In my last post, I shared how I’m frontloading our argumentative writing unit with an emphasis on key concepts and text structure as we explored mentor texts and applied Gretchen Bernabei’s kernel essay strategy to help students organize ideas.  In this post, I’ll share how we extended that work and how students had opportunities to apply those strategies collaboratively and indivudally.

Revisiting Our Zoo Article Work, Part 1

We took our next steps by revisiting the two zoo articles we had read and lightly annotated/took notes on about two weeks ago.  For this second pass at the articles, students received a copy of both articles, but they also received a new graphic organizer for taking notes.  Students were given class time to reread the articles a second time and revisited the evidence they were adding to the new graphic organizer while going deeper and looking for evidence they may have missed in our first pass at reading the articles.  On the next day of class, students were asked to review their evidence, choose a position/claim they felt most strongly about, and complete the kernel essay graphic organizer independently.  This work took approximately two class days of 50 minute class periods.

Once students completed this work, students were assigned partners or small groups of three the following day, and I projected these on the board with table assignments so students knew where to go.  I chose these randomly and grouped students based on the claim position they chose.  We moved our chairs and met knee to knee, face to face yet again to compare and contrast the evidence we found to support each claim (see the graphic organizer).   Students also compared their independently written kernel essays.  Partners then used a fresh green template to collaboratively compose a new and improved kernel essay together.  They could revise and use pieces each partner had contributed; they could also compose new content together.

Our final step was to share out what we had collaboratively composed; I walked about the room using my iPhone and Epson wireless projector app to project each new collaborative kernel essay; partners led a brief discussion around their work, the choices they made and why they made them, and received feedback from peers.   This whole group share of work by partners and small groups of three is a vital part of the learning experience; having access to an Epson wireless projector and being able to move about the room to show work via my iPhone as a mobile document camera in real time is a game-changer!


Part 2, Extending Our Collaborative Kernel Essay Work:  Introducing Mentor Texts for Introductory Paragraphs to Argumentative Essays

The following day students began with a writing/thinking warm-up to see what they thought should go into an introductory paragraph of an argumentative essay.   We moved from the warm-up to our station walk where students had the opportunity to visit seven stations following the station walk guidelines below:

Students read the mentor text paragraphs and recorded their noticings about sentence 1, sentence 2, and sentence 3 of each paragraph on their graphic organizer.  I borrowed three of the station mentor texts from other sources; I composed the remaining four pulling in local and current events.

Once students complete the walk, I asked them to look at their responses vertically and to discuss with a table partner what each cluster of sentences might have in common in terms of content, sentence type, or purpose/role in the paragraph.  This part of the activity was definitely a stretch for my 8th graders, but they rose to the occasion and did not disappoint!

Through this approach, we engaged in small group talk and then moved to a large group share out where we discussed our noticings.  This discussion led us to notice that our mentor texts all had these elements in common:

  • Sentence 1:  A strong hook using one of the three strategies:  a provocative question about the topic that cannot be answered with a yes or no; a startling or shocking fact or statistic about the topic; inviting the reader to imagine or picture a situation or scenario related to the topic.
  • Sentence 2:  the “bridge” that builds on the hook and helps connect it to the claim.
  • Sentence 3:  the claim statement with reasons.

From Station Walk Noticings to Composing and Revising Our Own Introductory Paragraphs

Students then worked with their partners or small table group of three to collaboratively compose a draft introductory paragraph based on the collaborative kernel essay they had written together the previous day.   Each partner set/small group was given a neon lined sticky note for writing their draft.  This drafting activity built on the claim and reasons students had previously identified so that hopefully, writing a strong hook and bridge would be the most challenging part of their work.  Some groups did well with this first pass, but I noticed others losing some writing and thinking stamina, something that was not surprising given the challenging nature of the work they had been that day and the previous day in class.  I collected their work at the end of the period and made copies of each draft the following day before classes met.  This step took some time but made the next day’s learning activities much smoother with no down time.

When students arrived, we shared our drafts and talked about strengths and weaknesses of our work with a “ticket in the door” writing activity and share aloud.  Because each student had a copy of the previous day’s collaborative work, I then asked students to look at that work and take a second pass at revising and writing a second draft independently to emphasize the importance of revision but to also make sure each student was held accountable as a writer and fully participating.

We used a scaffolded graphic organizer to help us revise thoughtfully and strategically; when students finished, they attached this new draft to all their previous work they had completed in stages over the week.  This scaffold helped students take a first draft to a higher quality second draft with confidence.

Final Thoughts

These activities were challenging for my students, but I think the inquiry driven, student-focused work was worth the investment of class time and set the stage for beginning our own argumentative essays we’ll start Thursday, February 21.   I intentionally wanted them to have an opportunity to “get their feet wet” so to speak writing a strong introductory paragraph so that as we begin our own argumentative essays this week, they already have a vision of the critical starting point with a strong introduction and how all the steps we practiced together with our zoo work is a model for how we will approach our own interest driven argumentative essay this week.  I also stressed to students how our note taking process and kernel essay writing can be used in a regular writing assignment or to help us think quickly and thoughtfully in a timed essay writing assignment like a benchmark assessment or state test.  I have never front-loaded a unit of study on argumentative writing like this and do worry about time (what teacher doesn’t?!), but I hope it will give them a strong foundation and focused tools to move forward in any writing situation with an argumentative task.

Finally, I want to share that this instructional design process was fairly organic.  While I had the big picture of learning activities in my mind, I also was sure to observe student work closely and listen to their conversations to fine tune each step of our mini-journey of inquiry.  In this age of pacing guides, deadlines, and never-ending challenges to juggling instructional time, I think it is important to pay attention to what we see happening with student learning in front of us and to be responsive to that.  I have learned much side by side with my students this month, and I’m excited to share in my next blog post our next steps with our argumentative essays we’re starting tomorrow!

How do you weave inquiry into writing study with your students?