Seeking a Real Audience: A Revised Approach to Teaching Argument


I believe providing student writers a real audience to write for is at the core of improving writing and developing its relevance to a student. The problem is finding that audience. The most difficult issue I struggle to overcome in teaching writing is discovering and obtaining a real audience for students to address. If you’re an English teacher, or any kind of writing instructor, you probably understand my dilemma. Through some heavy thinking and the influence my doctoral classes and Peter Smagorinsky, I developed an argumentative writing unit that I’m proud of and that connects my students to the world outside my classroom. That being said, the process wasn’t all peaches and cream; my students and I struggled to cultivate an understanding of how a ‘school’ argument transfers to a business letter format, and students specifically struggled with conceptualizing that their writing would wind up in the hands of another adult not named Mr. Jones.

The unit began like maybe any. We actually avoided literature for a few weeks and concentrated solely on exploring various modes of argument. To begin with, I tried to help students understand that argument isn’t always about disagreeing with someone–a good argument can help support another point of view as well. We covered the rhetorical triangle (ethos, pathos, and logos) as well as the components of an argument (claim, evidence or data, and warrant)–the framers of the Common Core would be proud–but what I enjoyed most was showing them that almost any medium of discourse is in some ways an argument. My examples included Twitter hashtags and infamous sub-tweets, Vines, comic strips, YouTube videos, artwork, Tumblr pages, music lyrics, and even some satire. We looked at more traditional arguments embedded in news articles, but the point was to expand a student’s definition of what is and isn’t argument. I used many of Smagorinsky, Johannessen, Kahn, and McCann’s (2010) thoughts on a ‘spiral curriculum’ to set up the progression of lessons. Smagorinsky et al.’s text explains, “In a spiral curriculum, students journey through increasingly sophisticated experiences in some of the same vehicles. Revisiting ideas and experiences allows students to engage in narration and argumentation in increasingly sophisticated forms and in relation to more complex ideas…” (p. 183). Each lesson I did on a different mode of argument supported or reinforced the last while also looking for new complexity. While not a perfect endeavor, my students benefited from seeing argument through increasingly abstract or unfamiliar means.

From here, I wanted students to use several different literacy skills and make the experience as valuable as possible. I can’t quite recall what inspired my desire to write letters to editors, but when I realized that these letters would send my students writing into the world, I knew it was exactly what I wanted them to do.

To accomplish the task, I had students find a magazine article of their choosing (the more recent the better), and then had them draft a MLA-style business letter in response to the article. The caveat was that the letter had to be crafted as an argument complete with claims, evidence, and warrants. At the end of the process, we signed our letters, filled out addresses on envelops, sealed them, and put them out for postage and delivery. I have no idea how many responses my kids will get, but the process was real and I could tell it changed how some students looked at the task. Don’t get me wrong, I still have students who to this moment have written the letter and probably won’t be able to send one, but the majority did and many, I hope, will get a real response.

The most important aspect of this whole endeavor, however, won’t take place until Friday. On Friday my students will write a reflection essay. The prompt ask students to reflect on their struggles, gained knowledge/skills, but most importantly to judge or predict impact. One of the guiding questions on the prompt is as follows:

How do you think the editor of the magazine will interpret or take up your letter/argument?

as well as…

If you were to receive a letter back from the editor, what kind of response would you expect? Why?

These are questions we don’t often even have the opportunity to ask our students because we often times lack a real audience for them. Determining or predicting impact helps drive students to another level of thinking about their own writing. To be cognoscente of how someone will take up their words is whole new world for my students, but a world they need to explore.

I’ll end today’s post by adding a few photos of student work. Admittedly, I picked out some of the best, not to show how great a teacher I am–on the contrary–to show how great student writing can be when I simply get out of their way.

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Smagorinsky, P., Johannesen, L.R., Kahn, E. A., & McCann, T. M. (2010). The dynamics of writing instruction: A structured process approach for middle and high school. Portsmouth, NH, Heinemann.

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