This is an argument-centered adaptation and iteration of the small group discussions strategy, designed for a middle school English language arts unit on the award-winning young adult novel “The Goats,” written by Brock Cole in 1987.
Our students can often best make meaning from an extended text through discussions with their peers. Through the social engagement of these discussions, middle and high school students can clarify, organize, and deepen their thinking about a literary work, and become closer in their relationship to the text and to the act of reading, analyzing, and interpreting literature.
Argumentalizing these small-group discussions can enhance their academic impact, and at the same time give students a more vigorous cognitive and communicative experience using this fundamental classroom routine. We can argumentalize small-group discussions in several familiar ways.
This is a comprehensive argument-centered mini-unit on the United States’ decision to use atomic bombs against Japan at the end of World War II. Students study this momentous decision and its consequences through videos, primary documents, and analytical essays. They use these sources to formulate and build out arguments on the fundamental and enduring debatable question:
Was the United States justified in using atomic bombs against Japan in World War II?
Simultaneous table debates take place on this issue across the classroom. These debates are followed up with a focus on the academic means and methods that are used to evaluate competing arguments on a complex, rooted, significant controversy such as the historical question that envelopes America’s use of atomic weapons in WWII. Students conduct one-on-one argument evaluation, using a model debate flow sheet. Then they conclude the mini-unit by evaluating the argumentation in a fully modeled debate and its tracking form.
A justly popular way to cap a research paper unit is to have students present their discoveries and their arguments to their peers. Some of our partner schools, though, have wanted to do more than offer students an opportunity to exercise and demonstrate their communication and presentation skills; so we have worked with them to incorporate a final critical component, modeled on an academic conference paper presentation, respondent comments, and rejoinder.
The Respondent and Rejoinder Activity complements and culminates the argumentation the students do in their extended research and writing project. Results so far have been salutary: students think harder when presenting, and use their research to engage in inquiry and argument that is social.
Argument-Centered Education works to argumentalize curriculum that teachers and schools are committed to teaching and using. We approach our work this way because on the basis of two fundamental convictions.
Capacity and expertise transfer is best done from the inside, not the outside
We aim to build teachers’ and schools’ permanent capacity to organize their own instruction around critical thinking and argument. Curriculum that gets imported into schools is often unused after an initiative is offer. And even if it continues to be used, it can be compartmentlized as the “critical thinking resource” or the “argument project.” Working with teachers’ own curriculum illustrates in the most resonant way for teachers who argument can be integrated throughout their practice.
This is an argument-based project on Lois Lowry’s 1989 young adult novel on the Nazi occupation of Denmark and its impact on a gentile and Jewish family of friends. It asks students to study the novel in relation to debatable issues related to the central motif of bravery in the book, and then has students write a persuasive letter from the protagonist, Annemarie Johansen, to her Jewish friend in exile, Ellen Rosen, answering a question that gets to the heart of the question that the book asks: does the young Annemarie act courageously, and if so how courageously?