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Any English teacher can tell you that argumentative essays written by students are more often than not, dry, dull, and formulaic. I’m here to tell you, it’s not our students’ fault. The writing units most teachers follow to teach argument essays are dry, dull, and formulaic.
Common core standards require that teachers prioritize the core concepts of argument writing such as the writing process, thesis statement, claim statement, reasoning, evidence, and the annotated bibliography. Teachers have to use a step-by-step process because students need these foundations.
In all the years I’ve been an English teacher I have found that writing surpasses expectations when students have a purpose for writing and are given permission to write with voice and passion about high-interest topics.
In a highly engaged English classroom argument essay writing is forgotten. Making a positive change and real-life application are infused into the lesson plan when students begin to care. Argumentative writing units can become opportunities for learning about current events, participating in discussions about issues students face in their daily lives, and making an impact in the community. If you are interested in a unit that prioritize these things then check out blog post about The Absolute Best Way to Start an Argumentative Writing Unit.
One of the best ways to help students discover their passion, voice, and purpose is through highly engaging mentor texts. In this blog post I have put together a variety of mentor texts or persuasive pieces about topics I believe students need to know about and that they have strong opinions about. These topics range from how to cope with death to the spread of misinformation about ADHD on TikTok. English teachers have the power to help students develop their background knowledge about societal issues and think critically about how to approach them. In addition to each mentor text, I’ve also included skills you could teach with the mentor text and discussion questions. Teachers can read the article(s) aloud and have students form small groups to discuss the questions. If students are comfortable sharing their own opinion to the whole class. Check out this blog post with 15 Ways to Engage Students in Meaningful Discussions.
Please note, each mentor text article should be vetted based on the maturity level of your students and their reading levels. Some of the articles may be above the reading level of middle school students. For this reason, I recommend reading the entire mentor text aloud on a separate day before using it to teach a writing skill. You might also consider utilize a graphic organizer for writing definitions for key vocabulary within the articles. There are many different ways you can use these mentor texts in your class, feel free to get creative! You might even do a jigsaw activity where small groups read different articles and summarize them to their group members.
1. What to Say When You Meet the Angel of Death at a Party
*This New York Times opinion piece gets heavy and may not be appropriate for some students.
Loss is a taboo topic in schools and it shouldn’t be because eventually everyone experiences loss in their lives. When a student or teacher experiences loss, the pain radiates out into the community. Most who aren’t directly connected to the person who died, don’t know what to say or how to help. This article is written by a woman who faces death every day because she is living with stage IV cancer. She writes truthfully about her experiences being so close to death. She describes how people around her become uncomfortable when confronted with their mortality because of her cancer diagnosis.
“To so many people, I am no longer just myself. I am a reminder of a thought that is difficult for the rational brain to accept: that the elements that constitute our bodies might fail at any moment. When I originally got my diagnosis at age 35, all I could think to say was, ‘But I have a son.’ It was the best argument I had. I can’t end. This world can’t end. It had just begun.”
Although, the article may be too mature for some students, it’s still a high quality, high interest piece of argumentation. The author is making suggestions to people about what not to say to someone experiencing loss. It can be utilized to teach students that arguing a point doesn’t have to be formulaic or lacking in narrative. This article provides an opportunity for students to discuss this fairly taboo topic and also learn the important skill of writing with voice while weaving in a narrative. Here are some other ways you can utilize this article:
- Point of View
- Narrative Writing
- Figurative Language
- Writing Style
- What do you think the author means with this figurative language? “A tragedy is like a fault line. A life is split into a before and an after, and most of the time, the before was better.”
- What is the author suggesting we say when we meet the angel of death at a party?
- What is the point the author is trying to make? What’s her claim?
- What do you think the author means by this? “Some people give you their heartbreak like a gift”
2. The Myth of the Normal Brain: Embracing Neurodiversity
Students deserve to know that labels such as dyslexia, ADHD, and autism are being reevaluated. For a long time these terms have been associated with negative and deficit based ideas. This persuasive text makes the important point that people with mental “disorders” such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, down syndrome, and other diagnosis have been found to have strengths and gifts associated with the “disorder”. The author argues that these mental differences may have actually been selected over time through evolution because they benefited humankind over many thousands of years!
- Compare and contrast (in the intro)
- Counter argument
- What are some examples of evolutionary advantages that humans have developed?
- Do you think the term “disorder” when describing ADHD, OCD, or autism needs to be changed, why or why not?
- How might labels for mental health conditions be helpful, how might they be hurtful?
- “There is no normal flower or culture. Similarly, we ought to accept the fact that there is no normal brain or mind.” Do you agree or disagree with these statements?
3. Misleading videos about ADHD are being widely disseminated on TikTok, study finds
Did you know that #adhd is the seventh most popular hashtag on TikTok? This article presents a study done to find out if this rise in popularity and information about ADHD on the social media platform may be causing the spread of misinformation as well. The findings were that 52% of the TikTok videos were misleading! This article is an excellent one to analyze the argumentation skills listed below and teach students about misinformation on the internet.
- Summarizing (the research study)
- Embedding Quotes
- Identifying the Claim (the spread of misinformation about ADHD is pervasive on social media platforms like TikTok)
- Organizational Structure (summary of study and interview)
- “Most of these misleading videos oversimplified ADHD, recommended incorrect treatments, or wrongly attributed symptoms of other psychiatric disorders as being a symptom ADHD.” Have you seen videos like the ones described in this quote on social media?
- What consequences do you think the spread of misinformation has?
- What consequences do you think hitting the like button on a piece of content that spreads misinformation has?
- This quote below describes advertisements on TikTok attempting to get kids to self-diagnose with ADHD using oversimplified symptoms such as being too chatty. The goal? To make money.“There has recently been serious concerns raised in the media about predatory advertisements about ADHD on TikTok, made by for-profit telehealth companies. Some of these advertisements were pulled from TikTok, and we do not have access or a way to search for these videos.” What other companies or advertisements have you seen that seem to target and make a profit from children?
4. The Climate Book: Greta Thunberg’s ‘impassioned anthology’ on climate change
Greta Thunberg, who has autism, was only around 11 when she started speaking up about climate change. Now she’s one of the leading advocates for taking action now to stop the climate change crisis. This article is a summary of her newest book (she’s written many!), The Climate Book. I haven’t read Greta Thunberg’s new book (yet) but after reading this article I can tell the book is a stellar example of argumentative writing at its finest. The article paints a bleak picture so make sure to read it first before reading it with students. Some students may be very sensitive about these scary topics related to our planet becoming uninhabitable eventually. You may even allow students to opt out of the lesson and do an alternative activity.
- Rhetoric (specifically ethos because of all the experts featured in the book)
- Embedding quotes (from the book and interviews)
- Summarizing (the book)
- Citing other articles
- Are there any issues you feel passionate enough about to lead a school strike?
- Why do you think it might be challenging for kids to speak up about issues that society faces and that they care about?
- What support do you think a kid would need to speak out, organize a strike, publish a book, or give a speech about an issue?
5. Drug Education Curriculum Moves Beyond ‘Just Say No’ to Teach Harm Reduction
This article is informative and it’s about a very controversial topic when it comes to drug education: harm reduction vs. just say no curriculum. The issue of drugs impacts all children and the sad reality is that adults (both parents and teachers) have a hard time discussing this issue with kids, understandably, it’s a tough subject. I believe when we expose students to information about controversial topics through articles like this, then ask them about their opinions on the topic, (and listen carefully) we are more likely to develop a trusting and open line of communication with them. Students deserve to learn about this new type of curriculum and share their opinions about it.
- Informative vs. Argumentative Writing
- Summarizing (the new curriculum)
- Quoting a Text (the curriculum)
- Do you believe just say no or harm reduction should be taught to students? Why?
- The article discusses some of the critical thinking skills taught in this new curriculum. Do you ever ask these questions about the websites and articles you find online? Such as, does the author have an agenda? If you have, what kind of “agendas” do you think authors online might have?
- What skills do you believe would be most helpful for students when navigating the issue of drugs in their every day lives?
6. Don’t Ban ChatGPT in Schools. Teach With It.
I can’t have a collection of controversial articles without including an article on the topic of ChatGPT. If you are a regular reader of this blog or listener to the podcast, you know how I feel about ChatGPT: this tool will change teaching…for the better. In fact, that’s the claim of the article above. Yep, I’m definitely biased on the topic of ChatGPT. You may be too, it is a controversial topic and controversial topics have extreme sides. So, I’d recommend pairing this article with one that has a claim for the other side: ChatGPT is not a tool for learning. It must be banned in class. After reading each article students can write why they side with one argument or the other, or have an entirely different view.
- Engaging title
- Where do you stand on the issue of using ChatGPT in schools?
- In what ways could ChatGPT be harmful in schools?
- In what ways could ChatGPT be helpful in schools?
- How might ChatGPT be used to improve student writing?
7. Schools Say No to Cell Phones in Class But Is It a Smart Move?
This is a lengthy article detailing the ins and outs of why banning cell phones in school doesn’t work very well. It’s informative and includes many reasons for why banning cell phones is problematic. It’s very convincing and analyzing why would really help students understand how to argue their point in convincing ways too. It could also be really beneficial for students to read an article arguing the opposing point. This article, Should cell phones be banned in American classrooms? includes a study that showed kids in schools that banned cell phones had better test scores.
- Once Sentence Emphasis
- Embedding Quotes
- Do you believe cell phones should be banned in schools? Why or why not?
- After reading both articles, which school would you feel more calm in? A school that banned cell phones or a school that did not?
- “They are feeding an addiction and stunting students’ development of face-to-face communication skills”. Do you believe cell phones do these things? Why or why not?
8. Are Video Games Really Addictive?
This article discusses the ins and outs of the argument that video games are addictive. The author’s claim is that they are not. It’s very convincing because of statistics like this: “But video game-playing is rarely addictive. That makes it a very different animal from, say, gambling or binge eating. Experts estimate that problematic play is exhibited by 0.5% of the general population and less than 1.0% of adult gamers.” The article is another excellent example of argumentation about a highly engaging topic for students!
- Anecdote Hook
- Asking Questions
- What is the author’s claim and reasoning to support that claim? Identify these parts of the article.
- Why do you think video games are so appealing? Does everyone like them?
- Do you believe video games are addictive? Why or why not?
Teaching argumentative writing can get dry and dull fast resulting in decreased engagement. Utilizing well-written mentor texts about critical high interest topics is a great way to teach your entire argumentative essay unit while also engaging students in real conversations, critical thinking, and close reading.