My students struggle with writing arguments. In previous lessons, I have engaged students in a process of outlining their ideas beginning with drafting a thesis statement, followed by drafting topic sentences, followed by selecting textual evidence. Today, I will label this a top-down approach for the purpose of introducing students to a bottom-up approach. The main goal is to help students gain an understanding of the conceptual interworking of an essay. The hope is that understanding how an essay works at a conceptual level will help students gain control of the process. This activity is highly structured and scaffolded. I find this necessary at this point in the school year. If I don’t walk them through the process of writing arguments, like I plan to today, I can expect to get unorganized writing that feels like the wild, wild west of writing.
Students have already been introduced to and have been expected to know these basic elements of an essay. However, these have not made it to their long-term memory yet so I start class by summarizing them and their relationship. Explaining the relationship is the emphasis of this introduction and I point that out to students asking them to make a special place in their memory for this information. As shown in this video, I use a diagram on the board to explain this relationship. I identified this for students as a top-down process and let them know there are other ways of approaching an essay, such as the process we are starting today. I explain that we are following a bottom-up approach for this assignment, which means we are beginning with the process of gathering textual evidence we are interested in discussing.
I give students 6 small post-it notes. I ask them to select 6 powerful sentences/phrases from “Self-Reliance” and write each one on one of the post-its. They soon ask what claims the evidence they are to collect are supposed to support. I say, “Excellent question!” and explain my intention with this process. If nobody asks that question, I suggest that there is a question they should be asking and would guide students to ask what claims these quotes are going to be supporting. I explain that I am giving them freedom of thought. My intention is to push them into situations where they have to think about their perspective of what they read. If they can get to that point, they are in a good position to make arguments about a text and not just summarize, like they tend to do. I have very good thinkers in my class, but this ability fails to show up in their writing because they have not learned to take control of the writing process and use it to show their thinking. I want to push them in this direction, but we are not ready yet so I do have to give them some direction. I tell them to consider what Emerson is proposing and the implications on society. I give them some guiding questions to consider: are Emerson’s claims valid? What do you find convincing? These are meant to help students think of their perspective of this essay and find an angle to approach this writing assignment.
These are some of the quotes a student copied on post-its.
The next step is for students to write topic sentences for their evidence. The instructional focus of this step is to help students’ development of a skill they struggle with, verbalizing conceptual ideas. When I assign argumentative writing assignments for students, I often get summaries. To address this, I rely on something I have taught them in a previous lesson, Costa’s Levels of Inquiry. Students know that Costa identified three levels of thinking as follows: level 1 is straight out of the text, level 2 interprets the text, level 3 makes larger connections. We talk about these in my classroom very often because they help us discuss analytical writing and help me keep students away from summarizing when the writing task calls for argumentation. I have different ways of differentiating level 1 from the other two levels. Today I remind students that level 1 comes straight out the text and it is information they did not make up. I remind them that level 2 and level 3 comes from their mind and is their way of making sense of the level 1information they are pulling from the text. I use the diagram on the board to engage students in a discussion about the level of thinking required of each step. I guide them to identify evidence as level 1 and topic sentences and thesis as level 2 or 3 and write this information on the board.
I communicate to students that they are drafting topic sentences for the evidence they selected and that they will help me develop a model using evidence form a text they are all familiar with, Their Eyes Were Watching God, which we read together last semester. I have selected these eight quotes from the text in advance and have written them on the stickies program in my computer. The quotes I selected can be grouped in sets of two or three based on the idea they help communicate. I project them on the board for them. I explain to students that all these quotes reveal something about one of the characters in the novel, Joe Starks, and I read them aloud. I ask students to turn to the classmates they sit with and discuss which quotes point to the same idea about the character. I give them a couple of minutes for this. I then ask one or two groups to share what they came up with. As they share, I move the stickies on my desk top to group the ones students decided go together. One group lumped stickies number 3, 4, and 1 because they all point to jealousy. I use these to show students the next step, which is to draft a topic sentence for these. For the topic sentence, I create a larger stickie, which is meant to show the fact that a topic sentence is the larger idea that will be supported by the evidence selected, which is now in smaller stickies. I ask students to suggest a possible topic sentence for these three pieces of evidence. Three different students make suggestions and I write the three sentences on the larger stickie. This offers an opportunity to make the point that a topic sentence should be stated as a concept and I make this point in this video. At the same time, I am able to show them the difference between a topic sentence that establishes a level 2 idea and one that mainly repeats information from the text. This is a central goal of this lesson.
I let students know that they will engage in this process tomorrow, meaning that they will group their stickies based on the idea they point to and draft a topic sentence.
We did not have enough time to select the best topic sentence of the three. We will be doing that at the beginning of the period tomorrow. That will allow us to have a complete model of what is expected of students in their assignment.