Like Rebekah, Allison, and probably many of you, I am a big fan of Kelly Gallagher’s work. In fact, a colleague and I structured our freshman curriculum to mirror the writing scaffold in his book Write Like This: our first freshman writing assignments encourage students to “express and reflect” in personal narratives, assignments throughout the year ask students to “inform and explain,” “evaluate and judge,” “inquire and explore,” “analyze and interpret,” and now, one of the last assignments of the year, a persuasive research-based speech, requires students to “take a stand and propose a solution” about an issue that matters to them.
As part of the assignment, students work with research databases in our library, many of which have helpful “Pro/Con” features that make “taking a stand” with appropriate evidence pretty easy. While working with students on the assignment last year, however, I started to realize that my approach was too prescriptive; my schedule for the assignment asked students to decide where they stood on an issue before beginning their research. So much for encouraging open minds! Thankfully, I had the good work of Kelly Gallagher, Rebekah O’Dell, and Allison Marchetti to help me develop a new, more organic approach to beginning our research process.
In his most recent book, In the Best Interest of Students, Gallagher, citing the work of George Hillocks, reminds teachers that “Argument doesn’t start with a claim; argument starts with data” (89). Gallagher provides a useful example to illustrate his point, but that first sentence was all I needed to set me down a new path. Inspired by Allison and Rebekah’s use of raw data for notebook time, Rebekah’s infographic study, and the great infographics many of you have shared on Twitter, I introduced our argumentative writing assignment with a day of infographic exploration.
Lead By Example:
I started class by demonstrating an infographic study of my own. I used “Obesity in America, By the Numbers,” an extensive infographic from NPR, to demonstrate how infographics can inspire questions of fact, questions of value, and questions of policy–the three types of questions my students learned about at the beginning of our persuasive writing study. I knew that this infographic’s topic could be a sensitive issue that made some students self-conscious, so during my class presentation, I tried to focus on data about portion sizes and changes in eating habits rather than weight. I talked through my inquiry process and also shared my questions in a handout.
Explore and Report:
Using our school’s digital classroom platform, I shared links to several other infographics, including another NPR study, “Poverty in the Us by the Numbers” that is no longer published online. Students used their personal devices or some iPads borrowed from our library to access the infographics. Here are links to two of the most popular:
Students chose an infographic and used the next page of the handout to list their own questions of fact, value, and policy related to the infographic. Next, they collaborated with classmates to post their best questions on the whiteboards around my room. Once all questions were posted, the students and I could discuss whether the questions were appropriate for their category and where we could find information to answer them.
Go Forth and Search!
Students’ homework for the night (and our spring break) was to use our research databases to find infographics or other statistical charts related to their research topics and create a list of questions based on that data. Upon our return to school, students and I discovered that if students searched for answers to their questions of fact, they inevitably developed answers to their questions of value or policy, which in turn would direct them toward the best direction for their argument. So long, prescriptive writing prompt! Hello, organic and authentic arguments!
My freshmen just finished a week of writing workshop for their persuasive speeches, and some of the most delightful moments of the process have been when students approach, brows creased, to tell me that they can’t decide which side of the argument to support. Their data-inspired research has helped them to see issues from a variety of perspectives. At first, my goofy-grinned response probably annoys them, but the more they work on their speech scripts, the more they realize that, when it comes to writing sound arguments, being able to see an issue from more than one angle is a terribly wonderful problem to have.
How do you jumpstart argumentative writing in your classroom? What other ways do you use infographics and data to stimulate student writing? Leave a comment below, connect with me on Twitter @msjochman, or find us on Facebook!