As teachers, we walk a thin line every day. How do we conduct class and present lessons without allowing our personal beliefs to subtly creep in? When you add in the fact that the very nature of Argumentative Writing lends itself to sharing our opinions about the topics being discussed, the issue becomes even more relevant. So, how can we eliminate personal bias in teaching writing in general and argumentative writing in particular?
It’s important to realize that many teaching contracts expressly forbid sharing personal beliefs with students. Quite frequently, there are official policies in place to prevent the sharing of personal viewpoints concerning religion, politics, etc. Add in the fact that many argumentative writing topics concern social issues and it becomes imperative we present both sides of an argumentative topic equally and fairly, without seeming to have inclinations one way or another.
TEACH STUDENTS HOW TO THINK, NOT WHAT TO THINK
“The best teachers are those who show you where to look but don’t tell you what to see.” If we want to help our students develop critical thinking skills and the knowledge of how to use those skills to determine the answers to questions that concern every aspect of their lives, we must present each side of an argumentative topic with equal fervor and research. And this skill set is becoming increasingly important given the volatile nature society.
“In times of greatest conflict, teachers accomplish their most significant and influential work.” This statement from Literary Sherri sums it all up. I can’t think of a time in modern history when there has been more conflict in our society; therefore, it is our job as a teacher to help students decide what side of important issues they support and to help them determine the issues that have a direct impact on their lives. In turn, they will develop into the type of people and citizens we can be proud of.
WE ARE ROLE MODELS AND OUR WORDS HAVE AN IMPACT
We owe it to our students to provide fair and equitable arguments on all sides of issues and to teach our students how to do the same. As teachers, we are role models for our students, and we do impact the future. The mere thought of being a role model is a terrifying prospect. I once had a young lady tell me she was going to keep her maiden name when she got married, just like I had. Talk about an unexpected impact. The fact a student would say she wanted to do that because I had done that – at times we forget how much influence we actually have.
Another reason teaching our students to examine at all sides of an issue and make an informed choice centers on the brutality of the arguments that frequently erupt on social media. We want to give them the skills to know how to think, but not what to think. I tell my students, “If you can’t understand another person’s point of view, then how could you ever convince them to change their mind and agree with you? You must be able to look at both sides logically and rationally, and then from there make a decision. You can’t just think from your heart in these situations, but rather, you must think from your brain.”
The truth of this really hit home with me during the primaries for the last presidential election, when I made my students do an assignment they hated at first but loved as we progressed. They were required to research the political platform and voting record of every single candidate on the list of social issues we had brainstormed as a class. (Yes, I did have to “lead” them a bit in this because No Homework doesn’t really translate well to the national stage.)
Next, they had to choose an issue that was personally important to them and research the candidates’ platforms on that issue. The answers to this research were usually no big surprise. The Ah Ha! moments came after the next step – researching the candidates’ voting records on that issue. I had one student whose entire family were huge fans of a specific candidate. He identified Veterans’ Affairs as the most important issue to him. The majority of his family had military service and relied on military benefits. As he researched his candidate’s platform, he discovered it was extremely pro veterans’ affairs.
This was no surprise, and in fact, he pointed it out to me that this candidate was the one who would help his family the most. The eye-opener came when he researched the candidate’s voting record and discovered he had voted against almost every single bill to provide more assistance to veterans. The most exciting part for me is when this student went home and informed his family about his discovery and showed them how to research. Now, I have no idea how they voted, nor do I care, but I made them think and research. Mission Accomplished!
DEVELOPING NON-BIASED PROMPTS
So, how do you develop an argumentative prompt that is completely fair and presents equal opportunity for both sides? I’m going to use my resource, Arming Teachers, as an example. When developing this prompt, my goal was to make sure that both sides are equally represented. In order to do this, I begin with a general statement introducing the issue. “Arming teachers with concealed weapons has become one of the most polarizing issues in America today.” This basic introductory statement introduces the students to the topic without introducing the opposing beliefs.
Next, I succinctly present both sides of the issue. “It seems to come down to a very simplistic debate concerning priorities and the theory of ‘The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.’” All I have done is introduce the differing viewpoints.
The next step introduces the opposing viewpoint one at a time. I always begin with the pro side of the topic to ensure my prompts maintain continuity. “Proponents believe teachers should have the right to protect themselves and their students.” This is a great point for a mini-vocabulary lesson. What is a proponent? What is polarizing? Get them thinking. “Opponents counter with the amount of ongoing training a teacher would need to be properly prepared to carry a firearm in school.” Notice, one statement is pro, one statement is con. You must keep it the information about each side completely even.
Then we move on to the final instructions for the lesson. “Some people believe that arming teachers will provide a safer environment in schools and will add a layer of protection.” Notice this is one pro statement, but I have offered two reasons; therefore, the con sentence must also offer two reasons. “Others believe that bringing more guns into schools is only going to increase violence and could lead to even more shootings.” Once again, the statements and reasons must remain even.
Finally, we reach the section of the prompt where the students are presented with their choices for the assignment. “In your opinion, which side has a stronger case?” Remember, the word opinion or belief is the hallmark of an argumentative essay. “To strengthen your argument, use your observations and experiences, and information from your research.”
Just a quick side not, remember that the difference between an argumentative writing prompt and a persuasive writing prompt is there is not a call to a Call to Action in an argumentative prompt. An argumentative essay is simply the student presenting his or her opinion or belief with supporting evidence.
REQUIRE RESEARCH ON BOTH SIDES OF THE ISSUE
Even when we as a class complete the gathering ideas part of the lesson with the Pro and Con chart, I require students to fill out both sides. When they complain (and they do complain) I remind them the only way they can ever understand how someone who disagrees with you thinks is if they have researched the opposing belief. They can’t just assume anyone who disagrees with them is wrong.
I also remind my students they must address an opposing view-point in their writing for a well-developed essay. Suggest including the opposing viewpoint in the introduction. I’m a fan of making it a complex sentence and showcasing some sentence fluency.
THE HOW IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE WHAT
Finally, we must take into account what our students are experiencing. They are living in a time of turmoil and social unrest. They have probably experienced family and friends arguing over issues that they as pre-teens or teens don’t understand. I have seen kids chant slogans and parrot popular beliefs, but when I ask them what that actually means, they have no idea. They are just blindly repeating what they have seen or heard. We must teach them how to think independently. We don’t need to tell them WHAT to think; they’ll figure that out on their own. But we have to teach them HOW to think, where to find sources, where to get this information. When we accomplish that, we can truly say that we have exemplified the belief that, “The best teachers are those who show you where to look but don’t tell you what to see.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jamie has taught grades 6 -12, in addition to teaching English 101 at community colleges, throughout her 29 year career. Currently, she is retired and donates her time as a volunteer tutor for local schools. During her career, she obtained her Master’s in English/Education, became National Board Certified, taught in St. Petersburg, Russia, on a diplomatic exchange, implemented numerous successful writing camps and programs, and taught thousands of students to love writing through her writing program. She also provides Professional Development for schools and districts in person and on her website www.writeonwithjamie.com. In her free time, she is a servant to four demanding furry masters – Teddy and Petey (rescue dogs from the Everglades of Florida) and Kitten and Smitty (rescue kitties who decided to allow Jamie and Scott – her husband – to take care of them.) She also loves reading, volunteering time to animal rescue groups, and hanging out with her husband.