2 PreWriting Activities Your Students MUST DO Before Writing the Argument Essay
Drafting arguments is one of my favorite writing units of the entire school year. As students enter Middle School and High School, they leave the safety of the small family unit and begin to see the world in which they live on a much larger scale. Fortunately or unfortunately, all of this world’s major issues come right along with this new awareness. Children become exceedingly passionate about debating many of these issues as they seek resolutions for these problems. For this reason, I never assign a particular argument or issue to my students. I have found that students are extremely passionate about a variety of issues currently facing our world: LGBT issues/laws, women’s rights issues, Black Lives Matter, racial discrimination issues, school administration decisions, global warming, etc. Each year, I am surprised and moved by the ideas generated and topics argued with such intensity and vigor!
I love allowing students to choose their own issue for this argument essay, but that can be difficult for students who do not immediately know their topic or issue. I have found two techniques that really get students thinking about the issues that may resonate with them prior to their research and drafting stages of writing.
1. The Chart Paper Brainstorm and Gallery Walk
This is a whole class, collaborative, brainstorming session. To prepare for this discussion, I take all of the desks and push them out into a large circle, leaving a large space in the middle of the classroom. I then take a massive piece of chart paper and lay this inside that large open space. As students enter the classroom, they each pick a Flair Pen or Sharpie. (I know that I am not the only teacher who has a massive selection of each, but a marker would work as well!) Then, I write “arguable topics” in the center of this chart paper. I ask students to use their writing utensil to write down as many ideas as they can. I explain that the goal of this exercise is to fill this large piece of paper with words, connections, lines, pictures, mind-maps, and lists. As an added incentive, I tell my students that the class with the most detailed and comprehensive brainstorming chart will get a reward the following day- this, as you may imagine, has been extremely effective!
Students can chat with their neighbors, add on to another topic idea, discuss with me, and/or draw a picture or visual representation. I ask them to draw large lines to connect similar ideas/issues/topics. I encourage them to mind-map similar ideas or issues. They may write down as many sides to an issue as they can find! They also have free access to their devices so they can research as needed. I often find that students’ passions begin to unfold right on this very paper. Conversations are lively and engaged, and all students feel safety in participating, as they need not share verbally with the class. My artists make visual representations, my concrete thinkers make lists, my abstract thinkers make maps, my social butterflies discuss first and write second, my quiet introverts research and then write independently. Every student is engaged, and all students are creating and building topics!
My role during this brainstorm is to facilitate conversations, either as a whole class, or with small groups as they collaborate. As all good teachers do on occasion, I may guide the topics as needed, or lead students into narrowing a topic further as they continue to brainstorm on the topics.
When this chart paper is full of student-generated ideas, we hang these in the classroom (and hallway) for students. Students can then take a gallery walk of all chart paper brainstorms to find a topic/issue/idea that resonates uniquely with them.
The Exit Ticket: as students leave the class for the day (or then next day, as the gallery walk is most effective when all chart paper brainstorms are hanging), I ask them to fill out an exit ticket with their initial topic ideas based on our discussion and gallery walk. This will allow me the opportunity to see where my students are at within the topic selection process, as well as pair students for the second – most important – prewriting activity!
When students have chosen a topic or idea that they are passionate about, I ask them to begin to dig deeper on this subject. The cubing pre-writing activity is a very helpful tool in developing an argument or opinion paper. Essentially students will use the cube to look at their topic from six different perspectives.
Students will start with some basic perspectives:
1. Describe it.
2. Compare it.
Students will elevate their thoughts on the issue with the next two sides:
3. Associate it.
4. Analyze it.
Finally, students will work towards the highest levels of blooms taxonomy:
5. Satirize it.
6. Argue it.
The cube provided in the freebie (click on the photograph image below) names each of these sides. The graphic organizer provided will give students the directions and prompting questions to support them throughout the activity. I believe in providing collaboration whenever possible, so I use the exit ticket from the previous class period to pair students together who have chosen the same or similar topics.
Prepping the Activity
The first time I taught this lesson, I had students cut out the cube, and glue it together. I did find that this took up more time than I would like, and have since created these cubes myself. I found that I could laminate the cut out cube, and use glue dots, or hot glue to put the box together. Now I can reuse these cubes each year; plus, what teacher does not love getting laminating materials from the office? I get ‘little child at Christmas’ excited when I find laminating in my mailbox, even if it means a full prep period spent cutting it out!
Before I ask students to collaborate on the topics listed on each side of the cube, I do think it is important to have a conversation with your students about the pre-writing process; what is its purpose, what will be gained throughout the process, as well as gentle reminders that they need not have all the answers! Students can become frustrated with this process if they do not understand that this is just an idea and perspective generating task. There are no right answers, there need not be complete sentences; they should simply let the pencil flow across the paper as thoughts flow through their mind.
Student pairs receive a cube and two copies of the PreWriting worksheet. I explain that students have three minutes to discuss each side, and three minutes to write about each side. I then time each side allowing for discussion and writing. The first time I taught this lesson, I allowed students as much time per side as they wished, but I found that students either got caught up on some of the less critical sides, or became frustrated with the more challenging sides. This timing aspect allows students the freedom to ‘let go’ of the previous side and move on. Not only did the timer increase the excitement and intensity for each side, it also worked to minimize student stress and anxiety.
I have found that these two prewriting activities have really supported my students in their argument writing.
These prewriting lessons are a small part of my argument essay bundle. This bundle will help your students write amazing, quality essays with well crafted lessons and materials.
Liz is a collaborator on teachwriting.org and the founder of Teach BeTween the Lines. She has been teaching for over ten years; she has loved growing young minds through literature and the art of crafting the written word. She is currently working on her doctorate in Education from the University of Minnesota, and holds an M.A. in Education from St. Mary’s University, Minnesota. She loves to write short stories in her free time, especially in those cold Minnesota winters. She is supported by a wonderful family made better by the addition of her two beautiful children.