Monday, July 1, 2013

Facing Off: Introducing Argument with Verbal Sparring

How often have you heard a colleague say, "I don't like conflict"? Sometimes teachers have what I'd call an "over-accommodating nature," a "go along to get along" way of approaching most situations.

When I hear "I don't like conflict," my knee-jerk reaction is "who does?" However, there's a difference between conflict for conflict's sake and necessary "push back."

We have seen the necessity of teachers to take a stand often in recent years as our profession has endured an onslaught of legislation that harms children and teaching.

Teaching Argument: The Role of English Teachers

English teachers are charged with teaching students how to construct academic arguments. The essay of formal argumentation is a staple in many English classes and the cornerstone of student success in college.

Were we to teach argument before we teach persuasion, arguably, students would compose stronger essays in each genre. However, English teachers generally assign the persuasive essay and often neglect the formal argument.

Perhaps this is because we see argument as stodgy and boring. Maybe it's because we're accustomed to advertising that plays on our emotions and reality television with its emotion on crack style.

The argumentative essay can be fun and approachable when we introduce it with a game of verbal sparring.

Lesson Plan

1.  Begin by introducing students to the value and benefit of arguing. The short TED video "Dare to Disagree" offers engaging analysis of why our lives improve when we embrace logical argument. I particularly like the idea that we should seek out those whose positions differ from our own as a way to challenge and test our own beliefs. The contention that we should be prepared to change our minds is a necessary one to our public and private discourse.

2.  Introduce students to the basic requirements of argument. This is readily available in many textbooks, in online tutorials, etc. However, a few things to consider:

  • Argument is reason giving. 
  • Argument is based on A-R-E: Assertion, Reasons, Evidence
  • Academic argument requires students to offer a counterposition. That's the paradox and beauty of argument: Students must know what others think as well as their own positions. There are many ways to refute an argument (coming in a future post)
  • Argument requires stasis: The point of disagreement. Without conflict, there can be no argument.

3. Choose two essays on a fun but controversial issue. Preferably, one essay should lean very heavily on one side of the issue, and the other essay should lean heavily on the opposing side of the issue. You may need to edit both to meet this criteria.

I used the following essays from Breakfast on Mars and 37 Other Delectable Essays:
  • "Breakfast on Mars: Why We Should Colonize the Red Planet" (Part 1. Argument) Chris  Higgins
  • "Robots Only: Why We Shouldn't Colonize Mars" (Part 2. Counterargument) Chris Higgins

4. Give half the students one essay and half the other essay. I kept all those with the first essay in close proximity of one another and did the same with those with the second essay. This is to keep students' eyes from wandering.

5. Give the following instructions: Read the essay. Those with #1 will text code and annotate the essay for the author's reasons and evidence in favor of colonizing Mars. Those with #2 will text code and annotate the essay for the author's reasons and evidence against colonizing Mars.

6. Allow students time to read. I gave them ten minutes because the essays are short.

7. Have the students with #1 stand. Give them the following instructions: "Find a student who is sitting and who has essay #2. Pair up with that student and move to a "corner" of the room."

Instructions for arguing. There are two options:

The student with the essay in favor of colonizing Mars may present all reasons and evidence for doing so, and the student with the essay against colonizing Mars may counter with the reasons and evidence against colonizing Mars. or...

The student with the essay in favor of colonizing Mars may present a reason and evidence for doing so followed by a response from the student with the essay against colonizing Mars. You may proceed to "argue" in this back and forth (teeter totter) way, which is the way we naturally argue in conversation.

*Note: It's important that the student with the pro colonizing Mars argument begin because this is the position advocating a change in the status quo. Argument is based on advocating a change or opposing a proposed change, whether a policy or attitude.

Time the argument: I gave students three minutes to argue. It's important not to give too much time. You want kids to want to continue the discussion.

I also required kids to stand and "face off" during their argument. The arguments occurred simultaneously, creating a pleasant buzz around the room that signaled safety to all students.

Follow-Up Discussion

After students argued, I turned the tables on them just a tad. Instead of asking students to offer general feedback, I did this:

I instructed those students with the first article not to speak. Then I asked those with the second article to articulate the reasons and evidence for colonizing Mars. Each student arguing against colonizing Mars had a chance to share reasons for colonizing Mars.

Next, I instructed those students with the second article not to speak. I then asked those with the first article to articulate the reasons and evidence against colonizing Mars. Again, each student in the pro colonizing group had a chance to share a counterargument.

Two important observations manifested themselves during the discussion, and students identified them when I asked, "What's necessary for logical argument to take place?"

  • Student Response: "You have to listen."
  • Student Response: "You have to be clear." 

Indeed, the lesson introducing argument resulted in a what Randy Pausch calls a "mind fake." It turned out to be a lesson about listening and the importance of stating one's ideas clearly and concisely.

No argument about it. Of course, that's because argument requires finding the point of stasis. Where no conflict exists, we can speak and listen in perfect harmony.



  1. I am really enthralled with your effort which you have so evidently perfected into this content. I have also liked that you have presented your own point of view with this topic, especially while making your points very much clear with this topic

    English Learners
    English Grammar Guru

    1. Thanks, AR. This was actually a new lesson plan. I'm teaching a summer school class and just got the book w/ the Mars essays this week.,

  2. Cool! I'm the co-editor for Breakfast on Mars, and I just stumbled on your blog. Thanks so much for trying it out in class--it sounds like a really wonderful, well designed lesson. I'd definitely love to hear in more detail how your students responded and be in touch about how we might band together moving forward to help other teachers inspire students when it comes to essay writing!