Choosing a Topic

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SWBAT determine a topic for a persuasive essay

Big Idea

What makes a good topic for a persuasive essay?


This is the second lesson in a series of lessons on writing a argumentative research paper. In this lesson students learn about the difference between an arguable topic and a research topic.  They also learn how to develop their topic of interest into a persuasive essay topic. 


Web Resources for Topics

20 minutes

Next I have my students look at The New York Times learning blog which offers 200 different topics for research. 

I point out to the students that the topics are all presented in the form of a question.  Rather than present different sides to the issue The Times invites students to start from a question, explore, research and then develop a thesis from the question. 

Conversely, this list of 100 research topics from Santa Monica College merely lists the topics. I explain to my students that before they can really write a thesis statement or even come up with a persuasive statement they need to research. They might think they have sufficient background information on the topic and they might already have a performed idea or opinion, but I want to discourage them from starting a paper with that mindset. 

Understanding Opinion vs. Persuasion

20 minutes

Choosing a topic for a general research paper is difficult, choosing a topic for an argumentative thesis that attempts to persuade an audience to take an action can be downright intimidating.  So before choosing a topic I walk my students through some of the basics of argumentation, particularly to persuade. 

A write two sentences on the board:

"Seattle is in Washington."

"Seattle is beautiful city."

"Carl should move to Seattle."

I ask my students to classify the sentences fact and opinion.  They quickly do this identifying the first sentence as a fact and the next two as opinion.  I then ask them, "Of the two opinion sentences which one is trying to persuade someone to an action." There is some discussion here that both sentences could be taken as persuasive, because the second is an opinion statement and could be interpreted as asking for agreement.  I refer the student back to the verb form and remind them that the second sentence is a statement of condition not action. This leaves the third sentence as the persuasive one. 

"Could you build an argument from that simple sentence?" I ask my students.  There is a murmur of agreement that, yes, a very clear persuasive argument could be made from that simple statement.  

I encourage students in their search for a topic to keep the language simple at first, and to make sure in that simple sentence they are using action verbs, not "to be" verbs which only state a condition.  

"If you can't put your topic into a simple sentence like the example on the board, then you probably need to find a different topic."  There is a danger here in over-simplifying the topic and working from an assumption rather than starting from a question. I remind students before they can get to this point they need to have done some research and reading first. 

Inductive vs. Deductive Reasoning

20 minutes

This Shmoop video is an easy way to introduce inductive and deductive reasoning to students 


I then ask students where they have used deductive reasoning.  Most of them bring up science fair, or any of the science classes they've taken in the last four years.  Some on mentions this class, and writing papers about literature. I point out that deductive reasoning can be a part of the scientific process, but it's usually later after some observations are made.  I then explain that journalists and researchers might use deductive thinking to explain observable trends or to understand events that are unfolding. 

"What about inductive reasoning?" I ask.  This elicits similar responses.  Science fair, science classes, English.  "What about a history class?" I ask, "Could a historian make observations about a series of historical events and then draw a conclusion?" They agree that she could.  

"When you are working with a topic that interests you, but you don't know much about it, which line of reasoning is better?"  There is a little debate here, but ultimately the students agree that inductive reasoning is better for unknown topics. 

Writing a Quick Outline

45 minutes

Now I have my students go back to the three sentences on the board, pointing to the third sentence. 

"Would Carl be smart to move to Seattle based on this sentence alone?" I ask my students?  They agree he would not. 

"So what do I need to include to convince Carl to move to Seattle?"

They agree that I need to come up with some legitimate reasons, ones that are specific to his needs and concerns and will make a convincing argument.

"Is the second sentence a valid reason?" I ask, pointing to "Seattle is a beautiful city."  

They agree that it is not, because it is only my opinion, and Carl might feel differently about Seattle when he gets there. They also agree that aesthetics is not going to get Carl a job or find him a girlfriend. 

Aha, now they are thinking.  

"So what do I need to do to convince Carl to move?" I ask them.

"Give Carl the facts about Seattle," says one student. "Facts that apply to Carl's needs and wants. Like 'Seattle has lots of jobs' or 'Seattle has many trade schools for culinary arts so Carl can pursue his dream of becoming a chef.'"

"What else?" I prompt them.

"Admit that Seattle might not be perfect, but that it's better than staying in Simms," says one student.

"And we call that?"  

"A counterargument."

"Good, now using the tools I've given you start to develop a question of interest which can become a topic, which will eventually turn into a persuasive statement with three points, a counterargument and some sort of action you want to happen."

Now I need to give my students time to read and research, take notes and discuss.