Fun with Argumentative Writing

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– 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:

  1. an everyday object (such as a hoodie, a binder, or a backpack),
  2. the problem with the object (such as it is lumpy, it is leaking green fluid, or it smells like it’s burning),
  3. 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
  4. 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–

I hope you enjoy these and I would love to hear your ideas as well.





Inquiry + Gradual Release of Responsibility = A Recipe for Success

I’m a big fan of Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky, Bandura, and Bruner, and their ideas strongly influence my teaching. The Gradual Release of Responsibility model of instruction is built on the foundation of their work and appeals to me for many reasons. I have found that inquiry plus GRR has been invaluable in deepening student understanding in my language arts class classroom.

Over the years, I’ve discovered how important it is to scaffold instruction so that students are not turned loose before they are ready and able to be successful. In my opinion, the most beneficial part of the GRR model I use is a form of structured inquiry toward the beginning of the process. It really cements the learning. I’ve outlined my argumentative writing instruction below.

Focus Step: I set the stage with providing the learning focus: Argumentative Writing. We discussed where students might see this type of writing in real life, what forms it may take, and a working definition of the term argumentative.

Structured Inquiry Step: Students worked in groups. I provided each group with multiple examples of exemplary argumentative mentor texts in various forms—editorials, student samples, blog posts, magazine articles, political writing, etc. Their task was to closely read these texts, determine as a group what commonalities they observed, and record their findings.

Guided Instruction Step: Groups took turns sharing their findings with the whole class. The information was compiled on the whiteboard. I then provided explicit instruction in a mini-lesson about how the characteristics they “noticed” fit into argumentative writing using correct academic vocabulary. (They were very excited to have figured these out on their own.) Together, we determined possibilities for organizing the information. They used these as the foundation for strong persuasive writing.

 Group Work Step: The student groups choose a topic to argue. They wrote their arguments and evidence in note form and then organized the information logically. Each group determined their best idea, and then fleshed out this idea into a full paragraph that they shared with the entire class.

Independent Learning Step: I then gave them the opportunity to practice and apply what they discovered in some fun, low-stakes persuasive writing exercises (to be detailed in a future post). Finally, students chose a topic of personal meaning and wrote their own argumentative paper.

 Assessment/Reflection Step: As a class, we determined an informal rubric containing the characteristics previously determined to be used for self-assessment and reflection. They shared their writing with others for feedback, evaluated themselves, conferenced with me for feedback, made adjustments as necessary, and then submitted a polished piece.

I use various versions of this model for many topics I teach. It has been successful for me and I hope your version of Gradual Release of Responsibility works as well for you.

Is the Goldilocks English class a fairy tale?

In my never-ending quest to design the “just right” English class experience, I am becoming convinced that no such animal exists. I’ve been trying for several years and have not yet found the magic formula that will allow me to address everything I wish to teach in the way that I wish to teach it in a mere 45 minutes per day. I have tried every new idea that sounds exciting to me, but it is always at the expense of something else I’ve done in the past. Is the “just right” class a reality or a fairy tale?

Here’s my problem. I am addicted to professional literature about teaching. I also attempt to go to at least one literacy conference per year. I consider these endeavors successful if I can gather one new strategy, concept, or resource from each. This doesn’t even include the fantastic ideas I get from Twitter chats. Trouble is that these add up. Every single experience yields at least one great technique I want to implement the very next day. At this point, I have an extensive list of approaches I’ve tried—all of which produced great results.

Among the things I love to do with my students are:
• genius hour
• reading workshop
• writing workshop
• book clubs
• Article of the Week
• independent, choice reading
• whole-class novel study
• student blogging
• book talks
• read alouds
• author visits
• iPad apps
• and many more

The problem is that I haven’t found a way to do everything in such a short amount of time, but I don’t know what to eliminate. Everything adds value, but whole-class novels (the foundation for my school’s curriculum), choice reading, and writing workshop are non-negotiable. I know that none of us ever have enough time, but I am hoping someone else has determined a magic way to fit all of the pieces into the puzzle and what you’ve had to let go.

I’ve used two different schedules. One is to alternate a reading-focused unit (3 weeks) with a writing-focused unit (2 weeks). I have also alternated days of the week between reading and writing Monday through Thursday and “something fun Fridays” which involve critical thinking and skill development. Penny Kittle gave me the great advice to spread out the workshops to two days. This would be a great solution for my reading and writing workshop, but I need to figure out how to incorporate some of the other wonderful ideas out there. It’s overwhelming. If anyone has this solved, I am all ears. A great group from my twitter PLN put together a Google doc to share ideas, but would love to hear more.

Thanks. I look forward to learning with you.

Channeling Goldilocks: Attempting to get it “just right”

After reading Erica Beaton’s terrific 4.15.14 blog post “Whole-Class Novels vs. Choice-Only Reading: Part One ( on “whether novels should be shared as a whole-class texts or if students should freely chose novels according to their own interests and plans for growth,” I realized that this is a decision frustrating many English teachers. Although most teachers I know come down on one side or the other, I believe in a balanced approach because I find value in both. I’m looking forward to her next post where she will continue the conversation. In the interim, I want to share how I’ve applied some of what I’ve read regarding teaching whole-class novels.

Like many secondary English teachers, I began teaching novels in the same way I was taught. I assigned a chapter or two at a time with vocabulary words to define, chapter questions to answer, and a summative comprehension test. The problem was that I hated every minute of teaching that way and the kids were bored to tears. Sure, I loved English classes when I was a kid because I knew this was how the game was played and I played it well. I distinctly remember enjoying reading “The Diary of Anne Frank”, “Flowers for Algernon”, The Great Gatsby, The Fountainhead, etc., but I must have somehow mentally blocked how mind numbing it surely was to complete all of the accompanying busy work. What I do remember enjoying somewhat was the teacher guiding us toward his or her interpretation of the work and the rare opportunities for class discussion. I wanted to capitalize on student discussion and discovery in my classroom. I was already making movement toward eliminating rote work when the right book appeared at the right time. Thank goodness for Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide for giving me research-based permission to do what I’d always felt was right for students.

In Chapter 4 of Readicide, Gallagher discusses finding the “sweet spot” of instruction by achieving the perfect balance between the overteaching and underteaching of books. For me, teaching a whole-class novel in a way that provides depth of thought, development of literacy skills, and student engagement is the quest for my sweet spot. Like Goldilocks, I am searching for what feels “just right.” I am constantly refining my methods, and have come up with some techniques that are working for me thus far. Not only are my students enjoying reading a novel as a class, they are able to meet and exceed the standards required. It’s not “just right” yet, but I’m getting closer.

Because of my background as a special education teacher, I often joke that I teach all of my students as if they are gifted students with learning differences. I say this in jest, but I truly do use the same techniques that I use to meet the needs of students on both ends of the continuum. I scaffold the learning so that each student can be successful while trying to provide innovative, high-interest activities to satisfy their innate curiosity and drive. Below are some supplemental activities, besides discussing the novel, that I used when I taught an 8th grade science fiction unit revolving around The Giver. NOTE: I never spend more than three or four weeks on a novel. I have a short attention span.

Prior to reading:

  • As a class, we discussed the idea of Utopian societies and how they have been attempted over the course of history.
  • Students worked in groups to develop their own Utopian society including such items as a flag with a representative symbol, a constitution of their beliefs, an advertisement of their unique assets, and a set of rules that must be followed.

During reading:

  • We practiced storytelling with a favorite family memory.
  • We determined current milestone birthdays and their societal meaning.

During and After reading:

  • We read additional science fiction such as Harrison Bergeron, and watched a couple of Twilight Zone episodes (Number 12 Looks Exactly Like You and Eye of the Beholder). We listened to “One Tin Soldier,” “Utopia,” and “Imagine.” We discussed the hippie movement and its goals. We compared and contrasted these in discussions of the ideas of total equality and the definition of perfection.
  • We debated whether it would be good or bad to have our negative memories removed.
  • We made connections to global society today.

In future posts, I will share how I scaffolded our whole-class novel experiences from the beginning to the end of this year to achieve a gradual release of responsibility.

Thanks for reading. I look forward to learning with you.


You mean we get to read for fun?

Whenever I am in a group of English teachers and we discuss our classroom practices, I share that the best thing I have done for my students over the last six years is to offer them ten minutes of free, choice reading at the beginning of every class. I even offer to share the research demonstrating the validity of this practice because I believe in it so much. They challenge me by saying that they cannot afford to give up the classroom time because they have so much material to cover. I completely understand this as I only have 45 minute class periods myself, but I can’t imagine taking this time away. It is a challenge, but it is non-negotiable. The conversation inevitably turns to how I assess this choice reading. I dread this question because it puts me on the defensive. My answer is that I don’t. I am always met with disbelief, disapproval, or peers that tell me their kids won’t read if it is not for points, a prize, or a grade. This has not been my experience. It works for me and my students and I see the results in their improved reading, writing, and speaking skills. Additionally, they are completely engaged on a daily basis. They enter class and open their books right away. They share their favorite books with me and even show me passages that they particularly enjoy. You can hear a pin drop during those ten minutes and they groan when it’s over. That’s enough assessment for me.

I consider Donalyn Miller, Terry Lesesne, Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, Stephen Krashen, and Kylene Beers (among others) to be experts on this topic and all are a huge influence on the way I run my class. I have drunk their Kool-Aid and it is my favorite flavor–literacy. In his book, Readicide, Kelly Gallagher asks readers to put themselves in their happy reading place at home. He asks, “Do you finish your book quickly so you’ll have more time to write a report, make a poster, or build a diorama?” Of course not. Adults do not do this, and children should not have to either.

My students do a great deal of formal and informal activities with the books that they read. I require them to keep a reading log including the author, title, genre, rating, and rationale for their rating. I want them to look for patterns to learn what they love and where there may be areas for growth. I have them write a literacy letter to me each marking period. They tell me what they are enjoying reading and why, and I respond to their letter. They do book talks, book trailers, and book recommendations one another. We have book swaps and book floods, write reviews for bulletin boards, make graffiti walls of favorite quotes, and use the texts as examples for mentor texts. I just don’t grade their reading in any way. These activities are naturally motivating and they always complete them. The bonus is that the children are always reading. I almost can’t keep up with the requests for book recommendations. They get so excited when I tell them I tweeted the author to tell them how much they loved the book. They take their books to other classes and read when they finish their work. (To the point where a colleague complained that all the kids wanted to do was read, and another colleague replied that there are worse problems we could have.) What more can I say? This system just works for me.

I don’t know whether this will work for you, but you truly have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Signing off for now. I am sure there is a twitter chat I am missing.