In the previous lesson, students were given this writing prompt where they have to read a quote on the topic of solitude and do three tasks: explain what the quote means, agree or disagree with that the quote communicates, and support that position with evidence. We spent time working together to make meaning of the quote. For homework, I asked students to draft an introductory paragraph for this prompt, which was to include their explanation of the argument made in the quote as well as a statement of their position on this argument. Today, I want students to develop their position by writing the first body paragraph of this essay. To increase their chances of doing this part successfully I want students to share their position and engage in discussion. The idea is that discussing their working argument will allow them to clarify it and thus strengthen it. This is supported by the Speaking and Listening standards of the Common Core.
I ask students to highlight the sentence stating their position on the quote we read the day before, which is on the paper they did for homework. I ask each student whether they agreed or disagreed with the quote. All students agree with the quote except for a couple. This is not surprising as students have a tendency of going with the flow because that appears to be the easiest route to take. The problem is that going with the flow does not give students the opportunity to develop their ideas, and thus gets in the way of their writing development. Common Core Speaking and Listening standard 1c addresses the importance of divergent thinking. I want students to be exposed to a variety of perspective. I address this by sharing my concern that they are too willing to accept any point of view that is well stated. In this video, I explain how I address this concern.
I tell students that today they are playing devil’s advocate. None of my students are familiar with the phrase so I give them a brief explanation of it. I add that arguing the opposing view when you don’t believe in it can help you strengthen your own claim and that they are going to be playing devil’s advocate today. I tell students that their job during this activity is to find the weak point in their partner's argument and punch a hole through it. The phrase sounds aggressive, but it works to get the point across. I make sure to tell students that they are to read this phrase figuratively.
On a sheet of paper, students write the title “Playing Devil’s Advocate.” I explain the following process for this activity:
Students are to pair up and swap the paper where they have drafted their intro paragraph, which has their position highlighted.
Each student will read their partner’s working argument and find ways of disagreeing with their partner’s stated position. If they happen to agree with their partner’s argument, they are to disagree anyway, thus playing devil’s advocates. Each student will write a response against the original argument on the paper titled “Playing Devil’s Advocate” and they will get about 4 minutes to do this. During these four minutes every student is engaged in the process of disagreeing with their partner in writing. This is done in silence.
After 4 minutes, students will return the paper titled “Playing Devil’s Advocate” to their partner to give them an opportunity to respond to the written disagreement. They will also get 4 minutes to read the written disagreement and respond to it in writing, thus defending their position.
Following this process, students swap papers 3 times. There are two main purposes in this activity. One is for students to push themselves to consider opposing views, which is an important part of learning to develop arguments. The other purpose is to give them the opportunity to defend their thinking, thus strengthening the quality of their argument. Additionally, students are responding to each other in writing, which is good practice to develop the skill of communicating in writing. This is a good example of the type of exchange I hope students have on their papers.
I then ask students to turn back to their introductory paragraph and edit as needed.
This is the first time this year I have students purposely challenge each other’s ideas. Though most students end up sticking to their original argument, the hope is that as they respond to challenges to their argument, they will find better ways of supporting their ideas and thus strengthen their argument. The benefits of this activity are not expected to appear until later lessons as it does take repeated practice to learn better ways of defending their opinion. The plan today was to establish a new routine in this class and to build on it. Students will be asked to explicitly challenge each other’s ideas in future lessons for the purpose of helping them improve their ability to argue. Today, only one student ended up changing her original position and, more importantly, her new position is based on a much more profound idea. Whereas her original position was based on the most typical response in the class, that alone you are able to focus, her new position speaks of the idea that it is possible to maintain individuality when in a crowd, a statement that reminds me of Emerson’s idea, “…the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness he independence of solitude…” This student was able to modify her position, replacing it with a much more sophisticated response. These are the type of improvements I hope students learn to make to their writing.
I then give students time to draft the first body paragraph of their essay. At this point, I remind them of the three tasks called for in the writing prompt and highlight the skills they are expected to exhibit. I write these notes on the board. This is meant as a visual that summarizes the three tasks, which are numbered, and highlights the skills they are to exhibit, which are written with stars next to them and in all caps.
Students ask if they are going to write an entire essay. The answer is no. I am only having them write an intro and one body paragraph for this prompt. The reason is because by the end of their first body paragraph, the direction of their argument will be perfectly clear. It is helpful sometimes to have students write only this much and do it repeatedly for a few writing prompts. This has been my plan for these series of lessons. In fact, students will be tackling one more prompt in tomorrow’s lesson. This allows them to engage in the process of dissecting a prompt and establishing and developing an argument repeatedly, which is an example of the importance of writing routinely over shorter time frames as is expected in the Common Core, even if this is done at a smaller scale.
Several students are not quite done by the end of the period. I ask them to finish at home and be ready to turn it in tomorrow.