In my most recent post, I made the case against finding balance in life, but instead working to bring the ingredients of life together through blending. At the same time as the writing of that post, I found myself in chapter four of Dave Stuart Jr’s These 6 Things: How to Focus Your Teaching on What Matters Most.
As I was reading the book a little here, and writing that post a little there, a realization dawned on me: These 6 Things is a blessed picture of blending in the classroom. I think it was a mix of the timing of my post, all my prior experience with argument, but mostly that Dave Stuart Jr. just makes so much stinking sense (seriously, you should get the book), but I will now be using These 6 Things as a lens for how to make it all blend in my classroom.
Back when I was teaching AP Language and Composition, there was a time I discovered a great way to blend argument into my instruction in a way that would help train my students in several skills at once. I was teaching my students how to provide support for their arguments by using concrete and particular evidence versus hypothetical scenarios. I had noticed that my students believed they were supporting their claims when they were using rhetorical questions and hypothetical scenarios (i.e. “How would you feel if . . . ” and “imagine that X happened to your friend . . .”).
After a little bit of teaching with Hayakawa’s Ladder of Abstraction, my students were beginning to see the difference between concrete and abstract evidence. I was working to convince them that more concrete evidence equals a stronger and more memorable the argument (Years ago, this was my hunch, and was recently confirmed when I read Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick). The more abstract, the more hypothetical, the bigger the chance that an audience misunderstands the arguer’s point.
Over a series of three fishbowl discussions, I pushed my students to be more and more concrete. I even got to the point where I would call foul on students using hypotheticals as evidence, giving them a chance to reframe and try their argument again. When we would debrief, I would go over the fishbowl discussion and point out times when students were using concrete evidence to support their argument. Then I would make the crucial connection to their writing, especially in preparation for the argumentative free response question on the AP Lang exam.
That’s an example of how I was able to blend listening, speaking, argument, and writing into the classroom in a way that was relevant to their near future. Listening, speaking, and writing were the vehicles the students used to argue.
In These 6 Things chapter four, the reader gets far more examples of how to blend and weave argument into the classroom culture throughout the year. Argument is one of the 6 things, but Stuart blends and weaves in the other 5 things, showing how argument should be part of the classroom culture.
It all starts with what he calls “Earnest and Amicable Arguments.” Drawing from several key thinkers and researchers, Stuart distills all his conviction about argumentation into a bullet list that is on a poster on his classroom wall. With some minor tweaks, it reads something like this, “Earnest and Amicable Arguments . . .
- Get the bottom of things
- Are serious and focused conversations
- Aimed at making good decisions, not winning
- Put us at risk of altering our views
- Take seriously and fairly views that differ from our own
- Aim at resolution, not justifying our opinions
- Teach us to develop nuanced positions
If you’re looking at that list, you can see that in order to teach this to students so that they internalize it, the practice will have to be much, much more than a unit of study. It will have to be part of the culture in the classroom.
With that in mind, I find that one of the key strengths of the chapter–and its blendability–is that Stuart isn’t merely writing to the content area that is most connected with the practice of constructing arguments: English. He’s writing to entire faculties. He shows how essential questions can be framed around argument by using “Debatable Learning Targets.” And he demonstrates this in all content areas:
If this was how a teacher began a unit of study, while students were still building knowledge (one of the 6 things), then it would create a little bit more intrinsic motivation for the students to remember the knowledge they were building. A student wants to be ready to defend a position, and if the the teacher calls on them, then he or she better have some evidence on standby!
After that, the chapter moves on to describe how to get students arguing more through Pop-Up Debate. I was of the school of thought that students had to be facing each other in classroom discussion/debate, but this showed me a different, much more efficient way that packs just as much of an instructional wallop (and I don’t even have to move the furniture!). It’s boiled down to two basic rules: every students speaks (1x minimum, 2x maximum), and to speak, stand up and start talking (first one talking has the floor). He suggests this become a regular practice in class, and throughout the year there are ways to layer in deeper more amicable argumentative practices as well as ways to build public speaking skills through PVLEGS (for more on that, see my previous post HERE).
The other two suggestions he makes that will help improve the quality of argumentation in a class is to improve our prompts and to teach students to use the Paraphrase Plus. Improving our prompts comes from Les Lynn’s The Debatifier. Here are the five criteria we should be using to evaluate the effectiveness of our prompts:
- Openness–There’s more than one defensible and credible position.
- Balance–All sides are roughly equal in their defensibility.
- Focus–The prompt centers on a single idea or question.
- Authenticity–It’s something that people actually argue about in a discipline, in a culture, in the wider world.
- Intellectual Interest–It’s either immediately interesting to students (and you!) or likely to be through study.
If prompts and questions are framed with these five criteria in mind, the conversations among students about their learning can be so much richer and deeper than we have come to expect. But students won’t get to rich and deep argumentation on their own. They need scaffolding, and that comes in the form of the Paraphrase Plus (see Dave’s post HERE).
If students are going to be good arguers, they need to be good listeners. They need to be able to enter a conversation that is larger than their immediate interests, into a conversation that is taking place widely. To do that, they need to be able to hear what others are saying, and then indicate to everyone that they were listening. At that point, the students can bring their claims to bear in the context of that larger conversation. The Paraphrase Plus is just the way to do that.
There are many ways to blend in this element of earnest and amicable argument. The way to blend it in most seamlessly is in opportunities for speaking and listening, which happen during Socratic Seminars, class discussions, and think-pair-share. I will definitely be including this as a layer for my beefed-up version of think-pair-share known as the Ongoing Conversation Tracker.
At the end of each chapter of These 6 Things, Stuart concludes with a section titled “Better Together” where he suggests ways that the “things” he’s presenting can be a part of teams, departments, PLCs, and even entire schools. As I imagine the school that works to include “earnest and amicable argument” as a top priority for its students, I get really hopeful about the quality of learning and the quality of student who would graduate from such a place. In his closing words on chapter four, Stuart says, “Argument (and school) makes most sense for kids when argument is common throughout the school day. The more we can make this central thread of academia explicit to our kids, the more likely they are to build identities that include academic interests” (Stuart 132).
I agree. Now, prepare your prompts, and let’s set our argument instruction to “blend.”
What are the ways you blend argument in to your classroom culture? Any suggestions about how this can be taken school-wide?
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