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Friday, February 15, 2013

Fightin' Words: Using Picture Books to Teach Argumentative Writing

So what's the difference between persuasive writing and argumentative writing? 

In persuasive writing, students passionately defend their point of view, relying upon opinion, personal experience, anecdotes, data, and examples. Argumentative writing, however, seeks to offer a more balanced approach, as it acknowledges points from the opposing view.

This approach may sound counterproductive; after all, won't writers weaken their arguments by providing the reader with counterclaims? Surprisingly, no. By naming objections and then refuting them effectively, writers actually strengthen the position of their arguments. Persuasion, on the other hand, is weak by comparison: it ignores, in a cowardly way, any viewpoint that is contrary and threatening to its own. It's blatantly one-sided and subjective.

So where can our young readers witness the power of argumentative writing? In picture books, of course!

In George Bellows: Painter with a Punch, author Robert Burleigh chronicles the career of a fascinating  and prolific artist who is celebrated for his gruff and gritty observations of the vitality and vigor of early twentieth century New York City. Burleigh provides the reader with "just enough" details of Bellows the man to make him real and rounded, and "just enough" context of the art scene of the time to build color and context. The majority of the text rightfully focuses on the images (profusely provided in beautiful color) and on Bellows' artistic legacy. 

As a teacher of reading and writing, I am struck by Burleigh's use of argumentative text structures which can serve as wonderful exemplars for young writers. Consider this passage from early in the text:

One man - seated at ringside - observes the events somewhat differently. He watches closely both the fury of the fighters and the fans' reactions. But who wins the bout doesn't matter to him. He has his own goal: to wrestle a picture from the chaotic scene, to capture the wild energy of this moment!

Is this strange? An artist here, in a smelly, grungy saloon?

Shouldn't an artist be searching for beautiful things to paint? Golden sunsets? Quiet, tree-lined rivers? Or perhaps a wealthy gentleman, or a celebrity dressed in her finest clothes? Many people would say just that.

But not George Bellows.

In that example, a series of questions defines the opposing viewpoint. We know that George will need a pretty darn good reason for choosing subjects so contrary to those of traditional artists!

In another selection, the opposing argument is presented more traditionally as a juxtaposition of one perspective to another:

George's paintings gain attention. He is among a group of artists who focus on the less romantic parts of the city, like bars, train stations, movie theaters, and alleyways...Reviewers attack the group, calling them "apostles of ugliness" because they dare to paint the seamier side of life...But a few reviewers find complimentary things to say about George's art. They especially praise his ability to convey strong feelings in his work.

One critic, although won over by Bellow's radical approach, still qualifies his admiration for the artist in a compliment that acknowledges the two opposing viewpoints of the time:

"It's in bad taste," one says, "but it's life - and that is the main thing."

As you can see, the examples of argumentation are there. They're subtly written, however, so as not to crowd out the narrative. That is exactly what makes them effective, and so worthy of our students' admiration and study and replication. 

In the excerpt below, note that the first two sentences juxtapose opposing viewpoints, with the word yet being the giveaway. The second pair of sentences follows the classic "some people say ______, but _______" format, with though serving in place of but:

"I don't know anything about boxing," he likes to say. Yet the paintings he makes based on these fights will become his best known works. Some critics note that the figures in the paintings are awkwardly drawn or that the ringside spectators have odd, caricatured faces. What concerns George most, though, is creating a "you-are-there" feeling.

Can students incorporate this same argumentative style into their writing? Absolutely. The key, in my opinion, is starting with some great exemplars. The next step is getting students to see that argumentative writing often relies upon a fairly standard set of sentence structures. This "sentence grammar" is more common in writing than you think!

Consider these templates:

  • At first you might think _____, but _____.
  • While it's true that _____, you need to remember that _____.
  • It's possible that _______, but __________.
  • Some people believe that _____; however, _____.
Here are those same templates, reworked with spelling words:

  • At first you might think that vivacious children are wonderful, but after three hours you would find them to be very exhausting.
  • While it's true that vitamins are part of a healthy diet, you need to remember that they can't take the place of nutritious foods.
  • It's possible that coffee increases vitality, but it's still no substitute for a good night's rest.
  • Some people believe that bees are attracted to sugar; however, bees are equally attracted to vivid colors.

Somewhat better than what students typically produce, right? But with the models, it's possible.

And again, those same templates as part of an expository paragraph about common misconceptions of the Holocaust, based upon a reading of An Introduction to the Holocaust for the Young Reader:

At first you might think that World War II caused the Holocaust since the two events are mentioned together so often; after some study, however, you would find that persecution of Jews in Germany began six years earlier. And while it's true that six million Jews were exterminated by the Nazis, you need to remember five million others who were considered undesirable were killed as well. It's possible to believe now that people should have stepped in to save the Jews, but you'd be surprised how few countries seemed to care at the time. You might think the United States was the exception, that we cared enough to step in; however, of the thirty-two countries that attended the Evian Conference, only one chose to accept Jewish refugees, and it wasn't the United States.

A perfect paragraph? No. But one that shows a balanced consideration of ideas; one that acknowledges common misconceptions, and then dispels them, one at a time.

  • Share George Bellows: Painter with a Punch with students, reading through from beginning to end for the sheer enjoyment of the narrative and images. Show students additional Bellows' paintings in over-sized library books or online. I prefer using images online, as I can often resize them on-screen to match their approximate real-life sizes.
  • Reread selections from the text in order to discuss the use of opposing viewpoints. Why does the author include them here? In what way is this text argumentative? How does mentioning the opposite viewpoint strengthen each point that author Robert Burleigh makes? 
  • Once students have discussed some text selections, work with them to identify the "skeleton" or "template" of each argumentative structure. Then, supply students with new content to be rephrased in argumentative format using the author's exemplars. One example from above reads, "Some critics note that the figures in the paintings are awkwardly drawn or that the ringside spectators have odd, caricatured faces. What concerns George most, though, is creating a "you-are-there" feeling."  This excerpt relies upon the "Some people..." format, with the counter-punch statement using "though" to express opposition (however could have been used as effectively as though).
  • Discuss the book's title with students. Some students will notice that the subtitle is alliterative, in that words share the same beginning sounds. If your students have recently read biographies, challenge them to write fictitious subtitles that rely upon either alliteration, rhyme, or word play. (Other students will notice that the top rope of the ring serves to underline the book's main title).
  • Show students other nonfiction books which utilize a title and subtitle, and discuss this feature's purpose. Authors and editors may do write titles in this manner for many different reasons: to separate their book from others on the same topic, to add a creative twist while still keeping the main topic "out in front," or to provide prospective readers with the book's focus (for example, Abraham Lincoln: A Pioneer Boyhood is aimed at a different audience than Abraham Lincoln: Making of a President). 
  • Require that students use sentence stems (aka templates, models, patterns) such as those above to contrast simple ideas. Start with simple single sentences, move to paired sentences, and finally to paragraphs. My own students have used them for lesson summaries, spelling sentences, responses to current events, summary paragraphs (such as the Holocaust piece above), and comparison/contrast writings about character motives.
  • Check out this fantastic break-down of argumentative writing from Smekens Education Solutions, Inc. In addition to some teaching tips, you'll find a ready-to-go activity that challenges students to identify what makes a revised piece of writing argumentative. They've also produced a clever student friendly/teacher friendly interpretation of the ELA Writing Standard (6.1) for Text Types and Purposes.

Recommended Reading

If you're looking for a single, go-to title for working with argumentative text models like those above, check out They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. This book explains in clear words, dozens of templates, and numerous real-world examples the powerful concepts which guide argumentative writing.

Here you'll find templates for openings, closings, discussion, disagreement, etc. You'll also have at your fingertips many professionally written articles, essays, and speeches which show these same templates at work (check out the explanation of argumentative writing in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail shown in the book preview on Amazon). 

This work, aimed at both instructors and high school- and college-aged students, is must reading.


BookChook said...

So much to think about here, Keith! Thanks for another thought-provoking insight into using picture books as the basis for teaching writing.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for pointing out the idea of sentence templates. I suppose some teachers might steer away from them because they're afraid the writing might sound staged, but I can see my students adapting these to their own styles once they get the hang of it.

Keith Schoch said...

Good luck to both of you using these ideas with your students. I promise, the more you use them, the more the structures will become their own.

captwasabi said...

Thank you for the article. It gives me food for thought on how to approach this very topic for my seventh graders.

Unknown said...

Hi Keith,

Thanks for the post. It's a good one. However, I wouldn't necessarily agree with the emphasis you place on the distinction between persuasive and argumentative pieces. You say that argumentative pieces acknowledge points from the opposing viewpoint whereas persuasive pieces only defend the author's own point of view. Persuasive pieces can also seek to refute counterpoints. Take, for example, the standards from my home state, Indiana. The current middle school writing standards that relate to persuasive pieces call on students to "anticipate and address reader concerns and counterarguments." In my view, this is not necessarily the crux of what differentiates a persuasive and argumentative piece.

The biggest distinction, I believe, is something that you mention but don't emphasize as strongly: A persuasive piece tends to focus on personal opinions, anecdotes and observations more than an argumentative should. Arguments, in contrast, are designed to draw upon evidence, facts and logic as a way to support a contention.

Just my thoughts. Thanks again!