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Argument Writing: The Right to Write

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Students who write everyday for authentic reasons and real audiences know first hand the power of the written word. Kathy King-Dickman reminds us of the importance of empowering student voice through writing.

  • “Mrs. D., it’s not fair that we only have 3 minutes between passing periods!”
    “I agree. Write a persuasive letter about that and you can send it to the school board.”
  • “Mrs. D., it’s not fair that they called off our middle school ball game so the high school could play.”
    “I agree. Why don’t you write a letter to the athletic director about that?”
  • “Mrs. D., it’s not fair that you let Emily turn in her assignment late and no one else.”
    “Oh Laura, you are so right. I think you have finally found your topic for your persuasive essay!”

Many days my writers’ workshop began with the sounds of adolescents complaining about their lot in life and my response to write about it, so it wasn’t surprising when our principal brought us the following letter the day after school began last fall:

Dear Mrs. Hashbarger:

I’m writing this letter to tell you how bad this first day of middle school felt to me. I felt like all I did today was listen to the teachers give us rules upon rules, and the strange thing was, they didn’t feel like rules; they felt like threats. Let me tell you what I heard all day:

  • If I talk in class, I’ll get blue slips and warnings.
  • If I’m even a few minutes late for class once, I immediately have to go to a 30-minute detention.
  • If I laugh about anything not school related, it’s back to blue slips and warnings.

I hoped that today would be a fun day seeing friends and getting ready to start the school year. My friends at OMS had a barbeque that the teachers put on for them and what did we have? Our teachers threatening us to follow the rules, and they didn’t just do this for an hour or so, they did it for the whole day.

This letter closed with a powerful ending, convincing our entire staff to back off from the rules that we had been so determined to implement. This was from a seventh grader who earned an outstanding score on the Colorado state mandated writing test. (King-Dickman, 2011)

While reading Pathways to the Common Core (Calkins, Ehrenworth, and Lehman, 2012), I was delighted to read this passage:

Think of any cause that matters to you. Is it global warming? The growing gap between the rich and the poor? Or violence in video games? Whatever the cause, you probably believe that the world would be a better place if people who care about that cause had the courage and the literacy skills to make their views heard. If young people grow up learning to participate in logical, reasoned, evidenced-based arguments, this will mean that they are given a voice. Our democracy is dependent on educated, concerned citizenry, exercising the right to be heard. (p.137–138)

It seems that the drafters of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have seen the power in argument writing to instill a voice in writers of all ages, labeling it opinion writing in kindergarten through fifth grade and argument thereafter (CCSS writing standard 1). Persuasive essays are a way in which students can express their voices while meeting standard 1. Whether it comes from a second grader pleading for a later bedtime or a ninth grader asking the world to not pollute, students feel the power in exercising their right to write. Donald Graves and Penny Kittle (2005) say that essays, “…convince the reader he’d better get off his butt and get busy doing what the writer wants.” (p.29) Being a Writer’s persuasive units ask students to persuade their audience to do something or to share their opinions about the world. In doing this, our students get to tell us to get off of our behinds while they learn the craft of writing.

What’s not fair? Neglecting to teach students to share their voices in writing. That, my esteemed colleagues, is not fair.

References:

  • Calkins, L. Ehrenworth, & M. Lehman, C. (2012) Pathways to the Common Core. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann
  • King-Dickman, K (2011) The California Reader, volume 44 (2), The California Reading Association.
  • Graves, D. & Kittle, P. (2005) Inside Writing: How to Teach the Details of Craft. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Kathy King-Dickman is a consultant at Center for the Collaborative Classroom.

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