Teaching From My Twitter Feed: Developing Messy Arguments

twitter feed

Last year about this time, this article from the New York Times showed up in my Twitter feed. I clicked on it because I was intrigued by the title (“Extensive Data Shows Punishing Reach of Racism for Black Boys”) but when I realized that the article was all moving data, I knew my students would be equally fascinated (Click on the link..I promise it’s worth one of your 5 free NYT articles for the month. And it’s almost April if it’s not). I used it as a notebook prompt because my AP Language students were working on how to read visuals, and it was perfect for that. Quickly, our notebook time exploded as kids started piping up with questions: “What about X?” and “How does Y happen?” Looking closely at the data was sparking all kinds of messy questions–questions that didn’t have yes or no answers, questions that required weighing evidence, critiquing perspectives, and thinking about the biases we bring to any argument.

THOSE are the kinds of arguments I want my writers and researchers exploring in my classes.  

Unfortunately, one thing I’ve learned from teaching research and debate classes is that our hyper-partisan world is creating students who want to see the world as black and white. The language of the Common Core hasn’t really helped, either. I think our desire to get kids to explore counterarguments has, in some instances, sent the message that every argument has a clear counter that can (and must!) be shot down. They’re quick to jump to sites like ProCon.org, look for evidence to support their position, cherry-pick a few weaker arguments for the other side to which they can respond, and tie the whole thing up with a perfect little black and white bow.

Articles rich in visual data make it easy for students to see that there’s a whole lotta grey out there. They have to grapple with the reality that a chart may produce concrete numbers, but when set against another set of numbers or read through a different lens, the argument shifts.  

So Where Do We Find These Kinds of Articles?

Twitter keeps dumping them in my lap, honestly.

Here’s one that @TriciaEbarvia shared yesterday about gerrymandering in North Carolina:

One Way To Spot A Partisan Gerrymander

I found another one about land use that raised all kinds of fascinating questions with my students about what we value in our country:

Here’s How America Uses Its Land

And they’re not all serious. Here’s an interesting one about March Madness that I haven’t used but could likely spark some lively discussion about how students complete their brackets:

Do ‘one-and-done’ teams succeed in March?

Ever since I started paying attention, I realized stories like these are in my Twitter feed quite often. Recently I started following the graphics accounts of a bunch of news organizations, too. I highly recommend those as they often tweet out these types of articles:

  • @nytgraphics
  • @postgraphics
  • @BBGVisualData
  • @BBCNewsGraphics

So What Do You Do Once You Find A Good, Data-Rich Article?

The Easiest Option

I think notebook time or a short class discussion can be an easy way to use any of these articles. I used this data-rich piece about mass incarceration in my AP Seminar class last fall to begin a unit about justice. I put the article up on the projector and we walked through it as a group. The students unpacked each graph and chart together, then responded in their notebooks. All of those responses are ideas they can return to later when given the opportunity to come up with a research question or topic.

Slightly More Commitment

If you have more time, though, articles like these can lay the groundwork for a larger research writing task. I like to have students annotate charts and graphs just like they might a complicated, dense text.  Instead of just responding verbally and discussing, take some time to highlight things that surprise you, make notes in the margins of understandings you have, jot down questions you need answered.

This exercise has a two-fold benefit. First, I’ve found students are more willing to annotate on charts and graphs (Maybe because it’s already visual? Maybe because there is more white space on the page?) and so this is a good “on ramp” to annotating for my more reluctant students. They have a chance to practice reading actively on a text that feels less intimidating to them.  The other benefit is the depth of thinking it produces. Sometimes we only have time to journal and talk about our noticings, but when we take the time to annotate and pick the graphs and charts apart a little independently first, the discussion inevitably deepens.

The Big Reach

Full disclosure–I’ve not done this yet, but I will soon. If someone gets to it before me, let me know how it goes!! The biggest reach with this type of text is, of course, to use it as a mentor text. Why couldn’t students write their own data-rich articles like these instead of a traditional research paper? I think the exercise of having to piece together an argument both with visuals and words would be a great one, albeit a really challenging one.

Our students need us to give them opportunities to practice wading into all of the messiness of good arguments. Data-rich articles are an easy first step in.

–Hattie

How do you encourage students to consider all the complicated nuances of an argument? What are you doing with data-rich articles in your classroom? I’d love to hear what you’re up to! Connect with me in the comments below, on Twitter @TeacherHattie, or on the Moving Writers Facebook page.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for these great resources on Twitter. The NY Times recently offered “Statistics Across Subjects: Teach with Graphs” which is available as a webcast on demand. The aggregated data on climate change is particularly useful right now. They feature a new chart/graph/data-rich resource regularly.

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