On Writing in a Classroom:
Rhetoric, or the rhetorical moves an author uses to convey or argue a message, are the pinnacle of a middle school writing classroom.
In a classroom, it goes something like this: teacher asks student to explain or argue a position, student constructs a thesis, develops key points, pulls evidence from a text to support the position, and makes connections between the evidence, the key points, and the thesis.
A student who understands the nuances of persuasion recognizes the opposing argument, either discrediting it or arguing it’s invalid. The most persuasive student invokes the rhetorical triangle composed of three appeals to human sensibilities, as devised by Aristotle. This particularly adept middle school student knows how to pull at the reader’s emotional compass with pathos, using anecdotes that display the macro point at a micro level. These students know how to invoke logos, or credible facts and statistics to solidify the foundation of the argument. These students know how to use ethos to question the audience’s values, to tap into the morals of the readers. The rhetoric of the argument is the foundation that holds up the thesis, if and only if, said twelve-year-old was able to construct a valid argument. The ability to construct an argument is contingent on strong reading comprehension, engagement with the articles, vocabulary, and understanding of specificity in language and ideology, and pure syntactic writing ability.
Then, there is the secondary role of grammar. A teacher’s attention is instantly diverted by the mélange of proper nouns left in the world of lower case with all the other commoners, u as texting speak, and commas resting as comma splices.
Metaphorically, the meat of the argument is composed of a thesis, reasons, and evidence; the rhetoric is what a magician may think of as the smokescreen making the illusion believable.
In many ways, I think of writing as an illusion. And no, I didn’t mean allusion, or a reference to something else. It’s an illusion, as in a magician’s work. A student utilizes critical thinking competencies to develop an argument. However, it takes a far more creative, perhaps illusive, mind to find a unique means to present an argument, pulling in different forms of evidence, pairing the evidence with elaboration that leads the reader back to the argument, or the key point. This illusive mind is also able to predict the weaknesses in the argument, much like a magician must anticipate the weaknesses in a trick, thereby diverting the audience’s attention or slightly altering the trick to render it believable as a baseline, magical as a goal. In this magician mindset, an illusive writer is able to anticipate how others may critique the argument, when to weave in emotionally compelling anecdotes, and when to support controversial issues or problems with logos (facts and statistics).
This is no easy skill to impart in the mind of a 12-year-old. Before writing, they must be able to read critically, dissecting potential biases in a piece of reporting, analyzing the author and source credibility, and continue to research more specific information in response to new findings. After the phase of learning about a topic, the student must think. This innate skill, left unchallenged or refined, can lead students down a slippery slope of argumentation. In thinking about the arguments I’ve seen students produce in my time as a teacher, they tend to be unrelated to the topic at hand, as general as an overview on Wikipedia, factually incorrect, or lacking an argument at all (they are facts).
After building the argument, the student must develop reasons of support. A reason needs to be convincing, support the argument (not complement it), remain more specific than the topic, and a body of research needs to be available to support the reason. The student unearths these reasons in response to careful thinking of critique of the argument. The reasons must be varied, but also connected.
Writing, and the type of writing I want my students to produce, is not only an intensely academic and critical practice; it is an art form in its own right. To some extent, it feels like an innate skill for some students and a litany of complex steps for others. Yet, I don’t think writing or critical thinking is a wholly innate skills. Instead, they are competencies developed slowly over time, grown through the influences of key figures in ones life.
Are Writing and Critical Thinking Innate: An Opinion Developed through Experience
In my own experience, I recall my family’s weekly trips to the library when my mom would delight in teaching my brother and me French. I recall over enunciating, “Vous les veux un jus d’orange,” and my brother and I would change back, “Oui! Je veux un jus d’orange.” My mind was constantly kept moving. With a tight budget and a dad who worked for a commuter airline that caused him to be away more than, my mom became creative. She took us to the $2 symphony rehearsals on Saturday mornings. We frequented the Boise Art Museum with our Family Membership. I remember seeing sarcophagi from Egypt, Chuck Close’s abstracted portraits walking closer and further away from the piece attempting to understand how a piece of art could simultaneously be two different things, walking in circles around Degas’ bonze sculptures to capture all intended angles, and standing awe struck by the massive exhibits that filled the sculpture wing. My mom modeled what it meant to read voraciously, and she threw us a 500 Book Party as ornate as a childhood birthday when my brother and I collectively logged reading 500 books. She enrolled us in art classes. She combed the newspaper every morning for craft projects that could be concocted from our art bins. And most importantly, in pursuit of learning, she gave us autonomy but taught us dedication.
My brother and I had choice; we were not forced to partake in any of these activities. We chose our interests and refined them based on experiences. Yet when we signed up, we went; we stuck with it until it was finished. My mother is a fiercely dedicated person, and that meant we would be too. She let us make mistakes, make choices, and respond to challenges on our own. It also merits noting that my brother and I are dissimilar. As a student, I was overcommitted, perfectionistic, learned to read with little effort, and was hard on myself. My brother laughed constantly, drew daily in his sketch book, watched Cartoon Network daily, was disorganized, fiercely creative, and uninterested in school. This was born from challenges he faced in learning how to read, for which he had an IEP in elementary school. My mom was a stay at home mom who gave up a career in publishing to provide a space for us to grow into the people she hoped we’d be decades later: learners and creators.
To reconnect with the question of whether writing and critical thinking are innate skills, I believe they are developed. Like learning a foreign language, it’s proven easier to learn in the first years of life to absorb new tongues. I believe curiosity and critical thinking are most effectively built in the same period. The experiences I’ve described in my childhood were foundational in developing sustaining curiosity, which aided in the development of my critical thinking competencies that make effective written communication possible.
Why it’s Hard to Think Critically in Middle School:
The challenge for a teacher is how to build critical thinking competencies, which I’d argue is the most important skills a student could take away from a language arts classroom in middle school. Yet, there is no space to focus on this in a standards-driven curriculum that emphasizes grammar, a litany of research standards (i.e. asking students to answer a multiple choice question about putting notecards in order for a speech), and a mix of literature standards that are taught through the use of short stories. As teachers, we are creative. We work in as much as we can, but with ~100 standards and 55 minutes a day to teach them, there simply is not enough time.
The rhetorical triangle is one tool I utilize to help students how to analyze an author’s craft and how to develop an effective argument. There is also something to be said for the student, family, and school triangle of a child’s development. These three entities have to work collaboratively, and they rely on one another to effectively educate a child. If we want children to be effective writers, we have to teach them to think critically.
Who should take the onus for developing a child’s critical thinking? Critical thinking can’t only be nourished in a walled off classroom. It needs to happen organically, in response to community, culture, and current events. I can teach a child to write syntactically and grammatically correct. I can teach students to analyze author’s craft and understand why an argument is effective or not. I can teach students the structure of a piece of persuasive writing and how to incorporate different types of information in a structured, intentional way. I can help students understand what it means to think critically and what types of questions they need to ask themselves, but this is a skill they must develop independent of me, for I have no power to enter their brain and understand how they assimilate new knowledge and recall past experiences. This is where there is a chasm continuing to grow in the education space. It isn’t just about funding or resources in the school. It’s also about what a family and a community offer children outside of those school walls.
We become better writers by becoming better people.