Students Challenge Each Other's Interpretation of A Symbol In "Hills Like White Elephants"

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SWBAT improve their working argument by responding to challenges from classmates and defending their interpretation of a symbol.

Big Idea

Taking on challenges can only make you stronger, and hopefully your written argument too.


In the previous lesson, students worked in small groups to make a list of all the quotes from “Hills Like White Elephants” that pertained to a symbol their group was responsible for. They looked like this sample list of quotes a group of students created the day before. Today, students use this work to begin producing an their own written analysis of a symbol in the story.

Outlining An Argument

10 minutes

I ask students to take out the work they produced in class the day before and place it in the middle of the table for anyone sitting at that table to access as needed. I explain that they are using this work to begin developing a written analysis of a symbol and that it does not have to be the one they worked on the day before. At this point, I invite students to feel free to select whatever symbol they are interested in writing about and move to that table to gain access to the work already done for that particular symbol. Only one or two students make this choice. They seem to feel better prepared to write an analysis of the symbol they have already spent time working with.

I ask students to take a few minutes to write a claim on a separate piece of paper in which they state their working interpretation of the meaning of whichever symbol they are working with. Below this, I ask students to make a list of the evidence they want to use to support their interpretation. This is a sample outline of a student’s claim and evidence.

Explanation of Today's Process

10 minutes

I let them know they are about to engage in a small group discussion to test the validity of their claims. Students are already seated in groups of four. The groups were set up to contain a mix of abilities and personalities. If students are absent, I move a few students around to create groups of the same size. I give them the rules for this activity:

Each group member will get five minutes to share their working claim and evidence and to receive feedback from their group members.

While a student presents, the job of the rest of the group members is to find the weak points in the argument presented and point them out to the student presenting.

They are to discuss one student’s working claim and evidence for the entire four minutes.

The purpose of this activity is to give all students an opportunity to test their working claim and make it better. My students have a difficult time identifying weaknesses in their written ideas. As a result, I often get written work that contains brilliant ideas mixed in with weak ideas and little sense that students are able to recognize the difference. To address this need, I have been engaging students in activities that push them to identify holes in each other’s arguments. Although they also need to learn to identify the weak points in their own writing on their own, doing this in collaboration has multiple benefits. Students are able to practice speaking and listening skills, they have four brains evaluating one argument, and they are all exposed to the different perspectives that naturally exist in a class of 26. To help students understand what we are essentially doing, I use a few phrases that I have been using in the last couple of weeks. In this video, I explain a bit about these phrases. They are still expected to discuss the weaknesses in each other’s argument with respect and in the form of an academic discussion.

Students are seated with the same peers whom they worked with to begin analyzing the meaning of a symbol, which means they all worked together to come up with one interpretation of the symbol. Students ask why I don’t have them discuss with peers who have been examining a different symbol, suggesting that they may be better able to point out weaknesses in their argument. My response is that other classmates would need some time to think about their interpretation of a symbol they did not work with the day before and that may require time we don’t have today. Students who have been examining a particular symbol are in a better place to do that. Additionally, they are also practicing the skill of predicting counterclaims.

I also remind them of some guidelines I have given them to help them identify the weaknesses in an argument. I remind them that a strong claim establishes a sophisticated idea and is supported by textual evidence. An explanation like this one is often too abstract for my students so I also try and make it more concrete for them. Specifically, I tell them that in today’s discussions, they are to “attack” any of the following by asking the question that follows each:

Idea established

            “Is this a significant idea?”

Supporting evidence

            “How does this evidence support your claim?”

Interpretation of the evidence

            “Is there an alternative interpretation?”

Understanding of the characters

            “Is this what the character means?”

I also remind them of the chart I have on the wall of appropriate ways of phrasing questions and comments during and academic discussion and suggest appropriate ways of “attacking” their classmates’ arguments.

Students are now ready to present to each other and discuss.

Students Challenge Each Other's Claims

25 minutes

I give groups 30 seconds to decide who is number 1, 2, 3, and 4. After 30 seconds are up I verify they made this decision by asking number 1s to raise their hand so I can see that each group has selected number 1. I do the same with the other numbers. This is an important procedural step for my students because there have been times when certain groups decide not to do plan for things like this and when it is time for the discussion to begin, they sit there looking at each other waiting for someone to volunteer. Now that we have a clear order in which students are presenting, I can set my watch to give the first student four minutes to present and get feedback. During this time I walk around and listen in on their conversations. I only speak directly to students if I see that whatever comment I make will help them continue their discussion. When 3.5 minutes have gone by, I ask that whoever is talking finish that last statement and then I stop this first round. I ask the second student to be ready and then set the watch again for four minutes. I do the same for student three and four. 

Students Reflect

10 minutes

I give students the last part of the period to note challenges made to their claim in today’s activity. They should do this reflection immediately after because the information is fresh in their mind. They will be using this information to guide their written analysis of the symbol they selected so it is important that they digest it by reflecting on it and noting it on their paper.