Classrooms: Crafting a written argument

  • heather hay

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Western Massachusetts Writing Project has offered me a lot of personal and professional adventures since 2011.

I started with the WMWP Summer Institute, and then I became a teacher-consultant in the Ludlow school dist rict. I wrote a Chalk Talk article in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, and I was even a co-author of a science textbook designed for Department of Youth Services students.

Usually before I plan any vacations, I look to the writing project calendar for opportunities to spend at least part of my time productively. This summer, for example, it was the Teachers as Writers: Memoirs workshop that caught my attention and engaged me as a writer.

Another of this past summer’s WMWP “activities” that I took part in was a four-day program called College, Career, and Community Writing Project (known as the C3WP project), with a focus on “Routine Argument Writing” as way to bring critical thinking and analytical skills into the classroom. This program is funded by a grant administered by the National Writing Project.

I was joined in the project by 19 teachers, coaches, administrators, and two wonderful facilitators. The days were long indeed, full of reading and writing and reflection, but it was well worth the investment.

Our group dissected, discussed, and repurposed many of the mini-units available on the new C3WP website. These teaching units can be brief (two days) or extensive (two weeks) depending on the skills of the students and the assessments, which revolve around answering essential questions, annotating readings, or writing various forms of text, including public writing like letters to the editor in local newspapers.

I have chosen to develop two mini-units to teach the first half of the year in environmental science. These students are freshman who need constant feedback and support in their argument writing. The first mini-unit I am using this semester is called “Wild Horses” and it is an exercise in “On Demand Argument Writing,” in which students make a claim, skim five different readings, share, reread the articles, annotate, and fill in a “They Say, I Say, and Good Evidence” table that documents the path of their argument.

The next mini-unit I have planned for environmental science is “Ranking Evidence” for evolution. I created my own text-set that includes excerpts from the Bible, Darwin’s Origin of Species, Lamarcke, as well as pieces on DNA, and fossil evidence. Students will mine the texts and do activities like “I Do, We Do” and jigsawing.

To support growth and peer interactions, students will evaluate the arguments of others using tools from the C3WP online toolbox. I am looking forward to finding out what my students think is the best evidence of evolution! Those should be interesting discussions.

The second half of the year, I will be working with more experienced writers — juniors and seniors — in anatomy and physiology class.

The mini-units I chose to support the anatomy curriculum are more complex, reflecting the ability and expectations of older learners. The first will be Extended Argument Writing “Cancer Treatments.”

I have put together a text set that explores the efficacy of radiation, chemotherapy, holistics and immunotherapy. Students will use several techniques to read, analyze and write an argument providing evidence for the “best” treatment. The focus on the instruction and summative assessment is to support and assist in the process of evidence selection.

The longest C3WP mini-unit I will use is Coming to Terms with Opposing Viewpoints. “Dissection as a Teaching Tool” is the topic that will be researched. The viewpoints I chose for the students to read are PETA, Carolina Biology Supply, and the National Science Teachers Association. I will be looking for nuanced arguments and have a final assessment of a letter addressed to the principal of our high school.

Participating in the WMWP program has been rewarding in so many ways. I found it especially timely as I am now writing curriculum incorporating the new STEM standards with the new ELA/core curriculum standards.

Brainstorming topics with my classmates and using the expertise of others has been an enriching experience. Routine Argument Writing has extended my role as a science facilitator and writing teacher and it should provide untold benefits to my students.

Heather Hay has taught science at Ware Junior Senior High School for 17 years and is a teacher consultant with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project.