Brian Dolezal


Depending on the source, there are various definitions of argument in the   dictionary.  Some stay neutral stating that it is “a discussion on differing or conflicting views” while others take a connotative stance adding in the words “angry” or “heated.”

What if we stayed neutral on the term argument and used it as a tool to engage in discussion to explore multiple viewpoints?  What if we used argument as a way to teach empathy to our students?  What if argument was not always about who is right or wrong but about discourse and dialogue to explore the human condition?

Gerald Graff (2003) writes that “argument literacy” is fundamental to being educated. The university is largely an “argument culture,”  therefore, K–12 schools should “teach the conflicts” so that students are adept at understanding and engaging in argument (both oral and written) when they enter college. (Common Core Standards Appendix A)  With this push for argumentation, the Common Core has also made a push to place informational and nonliterary text at the forefront of what students read.  By 12th grade, 70% of what students read should be nonliterary text.  This controversial percentage, that utilizes the NAEP as its primary causation, has caused some knee jerk over-reactionary moves by teachers, schools, and districts to push out literature.   Some of these knee jerks are placing argument writing only within informational texts.

To place literary enthusiasts at ease, it is not as polarized as it seems.  Argumentation can be placed at the heart of literary discourse and analysis as well as informational texts.  In fact, it can increase literary engagement and really touch upon the heart of what the Common Core asks students to do,which is make meaning through text rather than through the teacher.    The rub is in how we frame the questions.  Questions that require deep reading, writing, speaking and listening.  Questions that develop a deep sense of empathy rather than polarization.

Argumentation through literature and questions

Creating high quality questions to utilize before, during, and after instruction alone can increase literacy and engagement dramatically.  Questions are at the heart of inquiry and spur argumentative thinking.  Think of the novels and short stories that you teach in your classrooms.  They are full of character conflicts, motivations, differences and are the catalyst to the development of the themes.  The themes that we discover through literature are perpetually arguable depending upon perspective.  Let me give you some examples of this:

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

  • Is the American Dream attainable or unattainable?
  • Is human existence by nature predatory or nurturing?
  • Is Curley’s wife a victim of male dominated society or responsible for her own actions?

The Great Gatsby by F.Scott Fitzgerald

  • Does our past define us and can we ever escape our past?
  • What is success and how does one define success?
  • Is Gatsby (or any  person) a victim of greed and wealth or responsible for his own decline?

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

  • Are people inherently good or inherently evil?
  • Does social status directly result from social inequality?
  • Can you understand a person without walking in their shoes?

These questions beg conflicting views and ask students to take a stance and explain.  But they also ask students to consider conflicting views and explore them.  Teaching the skill of argument writing within literature not only requires students to go back to the text to cite evidence but it also allows them to engage in questions that draw them into the text at a personal level.  Ted Fabiano from the Greater Kansas City Writing Project refers to these as “binary pairs”  where two chains of thought are beckoned and students explore these binary relationships.  It is at the center of argument.  By using this conflict and allowing our students to explore both sides requires a sense of empathy, seeing the perspectives from a variety of vantage points.

Argumentation through poetry and questions

What makes poetry a great instructional tool is that it often lends itself to close analysis of complex abstract ideas in short pieces of text.  Not only does poetry engage the heart and the mind, but also is a great tool for argumentation because poetry live in various truths.    These truths could be emotional, social, or physical. Truths are invariably arguable but more importantly they are relative.  The truths that you hold may be very different from that of your students.  If we are asking our students to engage in the world and seek truths that matter to them, then why not have them seek these truths for themselves and argue them within poetry.  Again, focusing on two chains of thought in a piece ask students to explore binary pairs.

Harlem by Langston Hughes

  • Is dreaming a choice or born out of necessity?
  • Do we have the choice to act upon or defer our dreams?

And I Still I Rise by Maya Angelou

  • Do all humans have the capacity to overcome discrimination?
  • Can everyone rise above negative circumstances?  Is there a time when they can’t?

Argumentation beyond the academic essay

Formal academic writing is important and should be valued in school but it should not push out more organic forms of writing.  Slam poetry. art, and other forms of creative writing are very effective ways of engaging students in exploring the duality of our lives.  Just Google  videos of slam poetry and you will see some of the most emotionally intense forms of argumentation, personal narrative, and informative writing.  Students are engaged in very personal and social issues that allow them to tell their story and their view next to the views of others in very artful ways.    Engaging students in argumentation through poetry is a way for them to see the duality (multiplicity) of views and how each view is different dependent upon perspective.

  1. Choose a topic or issue (controversial)
  2. Who is your audience and what do you want them to know?
  3. What do you want your audience to feel?
  4. Why is this topic important to you and others?
  5. What are conflicting views of the topic or issues?
  6. How do you feel about those conflicting views?
  7. What empathy do you have towards those who may disagree?
  8. What are the powerful experiences connected to all these views? (personal and social)
  9. What will the audience know and feel after they have listened to your poem?

These are not linear progressions per say  but ways of thinking about the aim of  poems.  It is not a formula to follow.  It is a guide to explore how emotion tied to passion can lead to strong argumentation.  Allowing students to use the topics and texts explored in your class as materials for their poetry can only strengthen their work.  Slam poetry does not replace formal academic writing, it enhances it.

Argumentation through Article of the Week

Kelly Gallagher made Article of the Week and educational staple in many classrooms.  His example of an “A” student in her senior year reading an article about the war in Iraq and thinking that Al Qaeda was a man is haunting.  Our students need us to help them examine the world around them and using texts as a means is a great way of doing this.  One day a week, provide your students with a rich text that explores society and the many debates that go on and have them explore it through and argumentative lens.   If done well, Argumentation is a very positive way to teach empathy because it requires students to see beyond themselves and their own perspectives.   When choosing article of the week, think of having students explore it through these questions:

  1. What is the text saying?
  2. What is the text’s point of view on the topic?
  3. Why is this important and how does it connect to you?
  4. Do you agree or disagree with the text and why?
  5. What biases are hidden or explicit in the text?
  6. What would different people think about the text?

Using a variety of quality texts and the truths that they spell out, whether explicit or inferred, to teach argument writing can help engage our students.  Using argument to teach empathy is a powerful tool to overcoming “either/or” thinking and embrace multiple viewpoints.  Taking a stand against right or wrong is vital to the life of a democracy but who defines right or wrong should be investigated before taking that stand.  We should not limit our students to singular perspectives without exploring multiple perspectives.  Empathy can be taught through argumentative writing.