Thursday, January 23, 2014

Argument and Debate in Primary Classrooms

I have written about TC workshops several times on this blog. I do this not only because these are some of the most popular posts, but also because writing about them makes me reflect and revisit the learning from these days. These workshops provide an incredible amount of information coming at me fast and furious. It’s an important time for me to remember Alan Wright’s wise words that writers live life twice. 

Shanna Schwartz presented a workshop on writing about reading that was specifically geared toward second-grade teachers, but the information was relevant to many other grades. I have already written one post about the messages she reminded us regarding overall literacy here. This second post is more about the details of opinion writing and how it lives in classrooms. I will write one more post about the differences between reasons and evidence.

Shanna talked about the fact that we all have a process that we need to have in place in order to become writers: hearing-thinking-talking-writing. Because most of what young children have heard by the time they arrive at kindergarten is narrative, children typically have an easier time re-creating stories. Therefore, we need to expose students to opinions and arguments whenever we can. As I review my notes from the day--and I took A LOT of notes--I have tried to pull out some of the most important points, messages, themes, and strategies:
  • We should all make sure that we know the difference between opinion and argument. My favorite color is an opinion. It is what it is and it is a fact about me. When we talk and think about teaching opinion and argument, it’s important to remain aware of whether an opinion is debate-worthy. Sometimes, we can establish reasons and evidence for our opinions, but they might not move into the debate-worthy column.
  • Argument is important to teach for several reasons that go well beyond the fact that it is an important component of the Common Core State Standards. I loved how Shanna talked about argument writing being inherently supportive of the building children’s grit and growth mindsets. How important for children to recognize that they can have an opinion and if they support that opinion with enough convincing evidence, then they may convince others of their idea and create movement around them!
  • We have many strategies that we can use to weave argument and debate into our daily routines:
    • Collect some pictures from the internet--
        • dogs vs. cats--which is a better pet?
        • coffee vs. tea--which is a better drink?
        • suburbs vs. city--where is a better place to live?
        • McDonald’s vs. Subway--which is the better place to eat?
The list goes on, as it contains anything worthy of different opinions--TV shows, video games, grocery stores. Find excitement in the mundane by creating opinions and debates over them.

  • We should use post-its as if we owned stock in them. We can create spectrum lines and have students place their post-it somewhere along the spectrum. Fairy tales offer an amazing venue for talking about “to what extent?” and moving post-its around. Shanna read us Hansel and Gretel. “Where on the line of good to evil line will you place your post-it for the father? Where will you place your post-it for the step-mother? Why? Defend your decision!” she challenged us. Placing the stepmother’s post-it as far as it can go toward evil on the first page of the book means that she can not become any more evil...hmmmm...
  • When we think about how to develop our students and build their abilities to argue, Shanna offered some great suggestions:
      • Move kids from the obvious to the less obvious
      • Nudge them to say something a little controversial, like “coffee is for tough people and tea is for wimps...” Push for statements that could get people into an argument.
      • Take ANY opportunity that you can to build students’ oral language because this will develop their skill base for writing. Develop compelling statements and constantly look for ways to incorporate reasons and examples throughout the day.
For me, perhaps the most important part of the day was when Shanna talked about the difference between reasons and examples for students. I am crafting a separate post for this that I will put up in the next couple of days. 

The workshops at Teachers College always challenge my thinking and provide incredible amounts of information. Thank you, Shanna, for a great day.

As an additional note to this post which I wrote a few days ago, I must give a shout out to Maggie Beattie Roberts who hosted an incredible twitter chat last night about working debate into classrooms. You can read the archives because she storified it by clicking here.


  1. Melanie,
    This is such a perfect fit with last night's #tcrwp chat with @maggiebroberts! I love your explanation of "debate-worthy" and the spectrum line. I already use post-its as if I own stock in 3M. I am looking forward to your post about reasons and examples!
    Thanks for sharing your thinking!

  2. Thank you so much for posting your processing! I love these posts as they help clarify my understanding of these issues the common core has raised. I look forward to the next piece.