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Monday, April 19, 2010

So What's Your Point? Persuasive Writing Using Picture Books

While some of our students may go on to become best-selling authors, all of them as adults will speak and write to convince others: to buy, to act, to vote, to choose, to agree. That's why it is so important that we as teachers help our students to develop effective persuasive writing skills.

A fantastic new picture book will help students see that persuasion need not be a totally serious matter. In Lincoln Tells a Joke, authors Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer and illustrator Stacy Innerst help students discover the funny side of Abraham Lincoln. (You can read some rave reviews for yourself at the Houghton Mifflin site).

Although we now hold him in the highest regard, Lincoln for his time was a surprisingly unpopular president. Yet he used humor to make points, to win people over, to lighten the mood, to gently turn away requests he could not grant, and to relieve the stresses of a difficult office (made all the more difficult by the Civil War). This unique biography is full of Lincoln's more clever sayings, which hold up surprisingly well after more than one hundred years.

My students appreciated that his quotes were printed in a stylized, flowery font which made them easier to spot. What's more awesome about this book is Stacy Innerst's caricatures. When I asked students why the publisher hadn't chosen an artist with "a more serious, realistic style," they patiently explained to me that the exaggerated pictures added additional humor to the book. And they do!

I prefaced my reading aloud of the book with a short oral quiz on facts about Lincoln:

  • What number president was Lincoln? (Almost everyone knew that he was the sixteenth).
  • Who was Number 15? (No one knew). Why don't any of us know this? How can we find this out?
  • What war began shortly after Lincoln took office? (We discussed the Civil War a bit; students were surprised to discover that there were, and are, other civil wars in the world).
  • What might have made Lincoln unpopular? (Students were surprised that even some Northerners didn't care for him; as a part of that discussion, I mentioned that the Civil War required a draft, and wealthier citizens could buy their way out of it, while poorer citizens could not).
  • If Lincoln was still president at the end of the war, what did this mean? (It meant that, regardless of his lack of popularity, he was still popular enough to be reelected. Not coincidentally, the Civil War was the first time that soldiers in the field were able to cast ballots).
  • What happened to Lincoln shortly after the war?
Once the book was over, students had plenty they wanted to discuss; I didn't need any post-reading questions. But one topic I did pursue was, "Why might a speaker use humor in a persuasive speech?" This prompted many excellent reasons, from both the book and students' own experiences.

So what's the connection to persuasive writing?

Online you can find dozens of templates for organizing persuasive essays, but I prefer this one-page organizer from Scholastic which I've used in the past with The True Story of the Three Little Pigs).

A best bet, however, is the Persuasion Map from ReadWriteThink (you can also click on the Persuasion Map homepage, which provides several related lessons). This interactive tool walks students through the process of organizing thoughts, and presents them with a mapped outline of the thesis, reasons, and details which can, in turn, be used to generate a formal essay. Students could use those same ideas, however, to create a commercial, advertisement, article, or letter.

After demonstrating the Persuasion Map Tool to my sixth graders, I provided the following prompt for extra credit (and it created quite a stir!):
In an effort to reduce bullying and violence at school, one school has offered “Citizenship Credits” to students who provide information about classmates who break rules, display inappropriate behavior, or use inappropriate language. These Citizenship Credits can be collected and redeemed for grade point increases; in other words, if a student collects enough credits, she can have a grade raised by one or two points on her report card. What is your opinion on this policy? Write a letter to the principal stating your position and offering reasons why our school should, or should not, adopt this policy.
If you're looking for a more substantial resource for the upper grades, The Language of Advertising Claims breaks down ten techniques which advertisers employ to persuade potential customers. Author Jeffrey Schrank introduces these techniques, saying
Students, and many teachers, are notorious believers in their immunity to advertising. These naive inhabitants of consumerland believe that advertising is childish, dumb, a bunch of lies, and influences only the vast hordes of the less sophisticated. Their own purchases are made purely on the basis of value and desire, with advertising playing only a minor supporting role...
Advertisers know better. Although few people admit to being greatly influenced by ads, surveys and sales figures show that a well-designed advertising campaign has dramatic effects. A logical conclusion is that advertising works below the level of conscious awareness and it works even on those who claim immunity to its message. Ads are designed to have an effect while being laughed at, belittled, and all but ignored.

The ten techniques in The Language of Advertising Claims can be used to either dissect ads which students collect from magazines and the internet, or to create ads for fictitious products.

From LEARN NC, a nicely done learning module on Arts of Persuasion for middle school students features "Strategies for teaching middle school students to think critically, analyze persuasive arguments, and use speaking and writing to persuade others." Many ideas there can be adapted for younger students.

Teachers of middle grades and high school will also appreciate the very cool interactive writing models found at the Holt, Rinehart and Winston Model Bank.

In the center of each model is a formal essay; left hand margin notes detail each part of the essay and, when clicked upon, highlight the exact sentences in that section. Right hand margin notes tell the student what to include in each section, and why. A terrific resource for use on the interactive whiteboard, or as a handy reference when students are working individually.

If your students are having trouble differentiating between arguments, persuasion, and propaganda, the single page resource titled Argument, Persuasion, or Propaganda? from ReadWriteThink would be a great asset.

And finally, another way to study persuasive writing is to look at the copy writing of classic ads. One of my favorites is the Charles Atlas ad which appeared in the comic books of my youth. I discussed that ad at my Teaching that Sticks site, and provided some insight (and references) into why it was so popular and effective. What other ads are now considered classics? What made them so effective? How did their creators use persuasive language to sell ideas and products?

Have a favorite site, tool, or prompt for persuasive writing? Leave a comment below or drop me line!


BookChook said...

I love the moral dilemma you presented the kids with, for extra credit! Great ideas here, Keith, thanks.

Persuasion Techniques said...

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Kathleen Krull said...

Very belatedly, thank you for your wise and creative use of our book - now adding a link to this on my site

Keith Schoch said...

Thanks for checking in, Kathleen!

I'm a big fan.

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