The Weekly Text, December 8, 2017

For the past couple of years, I’ve strived to conceive of a unit or two on argumentation. It has turned out to be a complicated and tricky endeavor, and I remain in struggle with several issues in its conception and execution: first and foremost, for whom am I writing this? Argumentation involves a high degree of abstraction, which is hard to adapt and differentiate, yet I have a duty to my students who struggle. Is this philosophical work in logic and epistemology, or an English Language Arts unit on rhetoric? What is the difference between a thesis and an argument? How does one postulate a thesis? How does the process of argumentation proceed? What logical progression should the lessons in a unit on argumentation follow?

This year, I am finally writing this unit. I wish I could tell you it is going smoothly, but I continue to wrestle with a lot of the issues set out above. Furthermore, despite an extensive search for books on teaching argumentation to high school students, I’ve tended to turn up either highly technical books (Stephen Toulmin’s The Uses of Argument) or relatively tedious and superficial manuals like George Hillocks’ Teaching Argument Writing, Grades 6-12, which I found a complete waste of my time.

My fingers began typing the cliche “In the end” to begin this paragraph. However, I instantly realized that I am nowhere near the end of thinking about the issues involved in planning this kind of instruction. In fact, I expect that I’ll continue to work at these materials, either revising them, or adapting and differentiating them, for years to come.

For the moment, however, I have decided that the first unit (of two planned) will be on the rhetoric of argumentation. Fortunately, there is an excellent book to inform the materials I’m developing, namely Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. The authors supply an assortment of rhetorical templates that students may use–either directly in their own writing, or as guides to developing their own rhetorical moves in the kinds of papers high school and college classes require them to write.

In any case, one of the first things I noticed as I began teaching argumentation was–and is, alas–that students didn’t understand the difference between an argument and a quarrel. I knew I needed to begin by resolving that confusion.

That said, the first lesson in Unit 1 of Arguing Your Case (as I am calling these two units) is designed simply to help students differentiate between arguments and quarrels. Here is the lesson plan for differentiating between quarrels and arguments. I begin all my lessons, to ease the transition between classes, with a do-now exercise. For this lesson, you might want to use (since with any work on argumentation, we endeavor to endow our students with the skills to participate in academic discourse–which is what they do in most if not all of the papers they write) this context clues worksheet on the noun discourse. The mainstay of the lesson is this worksheet on distinguishing between quarrels and arguments. Finally, you might find useful the teacher’s copy of the worksheet.

If you find typos in these documents, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.

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