Reader Mail: Teaching Writers to Use Copious, Persuasive Evidence

We recently received this email from Angela in South Dakota:

I am writing about a podcast interview that you did with Talks with Teachers. You had mentioned you did a unit on using text evidence, and it hit me at my heart as my students struggle with providing relevant evidence in their writing. I searched your blog tags and did not find any resources. Would you be able to share some advice or do a blog post on ways to help students who struggle with this?

So far I have had them do some self-review and peer review on their own writing. They are just starting to see that they aren’t being effective in their use after the fact. I wish they would be more productive during writing to self-check and self-review their work. I know some of that is age and disability getting in the way.

One of my big goals for my SpEd students is to be able to have an opinion but also be able to give reasons so text evidence is important!

I’m going to make a bold statement: evidence is the biggest weakness in student writing. Copious, persuasive evidence and unique, compelling voice are the two elements of writing that have most distinctly separated my student writers from the pros.

Yes, text evidence. But also so much more.

Evidence is anything a writer uses to support the purpose of her piece of writing.

“Whoa, Rebekah”, you’re thinking. “That’s pretty broad.”

You’re right. It is. Intentionally so. Students are traditionally taught that evidence can be 1) quotes from a text and/or 2) research. Consequently, we get to teach finding-and-using evidence twice: when we teach literary analysis and when we teach research writing. And students practice this skill only a few times per school year, depending on how many literary analysis or research papers they write.

No writer gets better at using a technique without constant practice.

But, when we broaden the definition of evidence, when we teach that evidence is critical in every genre of writing, students suddenly have an opportunity to practice thoroughly incorporating evidence into every single thing they write.

When you think about it, evidence is really at the heart of so many of the problems we see in student writing:

  • When we feel a student hasn’t actually proven her claim, it’s because she doesn’t have sufficient evidence.
  • When we ask a student to elaborate in his memoir, we are really asking him to add evidence in the form of concrete details and figurative language that will allow the reader the experience this memory alongside the writer.
  • When a critic lacks evidence, she might be missing the connections and comparisons a reader needs to understand the writer’s stance.

How do we teach this broad understanding of evidence?

These days, I teach about the evidence writers use in each genre study of our year. When we study poetry, we look for poets’ evidence. When we study memoir, we search for memoirists’ evidence. Ditto commentary, review, analytical writing.

But a few years ago, when I first noticed this big gap in all student writing, I taught a technique study solely on evidence.In March of that year, I realized that in every writing genre of the year, students had lacked in the ability to support the purpose of their writing. In this study, students could write in any genre they wanted, and using oodles of compelling evidence was the only requirement.Here’s how the unit went:
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A Lesson for Tomorrow: Writing Like Crime Scene Investigators

I cringed as I listened to a former student explain how her teacher grades discussion.

“You have to talk three times to even be graded,” she said, swirling the last inch of iced coffee in her plastic cup. “And you can’t ask questions. Questions show that you haven’t thought something through enough to talk about it.”

I’ve been in that kind of discussion before. It moves a mile a minute, but somehow it doesn’t feel like it moves at all. Students talk in circles, offering half-formed ideas that still need to percolate.

In my head, I played devil’s advocate with her teacher:

  • What if we didn’t “force” analysis right away?
  • What if we gave students more time to collect evidence and let it percolate?
  • What if we spent more time on the brink of discovery?

Donald Murray says, “The writing act begins with the collection of the raw material of writing, information that will be arranged into meaning by the act of writing.” Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Ken Tucker’s Review of Pharrell’s New Album

MentorTextWednesday

Mentor Text: Tucker, Ken. “Pharrell Williams: Just Exhilaratingly Happy”. 6 March 2014. npr.org. 

Technique: Using Figurative Language as Evidence

Background: 

Ken Tucker read his review of Pharrell’s new album on Fresh Air as I drove home after work one Friday. “A MENTOR TEXT!” I screeched. (Literally.) And sometimes — the most wonderful times — we find mentor texts this way, in moments of spontaneous inspiration, rather than hours of deep searching.

In my current workshop on the technique of using evidence, my students are prone to view evidence only in its driest iterations —  for them, statistics are evidence. Quotes from the text are evidence. Expert testimony is evidence.

But I want them to see that evidence is anything in our writing that illustrates or supports the point we are trying to make, the perspective we are trying to present. Evidence is both the logical facts we present and the playful way we mold our language.

What jumped out at me as I listened was Tucker’s use of figurative language. When we use figurative language — making comparisons, using idioms, engaging in hyperbole — we are supporting our point in a different way. We are illustrating our perspective by helping the reader make connections. I was struck by this particular piece because Tucker’s review wasn’t a lilting narrative. It wasn’t a “This I Believe” essay. This was a critical review using figurative language to illustrate its point to incredible effect.

How I Used It: 

I used it really simply.

I gave students a definition of figurative language & five kinds of figurative language on which to hone in:

Figurative Language: Language that is not literal. In other words, it doesn’t mean exactly what it says.

  • Simile: a comparison between two unlike things using “like” or “as”

  • Metaphor: a comparison between two unlike things without using like or as.

  • Personification: giving human qualities to an inhuman object

  • Hyperbole: extreme exaggeration used for effect

  • Idiom: common, local sayings that don’t have a literal meaning

We chatted about these — sharing examples. I then asked students where they expected to see figurative language. Naturally, they expected to see it predominately in narrative. And that’s true.

But my goal was to show them how this can work in genres other than narrative.

I pulled up Ken Tucker’s review – it was perfect timing since the album is new and Pharrell recently performed on the Oscar’s. It also worked well because though students are familiar with Pharrell, most had not heard the songs mentioned in this excerpt.

I asked them to zoom in on the second paragraph to see where they could locate examples of figurative language:

“Brand New” is a song that dares you to think of it as brand new, as opposed to a canny recasting of riffs reminiscent of the Jackson 5. Pharrell is so confident in his ability to beguile you as producer, songwriter and singer, he all but buries the major guest star on that track:Justin Timberlake. Even when Pharrell dares to come off as slightly predatory, as in “Hunter” — about tracking a woman — it’s all done in the mildest manner possible. “Hunter” is also one of the high points of this album, with a rubber-band rhythm that stretches and snaps with witty elasticity. His high voice can remind you of Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye, as can a few of his musical hooks, but his tone is also pleasantly ghostly, wafting in and out of a melody with sinuousness that can be sly or sexy or serene.

The students found:

  • “buries the major guest star”
  • “rubber-band rhythm that stretches and snaps with witty elasticity”
  • “his tone is also pleasantly ghostly, wafting in and out of a melody …”

After we located these examples, we talked about their connotation — what they make us think of, how we connect to them and what it makes us understand about music we have never heard.

Figurative language is not your standard kind of evidence — nevertheless, the well-placed use of figurative language can help the reader see a new perspective, understand a new topic, or “hear” a new album in a way the reader couldn’t otherwise.

Mentor Text Wednesday: China’s Web Junkies Op-Doc

MentorTextWednesday

Mentor Text: “China’s Web Junkies,” an Op-Doc from The New York Times

Skill: Using evidence to support a position

Background:

Every year it seems that more and more of my students are denouncing Facebook. They talk about it freely during passing time as they unpack their bags. “You’re still on? I’ve been off for a while now. It’s pointless.”

“Yeah,” another student chimes in. “It was ruining my life.”

Sometimes the things we hear our students say in passing can be great fodder for important classroom and life lessons. This is one of those conversations worth bringing into the classroom.

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