Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Angie's Adventures with College-Ready Writing, Part III

This Wednesday, Angie shares Part III of her adventure into bringing College-Ready Writing into her classroom. In case you missed it, read her Part I and Part II first!

“All growth is a leap in the dark, a spontaneous unpremeditated act without benefit of experience.”  - Henry Miller

“I think that a fundamental belief is that for us growth is a way of life and we have to grow at all times.” - Mukesh Ambuni

April 6 - Today, after a class, I was trying to politely usher a kid out of my classroom by asking him what he was working on. He stopped typing, looked at me, and said, “I just have to authorize this last piece of evidence and then I’ll be done.” What! Authorize! Did I hear that correctly? Nevertheless, I was pleased that the vocabulary had made its way to students and that they were using it. This minor victory happened on the day that my student teacher introduced countering.

According to Harris’s book Rewriting: How To Do Things With Texts, countering is defined as suggesting “a different way of thinking” (56). It is used to move a discussion forward, to move it in a new way. It is not to prove someone wrong. It differs from forwarding because while forwarding is “Yes, and,” countering is “Yes, but” (56).

Harris states that there are three ways to counter:
#1 ARGUING THE OTHER SIDE: This shows “the usefulness of a term or idea that a writer has criticized. Or, it can note problems with a text that the author has argued for” (57). To argue the other side, you must attach “a positive value to something another writer denigrates or a negative value to what another writer applauds” (60). 

In class we used Taco Bell as an example[1]. Say for instance you are trying to argue that Taco Bell is the worst taco restaurant in the area and you read an article that talks about how great the sauce flavor is on Taco Bell’s tacos. You can use this information as a counter. It would sound something like this (notice the “yes, but” format):

Smith argues in his article “Totally made up article about the greatness of Taco Bell,” “Taco Bell uses Mexican flavors in their sauces to add a delicious kick to their tacos.” Smith is right, Taco Bell does flavor their meat, but that sauce he describes as a “delicious kick” may be too spicy for some people, like children. This makes it difficult to take families to the restaurant.  

The purpose of arguing the other side is to show the negative side of a positive characteristic (or vice versa) and then use that to make your own point. In this case, my point is that Taco Bell isn’t great for families.

Click on the picture for a clearer image.

#2 UNCOVERING VALUES: To counter by uncovering values, you must locate a word or concept for analysis that “a text has left undefined or unexamined” (57). To uncover a value you might find that the value is “connected to deep cultural beliefs about gender, race, sexuality, social class, and religion” (63). From here, you should move to examine what the text leaves unmarked or unquestioned. Ask yourself, what does the text take for granted?

As a class, my student teacher had the students think of counterarguments to a school dress code policy. We imagined that we were not for a school dress code policy and thought about how people would counter our position. Students went through and created counterarguments that uncovered values. Here are a couple of examples students came up with:

Student A looked at what he would say if he wanted to counter by using an article that countered his position (anti dress code policy) which stated that dress codes help prevent discrimination. He decided that a way to think about this would be to acknowledge that there is some discrimination built in to how someone dresses, but that even if clothing were removed, students would find other things to discriminate against, like race and gender.

Student B looked at what she would say if she wanted to counter an article that said dress codes would make students more comfortable. She decided that a way to do this would be to point out that students typically don’t dress in clothes that make them uncomfortable, so having a dress code would not fix that problem, but could make it worse because the dress code might enforce wearing clothes that the student found uncomfortable.

The next steps for students should be to see how it helps them move their own argument forward. You can’t counter just for the sake of countering. In order for the counterargument to serve a purpose in your writing, it should be related to a point you are already making. For student A,  he now needs to use this counter to make his own point. He could expand on this counterargument and make the point that what really needs to happen in schools is better education on tolerance. Perhaps he could even make the argument that putting in a dress code policy to curb discrimination does not solve the real problem, which is intolerance.

If one of student B’s points was that students are more comfortable in their own clothes, then this counterargument would work well. It gives student B something to prove. Now she can prove her own point by expanding to add illustrations and to authorize her point, thus disproving the comfort theory counterargument.

This worked well in a hypothetical world, but there were some issues transferring the knowledge to their own papers.

DISSENTING: Dissenting is “identifying a shared line of thought on an issue in order to note its limits” (57). The key here is to show that many texts (like 3) share the same opinion on something (the greatness of Taco Bell cinnamon twists, for example). After you have shown that there are many people out there that love these sweet sugary confections, counter that consensus by proving that the cinnamon twists basically taste like cardboard dipped in sugar.

This one proved to be the most difficult for students to understand, which was surprising because it is probably the one they do most effortlessly. Most often students frame their counterarguments with something like this: Many critics agree that…, but this is wrong because...

Click on the image for a clearer picture.

Click on the image for a clearer picture.

Instead of dissenting, they created examples that were really uncovering values. Part of this was because it was difficult for them to imagine several hypothetical articles to go with a hypothetical paper, so the definition got a bit muddied. Next time, I will make students read short excerpts to use and practice with.

At the end of the day, I asked my student teacher what she thought about Harris now that she has taught more of it. She hesitated.  I glanced towards the door. If she made a run for it, could I tackle her before she fled the teaching profession?

She said, to my surprise, that she liked them, but that she needed to work with them more. We reflected back to her original lesson on forwarding and talked about how maybe the way it was taught (lacking sufficient scaffolds and good examples) influenced what she thought about the topic. She admitted that this might be true. This time, my student teacher gave notes, extended definitions, examples, and allowed practice time with an activity. She even created some of her own examples. Previously in the forwarding lesson, students were only given notes and the examples from Harris’s book. She stated that if she would have taught forwarding like countering, she probably would have liked them better. I can tell that this has pushed her. It’s made her not only think more deeply about using evidence, but also lesson planning. The struggle has made her different, more confident. She’s weathered something now.

I can see a change within my students as well. Now that they have more purpose, they seem more confident. They can tell me why they added certain evidence and how it helps create their argument. They’re less dependent on me; they ask each other questions about how to do the moves and if what they wrote makes sense. We still have a long ways to go, but I think that with this vocabulary and practice, it’s keeping students moving, changing.

As I keep teaching, I’ll keep learning. Next time, I’ll do it better; I’ll have learned more; I’ll understand it better.  I’ll be growing.


“Growth quotes.” BrainyQuote. BrainyQuote Desktop. n.d. Web. 7 April 2016.
Harris, Joseph. Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts. Logan: Utah State University Press, 2006.

[1]  In class, the example given didn’t work as nicely as the one I have here. But for illustrative purposes, I’ll pretend this is the example we used and it was super clear to the students and everyone totally understood arguing the other side the first time it was explained as opposed to what really happened which was that it did not go as seamlessly.

Reminder: Sunday, May 1st: Deadline to apply for the College Ready Writers Program Advanced Institute. The NWP would like an updated timeline and list of participants by April 15th, so if you are planning to apply, please let Kelly Sassi know by April 15th.