Both of my grandfathers were farmers in Upstate New York which means that for me barns should be red and span three levels. The main floor should be at the same elevation as the road so trucks and trailers can be loaded and unloaded easily, the lower level should open to pasture and farm land and house livestock and farm equipment, and the upper level store hay for said livestock (and perhaps the building of hideaways and forts). I loved both of my grandfathers’ barns and I have many memories of climbing up to dizzying heights and jumping through trap doors. The secret (sometimes forbidden) spaces offered so much potential for adventure as a child and I can remember playing even in winter while my Grandfather DeBrine tinkered in his barn workshop. For me, the word workshop will always conjure that space where he could work on his ancient tractor or a wooden sled while I played and dreamed. Even though that barn and its workshop was sold out of our family decades ago, I still think about those tools and workbench when I create a writing workshop with my students and help them construct and fill their own toolkits. I want my classroom to be a writing workshop where serious work and play can exist simultaneously.
I earned my bachelor’s degree in August 1987. I taught my first college writing class in the Fall of 1999. I became a National Writing Project teacher in June 2008. I earned my Ph.D. in August 2011. Interwoven through those milestone events I have written countless articles, reports, opinion pieces, and features for newspaper, magazine, and web publications as well as books. I have written for local and regional publications in New York and Kentucky as well as national and global audiences. I am a writer and an avid consumer of the written word and since the Fall of 1999 I have been in the business of making writers. This blog documents that journey over the course of more than 400 posts. This specific blog post is about how I teach argument writing to my students. I listed my credentials at the top to underscore both how that process evolved and the forces that influenced it because this post is part of the ongoing fight for the heart and soul of the college writing classroom.
Every semester since I began teaching college writing I have believed that my class was one of the most important classes my students would ever take in college. I know that writing can impact my students’ lives as students, as professionals, as citizens, and as humans. I have fought against a rising tide of disposable writing assignments and emphasis on rice crispy writing from the five-paragraph essay to the formal argument. I am a formally trained rhetorician and I love the scope and scale of rhetoric and hate that it has such a bad reputation in the modern day – especially when it comes to argument. From speech to the written word, we have lost touch with the importance of argumentation to our ability to function in community. I am required to teach argument writing, but the truth is that I would teach it anyway. I teach argument because I believe that everything is an argument but also because the vast majority of people do not understand why arguments matter.
Before the Arguments
I begin my Writing I and Writing II classes with a focused narrative argument that many people know as a This I Believe essay. During this process we begin our journey together as writers and establish the ways that our community and workshop will work. Along the way we engage in authentic writing and also learn about claims and evidence and our rhetorical context – especially understanding our audience and purpose. We also have fun with our words and our community while engaged in this very important and serious work.
The second unit of both my Writing I and Writing II classes is rhetorical analysis because “learning to look underneath the hood of a piece of text for meaning and motivation is important for rhetoricians and humans.” Throughout our rhetorical analysis unit we use a variety of tools to dig into a variety of texts and so many students reflect that this process opens their eyes so they will never again engage with a text the same way again. For that alone our rhetorical analysis unit would be worthwhile, but in addition my students are continuing to develop their writing and rhetorical toolkits – while also having fun with our words and our community.
During the Arguments
Transitioning into the formal argument unit required by our program was easy thanks to all the community building, skill development, and growth as writers and rhetoricians. We began our work as we always begin – with writing and sharing and conversation. For two weeks we prepared to craft good faith arguments by first writing about the problems we encounter in our daily lives as we move about our communities and then digging into those problems by exploring the symptoms, root causes, and ecosystems of those problems. As we wrote and shared and discussed in class, I also introduced the idea of argumentation as inquiry – as a dynamic process that changes as arguments develop, as a tool we can use when an issue is uncertain and important, because arguments are not about winning a debate but problem solving as a community. As we explored the problems my students identified in their writing sessions, everyone was on fire – about their problems and the problems of their classmates as well as the many overlaps and intersections.
The next stage in our process was to open a conversation with others facing the same (or similar) problems and really expand the texts we use (because I am textbook free). We began with Solutions Story Tracker to find a mentor text that offers insight into the problem a student has chosen to explore as well as to study as both a writer and rhetorician. I have adapted Liz Prather’s “15 Ways to Look at a Mentor Text” to also include a study of style (inspired by several Writing Commons readings that also included organization, transition, introductions, and conclusions) as well as the Harris moves supported by the National Writing Project’s College, Career, and Community Writer’s Program. I also lean on solutions journalism to support my framing of argumentation as inquiry and to establish that our academic exercise is connected to real world writing.
Then things get really real as I introduce researching and writing an argument as joining an ongoing conversation. These activities and lessons are inspired by my work with the National Writing Project’s work on teaching argument writing. Students set a table for a conversation about their chosen problem with the help of their Solutions Story Tracker mentor text, an episode of the BBC Podcast The Inquiry, and a targeted TED Talk as well as a traditional academic source. I love how these sources show students how to weave narrative and fact to tell a story. I do not want my students to get so lost in the research and crafting of an argument that they lose touch with the fact they are writers who need to bring their audience into the conversation as well.
After students started these good faith conversations about possible solutions to their chosen problem we focused on one question to begin their argument essays: what needs fixing? In class we also explored ways to organize their conversation/arguments (formal argument structure, problem-solution format, etc.) and worked on integrating source material with our arguments. By the end of this work my students had assembled inquiry drafts in preparation for our inquiry process (or class workshop).
After the Arguments
While the formal argument essay is the central focus of Writing II at my institution, I do not want it to be the culminating experience of a class where we have worked so hard to find joy in our writing and community. For several years my Writing II students ended the semester with a game jam where students created/hacked games. This year as my praxis has shifted and our capacity has diminished (I see you endemic pandemic), our end-of-semester project offered students the choice of hacking/creating a game or embracing one of the options offered by the What If unit I used to wrap up Writing I. My instructions to my students were to have fun, delight me and our community, and to take risks without fear of consequence because this unit was not about the perfection or success of their project but instead the lessons they learned along the way and shared through their final reflection. Some students chose to focus on the challenges of their argument essay while others returned to earlier units for their inspiration. The point of the project was to engage in authentic writing with a practical demonstration of the skills and lessons they learned and then reflect on those lessons. That is how I wrapped write with my students and helped us all land softly. Their games, poetry, and other projects did delight me and their classmates, but it was their final reflections that made me laugh and cry and celebrate the writing community we had created. While my classroom workshop continues to be a work in progress, I know that I have achieved a space where serious work and play can exist simultaneously while writers are made.
My methods for teaching argument writing are heavily influenced by the National Writing Project’s College, Career, and Community Writer’s Program, but they are also informed by my experience as a writer – especially as a journalist. You can learn more ways of teaching argument from the National Writing Project by becoming a National Writing Project teacher leader, joining the Write Now Teacher Studio, or taking one of NWP’s courses. Creating writers matters. Teaching argument matters. Creating writers and teaching argument matters to humans as individuals and as communities. How do you support this essential work? How do you balance teaching argument and supporting a joyful community of writers? What does your writing workshop look like in your mind?