literate, educated person living in the diverse, information-rich environment of the 21st Century” (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers).
Argument writing is inherently complex. In my work with students and teachers, I have found that it is not actually the form of discourse itself that presents challenge – no, kids know how to argue! Rather, part of the difficulty lies in the complexity of, as Kuhn and Udell (2003) report, “…[distinguishing] evidence and explanation in support of . . . claims” (Brem & Ripps, 2000; Kuhn, 1991, 2001b; Kuhn et al., 1997; Perkins, 1985; Voss & Means, 1991).
During their NCTE presentation, Mary Dibinga and Pamela Doiley introduced participants to a unique approach to formulating a literary analysis arguments that combined inquiry, student discourse, and engaging game-like features (e.g., competition) to teach writers to support claims with evidence. They entitled it, “The Evidence Scavenger Hunt.” To play the game, the following steps were taken:
- Participants were divided into teams of three. We were told this would be a contest to see who could find the best evidence the fastest, which seemed to ignite a competitive spirit in the room.
- Everyone began the exercise by reading a common text entitled, “Fish Cheeks,” by Amy Tan. In working with actual students in a classroom, I imagined this could also be conducted as a read aloud. Note: The text used here does not really matter; what matters is the process. So teachers could feel free to use any story with which students are familiar.
- Following the reading of the common text, the presenters informed all of us participants that we would momentarily be presented with a text-based claim (teacher-generated) for which we would be working together in our small teams to find evidence. The first team to locate textual evidence for the claim would receive 1 point. As you might imagine, this injected further competitive urgency into the exercise. However, the presenters followed this up by adding that the team that located the best evidence would receive 2 points. This determination would be reached through teacher-facilitated discussion and debate.
- Text-based claims were then projected, one at a time. Some of the claims projected included:
- Amy’s mother wants her to fit in with Americans.
- The food was unusual.
As you might imagine, after each claim was presented by the presenters, teams eagerly dove into the text to locate evidence. Voices fell, then lifted. Close reading took over. Spirited debate ensued. And points were tallied.
Toward the end of their allotted time, Dibinga and Doiley shared with us that this type of inquiry typically elicits not only robust class discussions and debates, but also supports kids in seeing multiple perspectives, something researchers have identified as another weakness in argumentative writing. As adult participant teams engaged in productive struggle that afternoon, working through the process of locating solid evidence, the energy in the room was lifted to a new level. Debates, facilitated by presenters, yielded enthusiastic discussions around what evidence truly supported which claims.
While not a typical writing workshop lesson, this shared experience/inquiry could likely provide an important baseline from which teachers and writers could move forward. Consider the higher level thinking involved when we ask students to engage in this kind of work. Three types come to mind, as shared by Dr. Mary Ehrenworth in a recent presentation:
- Sorting evidence: In this type of work, writers work to locate evidence that could support a particular idea or claim (“Which evidence goes with the idea?).
- Ranking evidence: When asked to rank, students must draw some conclusions around what evidence is the strongest (and why) (“Which evidence is the strongest?).
- Correlating evidence: Writers must be able to connect evidence with the right idea (“Am I able to put evidence with the right idea?”).
Also important to point out in The Argument Scavenger Hunt is the strong dialogic component. Researchers who have studied the development of argument writing in adolescents point out the value of including opportunities for students to talk and debate. This helps them improve their argumentative writing skills. As Kuhn & Udell (2003) report, “…discourse [activities are] an important element of the experience needed to optimize development of argument skills.”
According to Dibinga and Doiley, following The Argument Scavenger Hunt, students often believe they have “played a game” when in reality they spent the entire period, reading, thinking, talking, debating, and writing. As a writing workshop teacher, I left the session that day thinking about the value of supporting writers within the genre of argument, not just in a traditional minilesson format, but in multiple ways.
For more than 27 years, Lanny has taught, coached, presented, staff developed, and consulted within the exciting and enigmatic world of literacy. With unyielding passion and belief in the possibility of workshop teaching, Lanny has worked to support students, teachers, and school administrators around the country in outgrowing themselves as both writers and readers. Working first as a classroom teacher, then as a coach and TCRWP Staff Developer, Lanny is now a literacy specialist, working and living in the great state of Connecticut. Outside of literacy, he enjoys raising his three ambitious young daughters with his wife, and playing the piano. Find him on this blog, as well as on Twitter @LannyBall. Lanny is also a co-author of a blog dedicated to supporting teachers and coaches that maintain classroom writing workshops, twowritingteachers.org.