Beginning AP Argument Writing – Letter to the Editor

Today’s guest post is from our friend, Betsy Reid. Betsy is a colleague of Moving Writers founders Rebekah and Allison at Trinity Episcopal School, where she teaches AP Language and Composition
and serves as the head of the department. For the past 20 years, she has taught all grades and levels in both public and private settings in Virginia and North Carolina. Betsy graduated with a B.A. from Meredith College in 1995 and obtained her Masters in Educational Leadership from VCU
in 2008. Most recently, she was a contributor to
Argument in the Real World by Troy Hicks and Kristen Turner (set for November release.) Join her on Twitter @ReadBReid Wednesday nights for #APLangChat and follow her classroom adventures on Instagram @mrsreid_tes.

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Photo of Betsy & her writers courtesy of David Ready, Trinity Episcopal School

 

“What’s the worst that could happen?”

If you are a Moving Writers regular, then you recognize these words. Rebekah has made some of her most important teaching discoveries while repeating this mantra, and just a few weeks ago, I did the same.

Rebekah’s room at school is just like the kitchen at a party: It’s in the middle of everything, and everyone wants to stop in. I learn something new every time I walk in the door, and if it’s not busy-mom life hacks like online grocery ordering or kid dessert ideas, it’s something about writing.

I walked in one day early this year when I was struggling with making a fundamental change in the way I teach writing in AP Language. I had taken a good, long look at The AP Chief Reader report, and it spoke to my heart. I had been teaching with the College Board-provided sample essays and rubrics, and I finally realized that my student’s writing mentors were anonymous student essays from AP Central. They were developing arguable screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-8-37-09-amclaims, but few that they really felt passionately about. They were Integrating conflicting viewpoints, but they sounded inauthentic. The were explaining how rhetorical choices work but they were not making these choices for themselves in their own writing.

Basically, my students were seeing professional writing as something far-off; it was something to analyze, but not something they could ever achieve for themselves. I looked at Rebekah and said I thought it was time for a change, and some serious mentor texting. Of course, she said,

“What’s the worst that could happen?”

________________

Nothing makes my teaching day better than when I think of a lesson that will have students practice several skills in one shot. In my beginning AP writing assignment, I wanted them to show me all that they had learned since the first day of school:

  • To be able to access and read closely from national and local news sites
  • To have an opinion on something that matters to them
  • To defend it using the elements of argument
  • To demonstrate their knowledge of basic rhetorical strategies by employing them in their own writing

I decided to go big by starting small: The Letter to the Editor.

Here was my process: Continue reading

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Sequencing and Scaffolding Writing Studies

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Eighth grader Hugh works on his letter to the editor.

Whether you work with students for two years or are searching for an effective way to organize writing instruction in your classroom, you have no doubt thought about sequencing your writing studies so they build on one another.

This year I have the privilege of teaching a group of 8th graders whom I will also teach as ninth graders next year. One of my challenges has been in sequencing my writing curriculum to meet my students where they are now and anticipate where they will be next year.

Below is a snapshot of the studies I am teaching this year in 8th and 9th grade.

8th Grade Writing 9th Grade Writing
Interviews (The American Teenager Project) Interviews
Poetry Memoir
Narrative Scene Critical Review
Letter to the Editor Commentary
Short Fiction Poetry
Literary Analysis: Short Fiction Literary Analysis: Poetry
Multigenre Project Photo Essay

As you can see, students in grades 8 and 9 are exposed to a variety of modes: each year, they explore narrative, expository, argument, analysis and digital writing. I teach some genres in both years — interview and poetry, for example.

I plan for 8th and 9th grade simultaneously so that the 9th grade curriculum picks up where the 8th grade curriculum leaves off. For example:

  • In 9th grade, we circle back to narrative writing with memoir, and then move through a series of writing studies that provide an opportunity to review and extend what was learned in the previous year.
  • The 9th grade poetry unit builds on the 8th grade poetry unit by introducing formal verse and meter.
  • Both 8th and 9th graders practice literary analysis, but the 9th graders are asked to do the more challenging of the two genres: poetry analysis.
  • The 9th grade Commentary study continues naturally from the Letter to the Editor unit in which students are first shown how to write strong claims with supporting reasons and evidence. Below is a snapshot of the mini-lessons about literary craft taught during both studies.
Grade 8 Letter to the Editor Study Grade 9 Commentary Study
Formatting a letter Crafting a strong and arguable claim
Crafting a strong claim in response to a piece of writing Providing reasons that support your claim
Using examples and anecdotes to support your claim Using different types of evidence (example, anecdote, statistic, expert testimony) to support your reasons
Acknowledging the other side Using concession and counterargument
Using transitional words and phrases Creating cohesion with transitions and key words

I like to think of commentary writing as the older sibling of letters to the editor. Both require students to take a stance, but commentary writing requires students to:

  • sustain an argument for several pages
  • develop paragraphs more fully
  • incorporate outside research
  • have a strong understanding of alternative viewpoints

Because of the way in which commentary builds on LTEs, the two genres make for an excellent two-year study, or even a back-to-back study in a single-year course in which students need more scaffolding.

The LTE/Commentary sequence reminds me to find bridges that exist between genres and plan with these bridges in mind.

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Some of my 8th graders are starting to look and write like 9th graders.

As you begin to plan for the spring, consider setting aside some time to think through the sequencing of your units of study. Are they arranged to maximize student learning? To give students a chance to review before learning something new? To help students make connections between studies and across grades and disciplines? The following tips may help you and your colleagues plan.

Be vertical and horizontal.

Talk to your colleagues in the grades below and above you about the types of writing their students are doing. Create bridges between years by selecting genres that build on the ones that precede and follow it.

Expose students to a variety of modes.

With your colleagues, brainstorm all of the genres that fit within the following modes of writing: narrative, expository, argument, analysis, and digital. Agree to teach 1-2 genres within each mode every year.

Use common language.

Across your department (better yet, across your whole school) agree upon the terms and phrases you will use to describe writing to students. For example, claim, central argument, and thesis mean essentially the same thing. But will your students become confused when they hear their 9th grade teacher using the term claim and their 10th grade teaching using the term thesis? To avoid confusion and establish consistency, create a one-pager that details the language you will use to discuss writing across grades and disciplines.

Create lessons that build towards greater complexity.

In the Letter to the Editor/Commentary comparison above, you’ll notice that the lessons in the right column mirror the lessons in the right column but with an added layer of sophistication. For example, 8th graders must be able to acknowledge the other side of the argument, but 9th graders must take the next steps in making a concession and then refuting the claim. Create and arrange lessons that provide opportunities for review and extension.

How do you sequence writing studies in your classroom? If you teach students for two years, how do you create bridges between the years while differentiating instruction? How do you collaborate with colleagues to ensure cohesive, forward-moving curriculum? Please comment in the space below, or find us on Twitter @allisonmarchett @rebekahodell1.