by Tricia Ebner
Like many teachers, I spend a bit of time on my winter break working on lesson preparation for the time ahead. I’ve learned that good planning for the first weeks back makes the days easier for everyone. This year, as I looked over my plans for January, I saw that I had one of those situations I’ve come to dread: a one-day “gap” between units.
After looking at possibilities for shifting activities around, I decided to live with the one-day gap and use it as an opportunity for a review and preview. A look through my plans suggested that a focus on argument, specifically reading and analyzing another’s argument, could be a good goal for the day.
With this in mind, I turned to some of my favorite text resources. While I love the text sets and mini-units on Achieve the Core, most of those take more than a single 50-minute class period. CommonLit had some possibilities, too, but since it is a tool new to my students, I suspected that the fascination with a new site would overshadow the review I wanted my students to do. So I turned to NewsELA. There I found a Pro/Con text set on the feasibility of self-driving cars. This was exactly the kind of resource I needed. Neither text was long, and NewsELA had them paired together into a single document. A brief four-question quiz followed the paired texts. Furthermore, since the set was on NewsELA, I could use the texts at different reading levels to more specifically address my students’ needs. It didn’t take me long to arrange my students into smaller groups for the purposes of our reading and discussion.
My next step was to find a good way to review the elements of argument. I started by pairing two pictures on a Google slide. One was of two birds sitting on a branch, with one hunched down and the other squawking at the first, wings outstretched. The second picture was a courtroom scene, with a lawyer addressing a judge and jury. The title of the slide was, “Which picture best represents the kind of argument we use in language arts?”
Then I searched for a brief video overview of the elements of a strong argument. I found one through XtraNormal, a computer-generated animation site. I knew the animation would keep my students’ attention, and the dialogue between the two characters, a teacher and a student, would provide the kind of “cobweb-clearing” review we needed before reading the text.
I used this lesson with my eighth graders last week. They had just finished a cold-read assessment the day before, taking the skills and standards we had been focused upon during our reading of A Christmas Carol and applying them to a passage from Tuesdays with Morrie. The paired photo slide generated some chuckles and comments, with a few students telling the class that they wished argument meant the kind of “discussion” going on between the two birds. Our brief discussion and comparison of the two photos set the stage for our work for the class.
The video worked well. At first, some students focused more upon the quirks of the computer animation, but by the end of the video, the students remembered the elements of argument. We had a brief discussion about a couple of points within the video, and then I handed out the text pairs. Students read individually and then answered the four questions. Then they gathered into the small groups I had organized before the lesson, and they worked to answer seven questions I had posed for them:
- What is the claim of the pro article?
- What is the claim of the con article?
- What are the reasons used in the pro article?
- What are the reasons used in the con article?
- What evidence is used in the pro article?
- What evidence is used in the con article?
- Which of the two texts is the stronger argument?
As I circulated among the groups, I heard students debating finer points of the texts, especially the qualities of the evidence. One of the strongest ideas generated by several groups was that the evidence for the text in favor of self-driving cars tended to be weaker, because there simply aren’t enough instances of self-driving cars yet. The class as a whole decided that because there are specific examples of self-driving cars failing, the con argument is stronger. One student noted that as testing continues, stronger evidence supporting the value of self-driving cars may become available. I was pleased to hear students not only analyzing the qualities of the two arguments, but also considering how the quantity and quality of evidence available will continue to grow as tests and experiments with self-driving cars continue.
I was pleased with how this one-day lesson worked. The integration of photos, videos, individual questions, small group discussion, and whole-class discussion provided good variety. My observations of the students at work confirmed my thinking that students needed to refresh their understanding of elements f argument. The results of the four-question “quiz” also showed some interesting results that I will be considering as I continue preparing for our next unit, which will focus on argument.
When faced with this situation again, I will take similar steps. Using texts from a variety of sources gives me a broader range of options. NewsELA worked beautifully for my goals in this particular instance; the next time I have this kind of situation, however, I may want to focus on standards that could be better addressed by texts offered by other resources, such as CommonLit or ReadWorks.
Using readily-available resources, like NewsELA, made it easier for me to plan and use a single-period lesson geared toward my students and their needs.
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