Throughout my development as a secondary English teacher, I’ve found fiction and poetry effective in teaching students that reading literature can impact their lives. Over the past few years, though, I’ve also found that reading and writing informational and argumentative texts can help students understand the world around them and help them become participants in it. That’s been a big shift in my instruction.
If students are to write great informative and argumentative pieces, they should be exposed to a diverse range of issues and perspectives. We have to make time in the classroom for these opportunities. Students genuinely enjoy this type of learning, and that’s particularly true with argument. Teenagers are eager for academic and civic arguments—their world’s opening up at that age and they’re trying to find their places in adult conversations. School should help them do that.
We frequently talk in education about real-world learning, and I’d go further and say that our classrooms are the real world and should reflect its complexity. We need to make space for examining multi-sided issues like immigration and global warming. We need to go there. We must teach our students to be active members of college, career, and community conversations. The energy students bring to these topics can fuel passionate writing.
One major challenge, though, is managing those entrenched, divisive student opinions that arise when we go there. How do we keep our classrooms from spiraling into anger and conflict when discussing controversial issues?
Recently, I’ve worked with other leaders in the National Writing Project to develop the College-Ready Writers Program, or CRWP. This program supports the development of a mature argument culture in classrooms where students value evidence, research, and logic. CRWP teaches students the relationship between claims and evidence, and they come to appreciate differing perspectives. A recent study of CRWP’s implementation showed the program "...had a positive, statistically significant effect on the four attributes of student argument writing—content, structure, stance, and conventions... In particular, CRWP students demonstrated greater proficiency in the quality of reasoning and use of evidence in their writing.”
Teaching students to substantiate what they say with evidence helps transform stubborn opinions. CRWP teaches students to push past the challenges to find or create real solutions to contemporary problems in the school, the community, or the nation. The search for credible evidence makes us informed. Opinions never solve problems, but informed and passionate people can.
New standards, tests, and mandates come and go in American education, but we’ll always need to prepare young people to make logical sense of their world and to argue for reasonable solutions based on the information available. Argument writing is uniquely cross-curricular and scholarly. Argument is civic, democratic, and American. Writing argument resonates with every empowering ideal that brings teachers to the profession in the first place—to teach students that learning matters and that their voices matter. That no matter who they are or from where they start, they can make a difference. They can change the world.
Casey Olsen (@Mr_Olsen_Says) has over a decade of experience as a high school English teacher in rural Montana. He was a 2015 Montana Teacher of the Year finalist and serves on the College-Ready Writers Program leadership team for the National Writing Project.
The opinions expressed in Teaching Ahead: A Roundtable are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.