Rigor. Yes, we have talked about this before. Rigor. It is not only intellectually-based, but also a cultural idea that teachers must embody. But are we—the government, the administrators, the teachers—pushing too hard? Are we asking students questions they couldn’t possibly answer because their brains just aren’t ready yet? Are we asking too much?
Well, honestly, it doesn’t matter. Even if we are asking too much or pushing too hard, it doesn’t change the fact that the Common Core is here to stay for a while. We need to adapt to its framework.
I teach 7th and 8th grade special education Language Arts. Writing an argument is hard for my kids. Like, really hard. It’s hard for most 7th and 8th graders. So here is what I did to get the concept across and make it understandable for them.
I started with the whole. I found an exemplar essay and, yes, I modified it. (Of course I did. That’s my job.) We read the argumentative essay together as a class. We examined it after the initial read and talked about some features we saw such as the title, the author, the source, the quotation marks and the citations. We discussed some difficult vocabulary in context (merely for the teachable moments—teaching vocab in context wasn’t my goal for this initial lesson), and we determined the overall topic.
Then we broke it down. In the next lesson we looked at the essay in terms of…well, terms. The students were given general argumentative vocabulary terms such as claim, evidence, counterclaim, rebuttal, etc. They had to define the terms themselves and after that we came together and looked at the exemplar essay. We identified and labeled examples of the terms and wrote some annotations in our own words: i.e. “This is the counterclaim because…” and “This is the claim, it is located at the end of the introduction. It states that…”
Then we had some lessons in isolation. We talked about what an argument really is, what its purpose is, and why arguments are important. We discussed reliable sources and where to find them. We talked about vocabulary in context and how to determine the meanings of words when we don’t have any dictionary tools. We even practiced identifying counterclaims and rebuttals. There were also some lessons and teachable moments about grammar, mechanics, spelling, structure, and diction.
Then the students put it all back together. I gave the students a topic and two sources. I did this for a few reasons. First, this is essentially their initial encounter with argumentative writing and they needed a bit of direction. Also, by controlling their topic and sources I could modify the articles so that the students could read them independently. (The students will use databases to find information later in the year, so I figured this would work well in the beginning of the year.) After reading the articles the students extracted evidence (with much help). Then they wrote their argumentative essay on a graphic organizer that required them to fill in the information asked for: the introductory sentence, the claim, the topic sentences, the evidence, and the closing sentence.
Now, did they write an entire 4-5 paragraph essay? No. Did they type it up and hand it in so I could write comments all over it and hand it back? No. But they did their best work and they wrote all the important parts of an argumentative essay. They learned about argumentative writing and they put something on paper. That is a step in the right direction. It wasn’t a perfect unit, not at all. But it was a good start. We took something that felt really overwhelming and difficult at first and we looked at it as a whole, we broke it down, and we put it back together. We did it and we learned. Is there a ways to go? Absolutely, but what I did with my kids in that unit…that was success within the Common Core.