A few weeks ago, I wrote about the way that I frame our opinion writing work. We begin our study of opinion writing by examining the many purposes for writing about our opinions and we look at how we can use writing in order to demand the change that we want to see in the world. (If you would like to read more about that work, you can find it in THIS BLOG POST.)
Just like we spent time thinking about the different purposes for different types of opinion writing overall, I also wanted to engage my students in thinking about the different purposes for different types of evidence that they can use to support the reasons that they are making their claims through their writing.
Opinion writing centers around evidence. But too often, we tell our students to make sure that they support the claims that they are making with evidence without taking the time to look at the many different types of evidence that writers use in the world outside of school. Yes. Evidence can be quotes and statistics, but it can be more than that. It can be a child’s personal experience. It can be images that the writer creates using words. It can be so many things. In our quest to make sure that everything we do is “text” based, we have forgotten to teach our students that often the most passionate writing they will do, will come not from an article that they have read, but from experiences that they have lived through. Just look at the persuasive writing that is coming out of the young activists from Parkland, Florida. They are moving the country not just by quoting statistics, but they are sharing their personal experiences and using them to help convince this country that we need to change.
Another piece that I think we often miss as educators is that we forget that our job is NOT to tell each child what type of evidence that they need to use and when they need to use it, but rather we need to teach them a variety of types of evidence AND teach them when it might be best to use those different types of evidence so that they can make those choices for themselves. In this way, we can arm our students with a wide range of tools that they will have at their disposal when they are off and writing in this world and we can help them to decide when it is the best time to use each of those tools. We can provide them not with a formula that will limit them, but with possibilities that will empower them to craft the right type of writing at the moment when they most need it.
As I mentioned in my first blog post about our opinion writing this year, my students are writing a variety of types of opinion writing based on the changes that they are demanding and the audience that has the power to make those changes. Some students are writing persuasive blog posts to reach a large and public audience. Others are writing letters to school administrators. Others are writing letters to members of Congress.
No matter what type of writing they are doing, however, they will need to back-up what they are saying with evidence. So the majority of our time in this unit is spent examining what kinds of evidence they might be able to use in order to support a variety of claims. We do this by looking at our mentor texts. We do this by reading compelling texts and asking ourselves in what ways writers support what they are saying. Not only how do they do this, but also why do they select different types of evidence in different moments. Once we can understand that. We are better able to make those writing decisions ourselves.
And we begin with the evidence that is easiest to gather. The evidence that does not require my students to do any research beyond thinking about their own lived experiences and what they know from their own lives and the lives of those around them. When we are just beginning to learn the craft of opinion writing, I want them to know that their own life experiences are sometimes the most powerful ones to use to support their claims. When I sit down to write a blog post that I hope will change the minds of some of my readers, rarely do I begin by looking up quotes and statistics. Most often, I begin by thinking about my own experiences and how I can use those to help others see the need for change.
So that is where I ask my students to begin as well. Over the first few weeks of our unit, we look at a variety of mentor texts. I begin by using mentor texts that draw heavily from the experiences of the writers. CLICK HERE to see a document that shows many of the mentor texts that I use throughout our entire unit. (The quality is a bit poor since I attempted to convert the files into a GoogleDoc, but you can look up most of these online and find much better copies of them to use.)
With our first mentor texts, we simply practice figuring out what the overall claim of the piece of writing is. What does the writer want? What changes does the writer hope to see? We do this work as my students are starting to craft their own claim statements. I have shared it before, but THIS is the planning document that they use as they are doing this work.
After they have their first claim statements. We look back at our mentor texts and begin to list out the reasons that writers give to support the claims they are making. At this point, my students also begin to list out reasons that will support the claims they are making. I do not hand them a graphic organizer, but rather teach them to build an organizing tool that fits the needs of the writing that they hope to do. I wrote about this work last year in THIS BLOG POST.
And then it is time to start planning the evidence that they will use to support the reasons they will give in their writing. Instead of telling my students what evidence to use, we return, once again, to our mentor texts. We start to analyze how our writers are supporting what they are saying in their writing. The first things that my students start to notice go up onto our anchor charts. We look at how writers use personal experience, if/then statements, specific examples and details that create images in the minds of the reader. As we learn about these types of evidence, we highlight examples where we see them in our mentor texts.
And then. More importantly. We talk about why our writers chose these types of evidence in these specific moments. We look at how each type of evidence helps the writer in a different way. As we are doing this, we go back to our own plans and we look for ways that we might be able to use each type of evidence. Sometimes, my students are able to find ways to use these types of evidence in their own writing. Often, they find multiple places to each type of evidence. Other times, they don’t have a use for each type of evidence. And all of that is fine.
The idea is not to tell the kids how many pieces of evidence they need for each reason. They idea is to teach our students to think about the claims they are making and what types of evidence will be most useful.
Once we master using the kind of evidence that does not require any research, then we begin to look at the evidence that does require research. As we work to learn these new strategies, students look for places to start to add in these new strategies in their own writing. And the whole time. While we are doing this learning, we are also writing. That means that the first pieces that my students complete often are based on no formal research. Because we have not yet learned to use strategies that require research. And that is okay. I trust that as we learn more strategies, my students will start to use more strategies. And my conferring make sure that this is exactly what they are doing.
Every year, what I observe is that when we begin, the topics that my students chose to write about are personal. They mostly only affect them. They write about the stuff that they want or the changes they want at school that will make their own lives better. And every year I worry that we will not think more globally. And every year, my students prove me wrong. As we learn about how writers use more than their own lived experiences, my students begin to think beyond their own lived experiences. As we read about issues that affect the world beyond the writer, my students begin to think about the changes that they hope to see in the world beyond just themselves. So as my students learn new tools and strategies, they start to adapt what they are writing about in order to find opportunities to use those strategies.
As we learn, we add to our anchor charts which provide a visual reminder of all the things that we are learning to do as opinion writers. Here is how our charts looked as we neared the end of our unit:
And every time I sit to confer with a writer, I notice all of the ways that they are supporting the claims that they are making. And what I notice every year is the wide variety of ways that my students use the strategies that we have learned together. Their writing never looks just one way because their writing is truly designed to fit their needs as writers.
And that is what always leads me to remember to ask my students to start to use their own pieces of writing as mentor texts to teach the rest of their classmates about what they have learned how to do. I will describe that work in my next blog post.