Let’s face it. Teaching argumentative writing is hard.
Each year I teach it, I always know it’s going to be one of the most energy-taxing units of the year. The art of creating a well-crafted argument is challenging for most students–let’s be real, most people, young or not–and facilitating a whole class of teenagers through multiple drafts of multiple arguments can feel like a marathon.
It’s not that teenagers aren’t good at arguing. Teenagers are very good at arguing. In fact, they may be the people that practice arguing the most.
The challenge lies in learning the different parts of a basic argument–the claim, the evidence, and the reasoning–when each of them are such abstract concepts. By understanding what each of them are, we’re able to critique arguments and make our own better. But without a concrete way to talk about them, it’s like gesturing wildly at a class and hoping they’ll catch your drift (maybe that’s half the reason argumentative units are so exhausting…).
What I knew I needed was some sort of analogy, some visual for students that we could keep revisiting each time we reinforced these ideas. I went through several years of thinking about it before I finally came up with something that seemed to work.
I thought some sort of hook analogy might work–maybe a visual with strings and clips to show how reasoning attaches your evidence to your claim. I followed a fantastic Lucy Calkins lesson once where I wrote evidence on pieces of paper and lined them up on the floor, encouraging students to explain how each piece of evidence got me from claim a to claim b (which magically gave me powers to hop along the evidence). This was an effective one-off lesson, but it was difficult to revisit.
And then, one year it came to me. An analogy to revisit over and over again. That analogy was:
Making an argument is like taking your reader on a roller coaster.
Ok, ok, it may not seem like much, but I found there was a lot of value to be squeezed out of this visual.
I wanted to share with you how I use it so that maybe you can get some ideas on how to make these abstract-logic-intensive units a little more concrete, too.
Here’s what I do to introduce it:
Claims, Evidence, and Reasoning Introduction Lesson Plan
Mini-Lesson: Explain the analogy
Making an argument is like taking your reader on a roller coaster.
I explain: “In order for your reader to stay with you, you need to strap him into that roller coaster argument properly for the entire time. How do you do that?
Stating your claim is like sitting your reader down on your roller coaster. It’s your first step.
Then, you give evidence. Your evidence is like putting on one strap of the seatbelt.
Your reasoning is like putting on the other strap.
Mentioning your claim at the end of this process is like snapping it all together.
And each part is crucial to keep your reader from falling off your thinking.
What do you think happens if you forget one of these steps?
Yup. You gotta have it all in order for your reader to stay with you.”
Sometimes, as I’m explaining this, I even act it out with a back pack and a chair to make it even more visual. I act out sitting in the chair (for stating your claim), putting on one strap (for introducing evidence), and putting on the other strap (for using reasoning to connect it back to the claim). After introducing the comment, I also like to give an example argument for students as I’m acting it out so they can start identifying each part of the argument.
Work-time: Act it Out as Students Make Arguments
After explaining it, we practice. I like to follow it up with verbal arguments with an activity like philosophical chairs so students can have repeated opportunities to both hear examples of arguments and try them themselves.
As students make their arguments, I continue to act it out. Students talk, and I follow along with the motions.
If they miss a step (which they almost always do in the beginning), I milk it. I yell and fall off the chair and make as dramatic a scene out of it as I can). Afterwards, we talk about what they forgot to do that made me fall off their coaster/argument and die.
And then we try again and repeat!
Step 3: Have Students Act it Out for Each Other
After you’ve acted it out a couple times, have the rest of the class act out what they hear.
So as students hear the person speaking state a claim, they all sit down. As the person gives some evidence, they put on a strap, etc. And if they forget a step and finish….well, you may want to warn your neighboring classrooms. This can help students tune into the structure of others’ arguments in addition to helping keep each other accountable.
Step 4: Reinforce it Throughout the Unit
For the rest of the unit, I keep coming back to this analogy. We use it to talk about weak evidence (puny straps made of yarn) and strong evidence (steel bars), as well as the need for reasoning to match the strength of the evidence (uneven straps are awkward). When I give feedback to students, I always put it back in the context of the roller coaster. By the end, the idea is that the lack of a claim, evidence, or reasoning would make anyone in class scream (and for once, not just me!)—or at the very least, that everyone is much more aware of it.
Twist: Invert the Lesson
I’ve actually begun to move the mini-lesson to the middle of this lesson. I’ve found it helps for students to create their own arguments before we talk about argument structure, because it gives context for talking about Claim, Evidence, and Reasoning. Plus, it honors the knowledge that students already have about making arguments–because they have a lot. So we start Philosophical Chairs, stop 1/3 through, chat about roller coasters, and then continue on. It’s a lot for a 45 minute period, but doable.
Click here if you want my full lesson plan, powerpoint, and handout that I use for introducing this analogy with philosophical chairs–complete with dramatic pictures of cartoon people flying off of roller coasters.. (This lesson actually comes from my argumentative unit, which will be released on TPT in September. If you’d be interested in hearing more about that unit and when it’s available, click here!)
And that’s that! It’s become one of my favorite lessons in the argumentative unit, because no matter how crazy my students look at me the first time we talk about it, we’ve been able to come back to it over and over again during the unit. It’s given us a way to make something visual that always seems incredibly, frustratingly abstract.
Pin this to remember!
In the meantime, let me know in the comments below if you’ve got tips for teaching Claims, Evidence, and Reasoning, or if you were able to try this with your students. It seriously makes my day to hear from you, and I love hearing stories and new ideas!!
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