At different times during the school year students will write persuasive essays in their content area classes but in many schools, mine included, ELA leads the way. It is here that they learn to identify and organize strong reasons and evidence to use in writing arguments. Not only that, they also have to identify and respond to an opposing claim. This lesson represents our first foray into argument writing this year, so I start with a set of sample statements and ask students to determine which is most convincing and why. They are related to the topic we are currently investigating (the problem of invasive species), but can easily be adapted to another.
It does not take long for them realize that the second argument is most convincing. It is effective because it does not ignore the other side of the argument. Instead, it acknowledges the opposing point of view and then points out why it is invalid. The students figure that number three is unfair because it insults people and is therefore less convincing.
Writing an effective argument is best accomplished when you understand both sides of an issue. The ability to offer clear reasons based on evidence increases the likelihood that the intended audience of the essay will see things your way. Having read two articles on invasive species and heard about four more from their peers these students have a fair amount of knowledge on invasive species, but are not quite ready to write yet. First they need to identify the issue. One way to introduce this is to examine a model text. So we take a look at the Fact Sheet created by the National Invasive Species Council, which can be found on their website. We read over the section that lists steps people can take to limit the spread of species from one habitat to another. The students make wonderful connections to personal experience by recalling the ongoing fight to limit the spread of the Asian longhorn beetle. In the past few years many trees had to be cut down in this community on both public and private property in the effort to be rid of this pest. One student even mentioned seeing a truck with the tree specialists responsible for monitoring the problem that very morning in his neighborhood. Another great connection came as one student explained why many campsites in New Hampshire do not allow campers to bring their own firewood. Even though I saw the minutes ticking away on the clock, I was reluctant to end this conversation too soon because making a personal connection to the topic will give students more to draw on when it comes time to write.
Even with all of they now know about invasive species it may be difficult for students to synthesize the information and clearly state the issue. Instead they may mention details related to one specific species rather than thinking broadly about the big picture. With some probing, students realize the issue can be stated quite simply: Invasive species harm the environment. The two opposing sides of the issue are to either take action and do something to eradicate the invasive species or to do nothing. Once we reach this point we create a T chart that lists the pros and cons of taking action. We do this on the back of a worksheet with a graphic organizer for planning the writing.
Ahh, this is the best part of the lesson! With a clear understanding of the topic and having identified reasons for both sides of the issue that are based on evidence from mulitple texts, it is now time to choose a side. Of course the students are curious about the results. Have students that vote for taking action go to one side of the room and send those that vote against taking action to the other side of the room. In one of my ELA classes, only three students voted against taking action! In the other ELA class I teach, the numbers were split 50/50.