The Common Core offers five separate writing standard “skills” for 11th and 12th grade students to accomplish in this task:
- Introduce precise knowledgeable claims.
- Develop claims and counterclaims.
- Use words, phrases, and clauses as well as varied syntax to link major sections of the text.
- Establish and maintain a formal style and objective tone.
- Provide a concluding statement that follows from and supports the argument presented.
How to Begin
Using these standards as part of a unit plan for a particular assignment on a text or topic easily integrates into your curriculum, especially in regents courses requiring essays. Since writing is itself a process, begin with a worthwhile topic of yours, or the students, choice. Once decided, introduce the significance of the claim to your lesson when you can define each of these terms and also model concrete examples.
For example: after reading “The Crucible,” a paper arguing for or against the death penalty in our times. An outline will help chart a logical organization for the paper including counterclaims, reasons, and evidence.
Allow research time for students to support claims and counterclaims fairly and thoroughly in an early note card or draft stage using your district’s citation rules, and perhaps a quick refresher on plagiarism. Point out strengths and limitations of any sources and materials focusing on that “teachable moment” when students evaluate their findings and realize they may have possible biases in researched information. (“No, you can’t use Wikipedia and this is the reason why not.”)
Writing takes time and is best done serially, meaning small changes, one at a time. If the claim is well supported with relevant evidence, the logic of putting it into a coherent and conclusive argument can still be challenging. Work on clarifying each part of the argument separately and in relation to each other. For example: raw data simply listing executions in death penalty cases does not carry much weight unless clearly linked to one side or other of the claim and specifically explained within the context of that argument.
Each body paragraph must communicate the importance of the data and its relationship in supporting the claim. Clarify the sequence by numbering paragraphs illustrating a clear progression from introduction to conclusion and rearranging or adding or subtracting paragraphs if necessary. Be aware of exactly what direction the paper is headed and the underlying pattern of how it is organized; this is where most students get confused. Present your counter-claim as fairly as possible while still maintaining cohesion between paragraphs.
Review & Revision
If possible in your class, this is a great time to have peer conferences checking for comprehension and audience awareness. Use a simple and short peer conference rubric to guarantee the right feedback. I like to grade drafts since this gives me the chance to check student understanding of the task, and to write any helpful tips guiding confused students back on track.
Once the drafts are returned, revision begins! Students hate this step, yet the more often I set aside class time for it, the more often they catch their own mistakes. Start with a mini-lesson on only a few of the most common errors, for example: subject/verb agreement, pronoun rules, and active voice are my particular soap-box rants. A formal argument should maintain the level and tone of a college assignment. Pick your own battles pertinent to your students and let them discover what they did wrong and how easily they can correct it. A quick tip is to use three different colored markers to identify each of the three different errors in a draft.
Conclusion & Title
The last step is the conclusion. Don’t be tempted to short change or hurry this stage – it is the only chance students have to restate their claim. It also allows them to make a larger, more universal message linking their own ethos, logos, and pathos to such an important topic. Teenagers have strong feelings about most subjects, and while they cannot be personal in a formal argumentative essay, they can and should, have strong points of view. This is the perfect place to do that. The same advice goes for a title; I encourage brevity, individuality and “catchiness.”
If you are willing to take the time to follow this procedure, and admittedly, this can easily cover several class periods, you will be pleasantly surprised at how well your students will do. I know I always am.