This post shares differentiated content ideas for designing a lesson that teaches argumentation to gifted youth.
What Gifted Youth Need
Gifted students bring enormous passion and knowledge to the classroom, but they sometimes struggle to find appropriate channels for these talents. While many of these students are comfortable with expressing their point of view in more creative fiction or nonfiction settings–such as creating YouTube commentary videos or writing original stories–they often have less experience with expressing their ideas in more traditional written genres, such as an argumentative essay. As a writing instructor in Duke TIP eStudies program who has also taught at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, Louisiana State University, Georgia Institute of Technology, and Middle Georgia State University, I look for opportunities to bring a sense of authenticity to student writing and to channel their enthusiasm and interests so they can create organized, engaging arguments.
So often, what students learn about organizing and communicating their thoughts–especially in written essays and arguments–are so rote, cookie-cutter, and aimed at success in standardized tests as to squeeze any sense of joy or originality out of writing, for both teachers and students. In teaching students so many rules–from not using “I” in their work to the dreaded five-paragraph essay–we sometimes end up stunting them with training wheels, as John Warner argues in Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. According to Warner, by insisting on teaching such a rigid template for writing, we not only are teaching students an “artificial construct,” a type of writing which they will never use outside of school, but we also encourage them to see writing as a kind of “fill-in-the-blank” exercise, rather than one which draws on their knowledge, curiosity, and passion (29). Gifted students may find such cookie-cutter exercises dull and a waste of time.
How do you teach argumentation?
How have you used the Declaration of Independence in your classroom?
Share with us below!
Models: What Do We Mean By Manifesto?
While I think it is important to provide engaging models of writing for students, I want them to see the models as inspirations, rather than templates to fill out. The models I draw on provide a variety of structures to make their arguments, in an effort to demonstrate that there’s no “one-size-fits-all” way of writing. Gifted students appreciate knowing multiple possibilities, as many gifted students are highly versatile and can digest a large amount of input and knowledge. However, despite the models’ variety in historical context, length, purpose, and even language, I have drawn from them a common model which I characterize as a “manifesto” model of argument, a model which I then ask students to emulate in their own work.
“Manifesto” may sound like a lofty, contentious genre. However, at its heart, a manifesto is a declaration of the intentions, motives, or views of a group, and it usually has some ideological dimension to it. There are manifestos for everything from political movements to preferred fonts. For this assignment, I start with a model with which most of my students have at least a passing familiarity: the Declaration of Independence.
I start this unit by having students take turns reading the entire Declaration of Independence. While students may be reticent at first to read out loud–or may think they know it already, or may not be interested in it–the act of reading the Declaration of Independence out loud functions as a striking demonstration of the powerful potential of words. Once we get past the familiar opening phrases, it’s nearly impossible not to be moved by the text. The Founding Fathers’ words retain their feeling of rebelliousness, of anger, of accusation, which can’t help but capture the students’ attention. (And I admit to showing my own emotional reaction to the document, as I find it an emotionally stirring statement. My own dramatic reaction can often give students a sense of permission to experience their own response to the text.)
Why the Manifesto?
Ultimately, this “manifesto model” of argument writing works because:
- It is modeled after powerful examples of real-word writing;
- It provides enough of a structure that students have a place to start in organizing their ideas;
- It has enough flexibility that students (and teachers) can adapt it to a wide variety of writing contexts;
- It generally helps students produce more engaging, dynamic reading, which makes for much more rewarding teaching.
For gifted students, who may be used to seeing an intimidating quantity of content knowledge as sufficient for creating a convincing argument, this model forces a higher level of engagement with their knowledge; and this engagement can be driven by and further fuel their passion for learning. By starting with a topic about which they’re already passionate and knowledgeable–whether Marvel superheroes, American history, or Shakespeare’s plays–and using this model to construct an argument about their topic, students are forced to sort and evaluate their information into these categories, which helps them organize and synthesize their knowledge into a cogent argument. It is not enough to present a substantial amount of background knowledge; students must decide what values this information represents. They must determine whether the evidence they’re presenting is in alignment with the values they have claimed.
Then they must decide what exactly they are arguing for (the “Call to Action”) as well as the significance of their argument (“What’s at Stake?”) All of these elements are identifiable in the models from American history I have suggested (the Declaration, the Address, and the Letter); by referring students to these models and having them identify where they see these elements in the famous documents, students can find inspiration (but not cookie cutters for) their own work.
The Declaration of Independence as a Model Argument
I have drawn on the Declaration of Independence to construct a model for writing an argument that students use in creating their own arguments. Using the Declaration as my own model for what I call a “manifesto argument,” I break down this manifesto argument into four main parts:
- Background (“When in the course of human events…”)
- Statement of Values (“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”)
- Call to Action (“That these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states…”)
- What’s at Stake (“Our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honour…”)
Rather than a fill-in-the-blank template, this manifesto model requires that students draw on critical thinking skills to determine what information and evidence they should draw on for each of these sections.
The model is adaptable enough that it can be used as a low-stakes, formative assignment to practice sketching out an argument, drawing on students’ pre-existing knowledge and passion (a manifesto for pizza parties on Fridays! For what Hogwarts house they belong in!), to more long-term, summative assignments incorporating academic or even field research.
Using Other Manifestos
In some classes, the Declaration of Independence is the only manifesto example that we read out loud. However, I have also had success teaching it along with the Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” reading all of the Lincoln speech and excerpts of the King essay out loud.
As a trio of texts, they echo and reflect back on each other, forming an important trio of foundational documents on the centrality of the idea of freedom in American history. I’ve had one students describe the two subsequent documents as the “Declaration Parts Two and Three”–and yet another student characterized it as the ultimate break-up letter. Taken together, these documents can act as a productive jumping off point for a student discussion on the evolutionary nature of ideas, or on the understanding of liberty and democracy in American history. The concrete nature of using primary source documents in the classroom has a strong appeal to gifted students who excel at finding patterns and relationships in content.
Regardless of the field, discipline, or career path that students are drawn to, they must have the ability to construct a cogent argument supported by clear, credible evidence. Providing them with a flexible heuristic such as this manifesto model moves students away from the kind of “training wheels” kind of writing assignments which discourages complex engagement with their subject matter. And perhaps even more importantly, it’s more interesting for students to write, and it’s more interesting for teachers to read.