The Argument Essay: A Contextual Pool Adventure

As the season of AP Lang exams fast approaches, I find myself more and more urgently seeking ways to help tighten gaps in my students’ skill sets.  Fine tuning writing skills is a part of it, but when it comes to one AP Lang task–the Open Argument essay–there are more pressing issues that are a bit harder to address for many of my young learners.  First, they have trouble with the connotations of language–words that elicit deep connections for us adults don’t necessarily inspire our inexperienced students.  Second, even when they can think of their own evidence (the major task of the argument essay), my students struggle to consider big concepts or to make abstract connections from their own contextual pools of knowledge.  

If you haven’t caught my last post (or Hattie’s!), this might seem like a casual dis aimed at my students.  But that’s not the case!  I love those lil scamps!  The issue is more about events beyond their control.  Namely, how much exposure they’ve had to a breadth of language and ideas.  Or, what Hattie and I like to refer to as a student’s “contextual pool.”  (Again, check out our earlier posts if you want to know more about this–or come to our Webinar next week for more tips if this post hits a sweet spot for you!)  A student’s existing knowledge influences a lot of their learning, really, but it’s rarely brought front and center the way it is with the argument prompt.

Unlike research essays, or lit analysis essays, or persuasive pieces my students might encounter in other classes, the AP Lang argument essay entails on-demand writing where the evidence comes entirely from whatever they’ve got stored up in the repository of their existing knowledge–their “contextual pool” is the only resource they have access to.  And the prompt is pretty clear about expectations:  

  • Provide evidence to support your line of reasoning.
  • Explain how the evidence supports your line of reasoning.

So for a prompt that could be anything, I have to prepare my students to produce good thinking and reasoning, and the evidence to support it, in a reasonable way…in 40 minutes.  So what sort of stuff do they need to be able to fish out of their pools on a moment’s notice?  ALL kinds of stuff!…history stuff, political stuff, science-y stuff, pop culture stuff.  Just any stuff that might come in handy if, say, the College Board decides to prompt them with something like “In a well organized essay, take a position on whether a dream is a wish your heart makes or a product of your subconscious as Freud proposed.”  Unlikely I know, but the topics can get seriously random.

Which is why this week I’m walking them through an activity to help them sharpen their approach to the “line of reasoning” in the argument prompt.  These aren’t writing lessons exactly.  They’re reasoning lessons and lessons about how to slow down and consider language and complex concepts more carefully before the writing starts.

(Un)Limiting Language

The first issue students face with ANY writing prompt is the question of its implications and what it asks them to consider.  For example, a prompt we wrote about in our notebooks asked about “the unknown,” which is a fantastically vague concept, but not so vague as to be meaningless (you can see the key phrasing on my slide below).  Some students wrote great arguments, but many more fell into the trap of mentally replacing “unknown” with “risky” because the prompt implies a scariness to things we don’t understand.  But “risk” and unexplored ideas and spaces are not synonymous!  

There are really two things my students have to wrestle with here:

  • Students with small vocabulary pools need to think hard about connotation–what’s a reasonable read of the prompt’s phrasing, and what strays too far from what the question is really asking them to consider?
  • What is the prompt really asking them to do?  Does it want them to apply the question in a broad way, or does it demand a narrowing of attention in order to create a clear-minded argument?

As the slide above suggests, the first thing students have to consider is what the phrasing of the prompt is really asking them to think about.  Many of my students latch on to “the unknown” and ignore the “value of exploring” part.  Which is how I end up with a lot of smiles dissolving in my room when I pose the question to them of what it means to “explore.”  Because it probably doesn’t mean going to your first job interview, however “unknown” that experience might feel to you.  This is partially a close reading issue, but it’s also to some extent about how big a student’s working vocabulary is.  As I discovered today, the limitations of what students conjure to mind when they see certain words and phrases can have a huge impact on their response to a prompt that to an adult might sound almost generic. 

Here are two other prompts my students have taken a crack at in the past week:

  • Write an essay that argues your position on the extent to which the tech tools we use show our individual and cultural values. 
  • Write an essay that argues your position on attaching legal fines to the amount of money someone makes.  (emphasis mine in both prompts)

Consider the prompt about how technology might influence our “individual and cultural values.”  One of my students asked if it would be okay to talk about society instead of culture–a connection my mind made automatically but they weren’t certain was a reasonable extension of the prompt.  Others struggled in much more problematic ways–in fact, a plurality of my writers failed to really name a “value” anywhere in their draft!  The concept was too blurry to students who haven’t been asked to think deeply before about the concept of values.  It’s an unfortunate reality that in many cases, our students aren’t asked to perform writing tasks very often that involve actual deep thinking. 

Think about how dense with connotation the “value” concept is.  There are THINGS you value, but that’s not what this question means.  Some students got as far as identifying things like “we value education which is why there are so many tech tools in schools.”  True, but “education” still falls a tad shy of identifying a value.  WHY do we invest in education as a society?  What in a student’s approach to reading this prompt would drive them all the way to asking that question of their own thinking?  

For that matter, when one of our novice readers–kids who rarely pick up books on their own–sees that word, does it fire up the neurons in their brain that it should?  Does the word “moral” light up?  Or “ethical”?  Or do concepts like social norms and community enter their thinking?  These are habits of adept, thoughtful readers, but our students don’t do them naturally unless we model that thinking visibly–and even then they’re somewhat limited by how many words they know and understand deeply.  

Compounding the issue of interpreting the language of the prompt is the need to make a judgment call about whether to consider it across a wide spectrum or a narrow focus.  The unknown pretty obviously implies a wide range of considerations, but most of my students failed to recognize all of the things they might consider with the “values” prompt!  And many of my writers didn’t realize that the prompt about fines tethered to a person’s income is a narrow topic but still allows (demands!) consideration of related areas like taxation, as well as broader concepts like the intent of law and punishment, social contracts and all sorts of other things.  We have to talk to students about how to think about hard topics before we can expect them to consider them deeply.  These are dense skills that require lots of low stakes practice.

From Interpreting to Crafting

The second step we’re working on when it comes to the open argument prompt is how to apply their own vocabulary to the prompt when it comes to both crafting their own thesis–which needs to be more specific and complex than the prompt’s language–and outlining their line of reasoning.  While there’s not a lot I can do to expand their vocabularies at this point in the year, we can do LOTS of work with considering how they can put their existing language knowledge to more strategic work.  

For this part of the activity, I have all of my students start from a shared thesis–for the unknown prompt we chose one from a “medium” scoring essay that sort of lost its way in the line of reasoning despite a great thesis:  Exploring the unknown is a rewarding, if initially terrifying experience.   Thus, venturing into the unknown is a worthwhile experience for the maturity and  growth it can  provide.

Working from that language, I ask my students to work in groups to craft subclaims that would establish an effective line of reasoning for that argument.  You can see some of their effective examples below.  The highlighting was something I added after they’d done their work:  One of the skills I want them to develop is the idea of using language in a way that “echoes” or “resonates” throughout a piece of writing.  Many of my writers completely lose track of their core argument as they start racing to get all of their ideas onto paper.  Starting with subclaims that establish the language of their own argument, the connections between the ideas, and the relationship to the original prompt is the most practical solution to this issue.  

For many of my writers, it’s the first time they’ve been asked to use language this purposefully and carefully.  My non-readers struggle the most with it because synonyms don’t come easily and connotative connections aren’t always obvious.  Giving my writers the chance to play with language this way helps them begin to tease out the subtleties of words.  There’s more work to be done in the weeks to come, but this activity hopefully helps some students learn how to slow down and consider how words–the prompts and their own–influence their thinking.

–Mike

How do you help students think more deeply about writing prompts? Let us know on Facebook or reach out to me on Twitter @ZigThinks

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