Yesterday, I finally had the opportunity to see Kelly Gallagher present in person. (*pausing for fangirl memory*) I’ve practically memorized his books and apply many of his ideas on a daily basis. After hearing him speak about teaching argumentative writing to adolescents, I was not only validated in my own beliefs and practices, but I was inspired to share some of the most engaging writing activities I use. (By the way, if you haven’t checked out his website, you must–http://kellygallagher.org) Even though it has been the expected result of writing instruction where I’ve taught, there’s much more to argumentative writing than the 5-paragraph essay. There are also more topics to argue about than whether a school should adopt school uniforms. (In fact, that topic has been so overdone that the students groan if the subject is even mentioned.) While the ultimate goal is to have students write a coherent, logical, organized argumentative essay, the steps in getting them to adequately defend an opinion do not have to be mind-numbingly boring for either the students or the teacher.
I like to build up to a full-blown essay with several smaller practice writing activities. Kelly Gallagher does this too. In his wonderful book, Write Like This, he shares many of the low-stakes writing assignments he uses to practice with his students. I’ve used several of them in my classroom. For example, I enjoy playing “Would You Rather” with the entire class as a verbal and kinesthetic activity in which they move to a side of the room based on their choice and share aloud. My students also respond well to arguing in favor of a specific consumer or entertainment product over another. He also uses mentor texts extensively (as do I) to allow students to “read like a writer.”
Here are some other writing activities I do in class:
1) It’s fun to read the picture book I Wanna Iguana and analyze the techniques Alex used to persuade his parents to buy him an iguana.
2) I teach the meaning of the rhetorical devices Ethos, Pathos, and Logos. Then, I teach them hand signals corresponding to each word (hand up as in an oath, hand on heart, and hand to head, respectively) and which Wizard of Oz corresponds to each term as well (Lion, Tin Man, and Scarecrow, respectively). We then analyze several ads for these techniques and do a word sort into these categories. They attempt to use all three techniques in their writing.
3) As a class, we write a letter to the foundation of a fictional recently deceased billionaire asking for a donation to an organization the class has determined is worthy of the funds. We must use Ethos, Pathos, and Logos in our request.
4) We do a group activity I call “Needful Things.” Each group draws one card from each of two piles. In the first pile is a useless junk item such as ½ roll of masking tape, a dead houseplant, or a pack of pink construction paper. In the second pile is a random fictional group such as The Elvis Impersonator Club of Omaha, The Retired Hamster Trainer Association of America, or The Motorcycle Doctors of the U.S. As a group, they determine why that group would want that object, then design and present an ad targeted to them. They love this and it cracks me up.
5) “Dear Customer Service” is a writing activity I designed where each student draws one card from each of four piles. The four piles contain cards with the following:
- an everyday object (such as a hoodie, a binder, or a backpack),
- the problem with the object (such as it is lumpy, it is leaking green fluid, or it smells like it’s burning),
- what happened to them as a result (such as it gave them an electric shock, made their cat angry, or made their foot itch), and
- what they want in restitution from the company (such as rent out a movie theater for a private showing, buy them a plane ticket to Hawaii, or get them a part on a reality TV show).
Their task is to determine the backstory surrounding these cards and write a letter of complaint to company demanding restitution and satisfaction. These are hysterical!
6) In Barry Lane and Gretchen Bernabei’s great book, Why We Must Run With Scissors, they infuse fun into argumentative writing. One of my favorite ideas from the book is an activity the authors call “The Devil’s Advocate.” The students argue in favor of a ridiculous rule, and the list of rules provided is hilarious. It includes everything from “Citizens must marry the first boy/girl they kiss,” to “All cosmetics will become illegal,” to “Walking will require a license.” The kids have a fun time trying to come up with rational reasons to defend these outlandish rules. (This is really a fun book–http://www.discover-writing.com)
I hope you enjoy these and I would love to hear your ideas as well.