My sixth- grade students are finishing up their argument essays this week. I have found the strategies and suggestions in The Research-Based Argument (Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth, and Annie Taranto) and by TCRWP invaluable.
In the past I’ve allowed my students to select individual arguments. I’m sure I’m not alone. I’m sure I’m not the only one who tried desperately to juggle 20 to 25 different topics and issues and provide feedback and support of great substance to each student. It’s an impossible task.
This year, my class chose one topic: Should animals be held in captivity. My students are doing some of the best writing I’ve seen in all of my years of teaching. Here’s why. Having one topic enables all students to engage in conversations about an issue where they each can contribute. Have you ever had to peer-review a paper and struggled because you just didn’t feel knowledgeable about the topic? Sure, you’re able to provide feedback around the basics of writing: clarity, organization, style, mechanics. But when you know the topic well, there’s just so much more you can offer.
Together, we created a digital bin that contains interviews, videos, and articles about the topic animals in captivity. Although students are working with the same topic, they are each able to research individually by selecting the texts they want to read from the digital bin. Using graphic organizers as they navigate each text, students take notes on the different perspectives the texts provide and they collect researchable evidence that supports each perspective. Each day, students work in small groups to discuss the research they’ve read. Then they write researchable facts on sticky notes that give reasons for or against the issue.
Here’s a chart I created for my classroom, inspired by a similar chart in The Research-Based Argument. This is such a helpful chart for all students, particular my novice readers and writers. As they continue to navigate the digital bins and research this topic, we are reminded that this is a complex issue and we discuss the importance of suspending judgment in order to glean as much information as we can from our resources.
This process provides a momentum and energy that I haven’t seen previously. As they finish up their essays this week and share their writing, students are able to get feedback from peers who know their topic well and can offer precise and sound advice to help make the writing stronger. Although the issue is the same, each student’s approach to constructing their research-based argument is different. And I’m able to support each of my students because we’re all immersed in common texts and steeped in a common knowledge