A Rubric to Track Critical Thinking

When it comes to assessing student writing, rubrics reign supreme.  There are probably enough of them to wallpaper every floor of the Empire State Building twice over.  And yet, colleges and employers tell us most high school graduates can’t write.  So maybe we need to find a different way to think about how to assess student writing.

Most writing rubrics look pretty similar.  They rate student writing across a range of factors, including whether the main idea is clearly stated, whether the paper is organized well, whether it includes rich vocabulary and whether it has grammar or spelling errors.   Rarely does a rubric allow the user to assess whether the written work tells us something worthwhile.  This is a problematic, because if the main point is not worth making, the paper, no matter how well-organized, richly worded, and grammatically polished,  is weak.

If we start with the basic premise that writing is just thinking on paper, then it makes sense to begin our assessment of writing with an assessment of thinking.   In an earlier post we laid down a general approach for how to assess student progress in critical thinking.  Now, let’s take that approach a step further and actually create a simple rubric to assess the level at which students are thinking about the words they read.

Let’s review the basics:  Well-written (or spoken) works should answer the following questions: 

  1. What is the point?
  2. Is the point one that is worth making?
      • Is it obvious?  (Do we already know it?)
      • Is it arguable? How?
      • Is it important? Why?
      • Is it interesting? In what way?
  3. Does the author adequately support that point?  If so, How?
      • Appeals to our emotion or to our belief in the author’s sterling reputation are not support for a main point, but they are worth talking about.
  4. Does the author tell why we need to know what he has written?
  5. Is there another way to look at look at it? 
      • Can you take what the author is saying and come up with a different  main point or conclusion?

Since each of these questions targets a different level of thinking, we can craft a very simple rubric to track student progress.    Let’s start with a rubric that will help track the critical thinking skills of students as they read. 

Can the Student Do This?

Not Yet

(0 points for each bullet)

Yes!

(1-2  points for each bullet)

1.

Identify the Main Point

  • Misses the point.

 

  • Gets the point 

2.

Assess Whether the Point is Worth Making

  • Does not recognize a weak main point.

 

  • Explains why the main point is or is not a strong one. 

3.

 Find support (or lack of support) for the main point?

  • Does not identify any support for the main point.
  • Does not distinguish strong from weak support.
  • Identifies support for main point.
  • Assesses whether support is strong or weak.

 

4.

 

Answer “So What?”

  • Does not comment on what the author’s “takeaway message” is.
  • Does not offer a plausible takeaway message.
 

  • Explains what the author’s takeaway message seems to be.

5.

 Think of another way to see it?

  • Does not present an opposing argument or alternative conclusion.
  •  Presents an opposing argument or alternative conclusion.

Based on this rubric, your weakest readers/thinkers would get a check;  your strongest would get a check plus 12 (Of course, you can use your own numbering system, but this is the general idea).

How would you use such a rubric?    The common core standards place a great deal of emphasis on the importance of having students read non-fiction and having them write logical arguments.   So let’s start by assigning students a non-fiction argument to read. The Battle of the Binge, by Jack Hitt, deals with a subject many teenagers can relate to and fits the bill nicely.    (By the way,  this selection is featured in the Norton Reader, a treasure trove of short non-fiction pieces, many of which are suitable for upper high-school students.)    The general approach would be to assign this piece for students to read, and then to have them critique it by answering the following questions:

  1. What is the author’s point?
  2. Is it a point worth making?  Why or why not?
  3. How does the author support his point?
  4. So what? What do you think the author wants us to do or think about as a result of reading his work?
  5. Is there another way to see it?  What might be the counter-argument to this author’s claims?

Short answers are fine for this exercise.  Now let’s see how some sample responses would be scored on the rubric.

 What is the author’s point?  

  • 2 point response:  The author’s main point is that binge drinking on college campuses is a result of raising the legal drinking age to 21,thus depriving students the opportunity of “learning to drink” on campus.
  • 1 point response: The author’s main point is that it was wrong to raise the legal drinking age (implied, but not the main point).
  • 0 point response:  Binge drinking on college campuses was as big a problem in the 1970s as it is today.  (If the student entirely missed the point, you need go no further on the rubric:  The grade for this assignment is a “check.”)

          Is it a point worth making?  Why or why not?

  • 2 point response:   Yes, because it offers an interesting explanation of the cause of a big contemporary problem.
  • 1 point response:  Yes, because it is interesting (not specific).
  • 0 point response:  No because encouraging teenagers to drink is dangerous (author is not encouraging young people to drink).

       Does the author support this main point?  How?

  • 2 point response:  The author offers anecdotal and factual support for his claim:
    • He learned to drink alcohol through his own college experience.
    • His nephew, now attending the same college, knows many students who binge drink alone, often in the woods to avoid being caught.
    • Despite various attempts by colleges to reduce it, binge drinking persists on campuses at alarming rates.
  • 1 point response:  Any response that cites some, but not all support for the main point.
  • 0 point response:  No supporting points cited at all.

 So What?

  • 2 point response:  We need to change the way we think about this:  If you can vote and fight in a war, you ought to be able to drink.
  • 1 point response:  We have to lower the drinking age to 18 (not quite, he is suggesting it would be difficult to do this and that we need to change the culture first).
  • 0 point response:   We have to outlaw binge drinking (author never suggests this).

Is there another way to see it?

  • 2 point responses:
    • Is binge drinking only on the rise among college students?  What if it is on the rise among all age groups?  That would weaken the author’s argument.
    • The author says that legislators raised the drinking minimum as a reaction to the “raw emotion deployed by Mothers Against Drunk Driving,” but he does not tell us whether deaths due to drunk driving have decreased as a result of raising the minimum age.  Have they?  If so, maybe we need to change nothing.
  • 1 point response:  It is up to parents to teach their children social habits, including how to drink and how to abide with the law as it is (a counter argument based too much on personal  opinion).
  • 0 point response:  No counter argument offered.

What Does All this Have to Do with Writing?!

This exercise in teaching students to become critical readers and then tracking the results is an important step in teaching them to think.  And remember, writing is thinking on paper.  When you teach your students to write an argument, you will ask them to use the kind thinking in their own work that they used to critique arguments such as this one.  Then you can grade them using a writing rubric that flows directly from the reading rubric.  

Coming soon:  How to craft and use a writing rubric that tracks critical thinking progress.

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They Whys and Hows of Writing Across the Curriculum

There you are at the top of your game.  You are widely recognized as an ace at teaching Geometry or Biology and suddenly it happens, the Lord Voldemort of educational innovation: Your principal tells you that a significant part of your annual performance evaluation is going to depend on how well you support writing in your class.   You KNOW that many students in your class do not write well.  A dedicated teacher, you have already tried to deal with this by assigning more written work:  You have asked Geometry students to explain in writing how they arrived at a proof; you have asked Biology students to write a three page paper on the pros and cons of human cloning.  The results made you want to propose marriage to your protractor, to tearfully seek solace among your amoeba and paramecium slides.   

But wait.  Writing across the curriculum really is a good idea.  And it doesn’t require that you take a crash course in Teaching Subjects You Haven’t Mastered at the New Trends School of Education.  Like so much else in modern life, it requires things much more elusive: patience and common sense.

Why Must We Teach Writing Across the Curriculum?   The short answer is: Because writing has become a core requirement for finding any kind of employment.  The notion that you need to write well only if you plan on seeking a “white collar” job is obsolete.  As Kelly Gallagher points out in Write Like This, writing skills have become part of the evaluation process for aspiring plumbers, landscapers, policemen, fast-food workers, bankers, mechanics and chefs.  According to a report from the National Commission on Writing two-thirds of salaried employees held jobs with writing responsibilities – and that was back in 2004!  The same report found that U.S. employers rate more than 80 percent of high school graduates entering the work force as “deficient” in written communications skills.  Although four-year college grads do better, the numbers are still alarming — nearly 28 percent can’t write basic memos and other communications critical to day-to-day office operations.  

These real-world demands for better writing are actually good news for teachers.  Remember, writing is just thinking on paper.  The more your students write, the more opportunities they have to think and reflect on what they have learned. Colleges and universities across the country have taken the lead in emphasizing writing across the curriculum, and  student response has been extremely positive.  For instance, here’s what a student from the University of Manoa (Hawaii), a highly writing-intensive school had to say about writing and learning:

  • [Writing] helps you get a perspective of what you studied. When you read something–okay, you read it and you sort of understand it, but when you actually have to write about it and tell someone else, in writing, it forces your mind to think of it in a new way. You have to organize your thoughts, you have to make it into some sort of order rather than just thinking on the vast subject. And it forces you to refine your thinking to even more than just having these general ideas. When you have to try to convince someone in writing, it forces you to think a lot sharper . . . it forces you to be even more analytical. (History major)

This response was typical.   And, when directly asked in a survey,  seventy-six percent of Manoa students reported feelings of confidence when writing in their major.

I can almost hear you say, “Alright already.  Writing is important.  But why should I have to focus on writing in my class? Isn’t that the English teacher’s job?”   Well, yes, of course.  But for students to grasp the importance of writing, they need to spend more than 1/5 of their school day thinking about it!

How Can Math and Science Teachers Be Expected to Teach Writing?   What if, despite being a cracker jack math teacher, writing gives you the heebie-jeebies? How can you possibly be effective at supporting writing in your classroom if you break out in hives whenever you’re asked to put pen to paper?  Here’s some more good news:  you don’t have to do all the work.  In fact, as we will soon discuss, when you encourage collaboration and peer review in your class, your role in “teaching” writing becomes more of a coaching role, supporting students who work collaboratively.  And even when you do assign papers to students individually, you are not expected to supply feedback the way English teachers would.  Consider these guidelines to teachers in writing–rich (WR) courses from Carleton College, another writing intensive institution:

What is  Writing Rich  (WR) Course? This DOES mean that… This does NOT necessarily mean…
A WR course will normally have 3 or more writing assignments. …students have opportunities for improving their writing over the course of a term. …three formal papers with detailed feedback from the professor on each.
A WR course will offer students feedback on their writing. …professors provide written comments. …professors comment on sentence structure or mechanics;…professors line-edit students’ writing;…professors comment in detail on all writing assignments;…all feedback the student receives must be from the professor.
A WR course will provide students with opportunities for revision. …students have an opportunity to write more than a single draft of at least one assignment. …professors must read, comment on and grade multiple drafts of a single paper.

The takeaway is that to support writing in your classroom, you do not have to become a superhero who can instantly transform himself into an English Language Arts teacher. 

Where Do You Start?  Since writing is just thinking on paper, start by asking your students to think.  Once a week as a “do now” activity, post a big question on the board and ask your students to take five or ten minutes to answer it using the three questions all good writers use:

  • What’s my point?
  • How do I support it?
  • So What?

Then randomly choose students to come to the front of the class and give an oral presentation of their answer.  Encourage the rest of the class to ask questions, to respectfully challenge the presenter.  This simple activity  encourages thinking and therefore encourages writing!  After doing this for a few weeks, you will be able to transition into short writing assignments. To cut back on the labor intensity of teaching writing, create peer editing groups in your class.  Confer with the English teacher on your team and find out who the strong writers in each class are so you can group four or five students together with least one strong writer on each team.  These teams can work together to review first drafts of short writing assignments and suggest specific improvements to each writer. 

Here are a few writing assignments, courtesy of the University of Wisconsin, you might want to start out with:

  • A fifty word sentence, summarizing what the student learned in (Math, Science, History) that week.
  • A one minute paper requiring students to cite one new bit of information they learned in class and to ask one question about something that remained unclear.
  • A weekly journal entry, one paragraph long, reflecting on how what was learned in this week’s class is relevant in the real world.
  • An explanation of how a Math problem was solved:  This assignment might be given with a rubric so that students understand the criteria on which they will be graded.

These simple short writing exercises will help students flex their writing muscles. 

Another suggestion (from both MIT and University of Wisconsin) for teaching writing across the curriculum, is to sequence assignments, specifically:

  • Repeat the same assignment; vary the topic.  For example, if you want students to explain how they answered a math problem, spend a lot of time modeling how the answer should look when you first give the assignment.  A couple of weeks later, ask students to explain their answers again, and briefly refer back to the model you already gave them. The next time you give the assignment, you probably won’t need to do any more modelling!
  • Move from simpler to more complex assignments: For example, University of Wisconsin’s writing center suggests that “Over the course of a semester you might build up to a six-page critical review of several sources by having students complete the following series of assignments: a one-page summary of one source; a two-page summary and critique of a single source; a four-page review of two sources (with revision); a six-page review of four sources (with revision). You might first asks students to write a close analysis, then later have them write a longer paper that includes another close analysis. This approach to sequencing assumes that students will be better equipped to write longer papers or undertake more cognitively challenging tasks if they first have the opportunity to build their skills and their confidence.”
  • Break a complex assignment into smaller parts.   For instance, you might want to assign students one 2 – 4 page paper relating what they are studying to the real world (e.g., ”Please write a two to four page argument on why  students must study Algebra in high school.”).    Instead of just assigning the paper with a deadline a few weeks later, break the paper into parts with shorter deadlines, and required peer review team approval before you move to the next step. 
    • Assignment one:  Choose a topic and a potential thesis statement and have it peer-reviewed.
    • Assignment two: Draft your short outline (What is my point?  How do I support it? So what?)  and have it peer-reviewed.
    • Assignment three:  Write your introduction and have it peer-reviewed.

And so on.  (By the way, stay tuned for next week’s post, which will highlight the benefits of peer review and how to teach students to be peer editors.)

There is a lot more to say about writing across the curriculum, and this blog will focus on specific strategies in future posts.   In the meantime,  check out Colorado State University’s wonderful website, which has links to scores of colleges that emphasize writing across the curriculum with very positive results!

Imitation: the Highest form of …Writing?

“I am the best writer in my classroom.  You are the best writer in your classroom.  Our children need to stand next to us and see how we write.  And in addition to standing next to us, your students should stand next to and study other expert writers”

This passage from Kelley Gallagher’s wonderful, new book, Write Like This, gets to the heart of a critical component of learning how to write:  imitation.  I once asked a friend of mine, a former editor-in-chief at an internationally famous publication, how he’d learned to write.  He responded with an anecdote about the first journalism piece he’d ever written. He submitted it to his editor, who shortly thereafter handed it back to him, telling him he’d done a very good job.  But when my friend looked at what his editor had returned, it bore very little resemblance to the original.  “He had entirely rewritten it.  It was much better than what I gave to him, and I studied everything he did so that I would become a better writer,” he said.  He observed that the really good writers he knew got that way by paying close attention to how their work was improved in the editing process. In other words, great writers became great by imitating great writing.

As Gallagher points out, teachers are the best writers in the classroom.  Therefore, the best gift we can give our students is showing them how we write, by talking through the process as we craft a written piece in the classroom. And it’s OK to show them that sometimes you get stuck and need to think things through a little more.  You might even quickly write a less-than-perfect piece and then challenge “teams of editors” (say, four students to a team) to collaborate and improve it.  Students like nothing better than to criticize their teachers.

Gallagher also emphasizes the importance of incorporating real world texts into the writing instruction process. When he wants his students to write an editorial, he presents them with an extremely well-written editorial for them to imitate.  The lesson begins with a discussion of what makes the editorial great, and then students write their own.  English teachers have told me they have used this approach with short pieces of literature with great success. By analyzing what makes the written piece so good and then imitating it, students not only improve their writing style, but also their understanding of literature. 

The bottom line?  When teaching writing, imitations can be as valuable as the originals.

More Practice with Finding the Point, Courtesy of Barack Obama

This post is a follow-up to The Well Built Essay:  It’s All About Structure.

Let your students practice finding the point in longer pieces of writing.   For example, have your students read the famous Obama speech on race: http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0308/9100.html.   Then have them answer: 

  • What’s the point?
  • How does he back it up?
  •  So What?

Collect the answers and review them to assess how well your students are able to identify the main point and supporting evidence in a longer work of writing.  Here, generally, is what you might look for:

What’s the point?

This nation has been  in a racial stalemate for decades.

 How does he back it up?

  • I’m here today because of the Reverand White scandal – African Americans are angry and have legitimate concerns about discrimination
  • White americans are angry – they have worked hard and resent affirmative action, e.g,  “your dream coming at my expense.”
  • African  and White Americans often focus their anger on each other –and often behind closed doors – and that is not helpful.

 So What?

  • Now is the time to break through the racial stalemate and focus on our common needs: Our union may never be perfect, but it can always be perfected, thanks to princibles on which it was found.

Fun with Style: More Fictional First Drafts

This post is a follow-up to an earlier one which featured a fictional first draft of the Gettysburg Address.

It is never too soon to begin talking about style to students, but until they know how to  structure a coherent argument,  focusing on style is like putting lipstick on a pig.  However, it is fun to make students aware of what good writing sounds like.  So here are a few more examples of fictional first drafts (ffd) followed by the actual quotes we are all familiar with.  Ask your students to describe the difference. 

  • Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.  When you think about it, it probably makes more sense to say that he as dead as a coffin nail, but the convention is to say doornail. So let’s just say Marley was as dead as a doornail. (ffd)

Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail. Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.—Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.

  • Not this time.  This time we want to talk about how to get better schools for all children of all races creeds and colors so they can get up to speed.  This time we want to talk about how to get everyone health care for everyone – rich and poor.  This time we want to talk about how to keep Joe six pack working and reminding him that prejudice won’t solve anything.(ffd) 

 “…Not this time” This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can’t learn; that those kids who don’t look like us are somebody else’s problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.  This time we want to talk about how the lines in the Emergency Room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care; who don’t have the power on their own to overcome the special interests in Washington, but who can take them on if we do it together. This time we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men  and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life. This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn’t look like you might take your job; it’s that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit.  –Barack Obama’s speech on race. 

  • It’s time to let everyone know that our generation is in charge now.  And we’re the generation who fought in a war and we don’t want it all to be for nothing.  So let the world know we will do anything at any price to protect freedom. (ffd)

Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.        

 Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.  This much we pledge—and more.  — John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address

The takeaway for your students? Inject a little fun once in a while. Paint with words. Be as specific as you can be.

Step Four: Top Ten Rules for Adding Bling: Abe Lincoln’s First Draft

What’s your point? How do you support it? So what? 

 If the piece you’ve written can answer those three questions, you are off to a good start.  But really good writers go one step further: they add some bling.  Consider, for instance, one of the most famous American speeches of all time, the Gettysburg Address.  What if Abe Lincoln had delivered this version – we’ll call it Abe’s first draft: 

The United States of America was born in 1776.  It was based on the idea that all men are equal.   But now our states are fighting each other and so it is hard to see how this is all going to last.   Today, we are here to dedicate this cemetery in honor of our great soldiers.  And it’s the right thing to do.  But, when you think about it, this whole ceremony is a sham. Who are we to stand here and say “this place is special?”  It’s really special because our soldiers died right here, where we stand.  No one is going to remember us being here – but you can bet everyone will remember the people who died for us. That’s why we have to remember them too and keep our country together.  We must make sure we are always free so our democratic government doesn’t simply go away.  

Let’s face it:  If Abe Lincoln had delivered these words at Gettysburg, he would have been absolutely right — no one would have remembered him being there.  So what is it about the Gettysburg address that makes it so good?  

Well, for starters, Abe did not violate any of the top ten rules for how to add bling to  prose when he wrote it.  Here they are: 

The Top Ten Rules for Adding  Bling 

  1. Start with a wow.  If your first paragraph doesn’t really grab the reader, you are in trouble. There are countless ways to draw readers in. You can make a shocking claim, contradict yourself, write a poetic sentence, ask a probing question.  The important point is to read your first few sentences carefully.  Do they make the reader think, “Wow, interesting.  I want to keep reading?”  If not, rewrite for the wow.
  2. Be specific.  This is perhaps the most important and most difficult rule of all – you must strive to write exactly what you mean.  Beware of vagueness.  Instead of “He was tired of his job,” try “Whatever ambition he had was crushed along with the countless bottles he fed into the jaws of the compactor. ” 
  3. Vet your verbs.  One easy way to make your prose more interesting is to go through and check your verbs.  You can probably replace 90 percent of them with verbs that are more specific, more appropriate, more precise – and less tired — than the verbs you used. 
  4. Replace or define tired nouns and modifiers.  This is similar to the verb check.  If you must use a common word, define it for us in a fresh way – e.g., instead of “our democracy,” try “this government, of the people, by the people, for the people.” 
  5. Use the active voice.   It’s an old remedy that never fails to perk up a sentence.  
  6. Pepper in a little poetry.   Strive for prose that has a rhythm that you can hear as you read it aloud.  Look for opportunities to include alliteration and rhyme when you replace those tired verbs, nouns, and modifiers. 
  7. Paint a picture (show, don’t tell).   One of the Barack Obama’s great rhetorical talents is his ability to paint a picture with words. Instead of saying “We need to create more jobs,” he talks about “the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, and every walk of life.” You can see why we need more jobs, he doesn’t need to tell you.  
  8. Stay away from cliches and don’t mix metaphors.   If, on one bright and sunny day, you find yourself standing on a well-manicured lawn with a smile beaming from ear to ear, run for your life. This place will not bring out the best in you.  And, by the way I’m not just saying that because I see the glass half empty with sour grapes and would rather curse the dark than light a candle.   
  9. Punch up your transitions.  Never underestimate the power of the transition.  In a long paper, a good, “one-liner” transition can perk up your prose and renew your reader’s interest.    In a short essay, a powerful transition (e.g., “But in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground.”) will keep your audience riveted. 
  10. End with a bang.  The last paragraph is often the “so what?” of a well written piece.  The last line should leave your readers in awe – you made your point so eloquently, they are speechless.   

With those rules in mind, let’s suppose Abe is looking over that first draft to see how to revise it.  He might proceed as follows: 

Problem:  The United States of America was born in 1776.  It was based on the idea that all men are equal.  

Hmm… A little boring – no, a lot boring.

 Solution:  Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Ahh, much better “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation” says the same thing as “Our country was born in 1776” but it says it with rhyme and alliteration it makes the opening line sound like a poem! Now, let’s get specific — if a nation is born, it must first be conceived – how about a nation conceived in liberty?  And let’s get rid of that passive voice – who gave birth to our country?  Our fathers – oops they can’t give birth — so let’s just say they brought forth a new nation. And let’s replace that boring phrase, “based on the idea” with “dedicated to the proposition.”  (“Dedicate” but the way is a much-repeated verb in this address – can you guess why?)

Problem:  But now our states are fighting each other and so it is hard to see how this is all going to last.   

Again, a little boring  – especially the verbs — and not specific enough.

Solution:  Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

Wow, what a few word replacements (with an ear for rhythm) can do“Engaged in a great civil war” is much more specific and eloquent than “we are fighting.”  “Testing whether that nation so conceived or so dedicated” is much more specific than “hard to see how it is all going to last.”    

Problem: Today, we are here to dedicate this cemetery in honor of our great soldiers.  And it’s the right thing to do.  But, when you think about it, this whole ceremony is a sham.  Who are we to stand here and say “this place is special”?  It’s really special because our soldiers died right here, where we stand. 

Aghh.  Boring, general, clichéd,   Today we are here?  Where are we? Why is it the cemetery dedication the “right thing to do?”  “When you think about it” is a weak transition that just sounds silly.  And using the word “special” twice in one paragraph? Even in 1863, before everything was special, that would have been the lazy thing to do.

Solution:  We are met on a great battlefield of that war.  We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

Great changes! Language is much more specific and powerful.  If we are in a great war, we are meeting on a great battlefield.  And, instead of dedicating a“cemetery” (overused word), we dedicate a “final resting place” which puts a more human image in the minds of the audience.  And “all together fitting and proper” is altogether more interesting and rhythmic than “it’s the right thing to do.” 

But perhaps the most important improvement to this section is the transition. To replace “But when you think about it” with “But in a larger sense” is to remind everyone that this cause is bigger than all of us.  And what does it really mean for Gettysburg to be “special”? It means it is sacred ground – ground it has been sanctified by the blood of our soldiers, not by a speech.  To make that point, Abe adds three synonyms for “sanctify” in a row — dedicate, consecrate, and hallow.   Wow. Then he adds that wonderful line about our poor ability to add and detract – great verbs that turn us into number crunchers compared to the brave men who spilled their blood for liberty.  

Problem: No one is going to remember us being here – but you can bet everyone will remember the people who died for us. That’s why we have to remember them too and keep our country together.  In the end, my fellow Americans, we must make sure we are always free so our democratic government doesn’t simply go away.

Here we go again:  too boring, too vague and does not end with a bang.  Who are “we” and what does it mean to “keep our country together?”  What exactly is “our democratic government?”  And the final line is so vague, it begs the question: where might our democracy go?

Solution:  The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.  It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.  It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Much better. The first sentence is wonderfully alliterative (world will, little note nor long).   And instead of simply using the word “us,” Abe reminds us that we are still alive (unlike those dead soldiers), and we have a task, “ rather for us to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”    Then he cleverly rearranges the first half of that sentence to begin the next sentence (It is rather for us to be here dedicated…).  He replaces that tired word, “democracy,” with a fresh definition of it– a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”  And then, for the last line, he gets really dramatic when he vets his verbs.  The risk is not that our government will go away, but that it will perish, from the face of the earth. Bang! 

And so Abe arrives at his final draft: 

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth. 

Now that’s adding some bling!

Step 2: The Well-Built Essay: All About Structure

Having challenged your own thinking, it is now time to challenge your students’ thinking.  The objective is to enable them to figure out whether an argument, whether oral or written, is well structured.

On this site,  when we us the term “structure,” we will be talking about the basic argument of the essay or written piece.  A piece of writing is well structured if it can answer three basic questions:

  • What’s your point?
  • How do you back it up? (We are looking for evidence, not emotional claims or opinions.)
  • So what?  (Why do we need to know it?  What are the implications of the argument overall?)

Great written works have great structure.  Consider, for example, the following:

 Abe Lincoln’s Gettysburg AddressJune 1, 1865

 Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.   Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

 Now let’s see if this passes the structure test: 

 What’s the point?

These soldiers did not die in vain.

 How do you back it up?

  • Our country was founded on noble principles: equality and freedom.
  • These are the principles these soldiers fought for.

 So what?

If we don’t commit to the cause of these soldiers, our country as we know it, will cease to exist.

 Wow…It passes with flying colors.  (And as we’ll see in the next unit, Abe also does a great job of adding some bling to make his speech sing.)

 Practical Tips:  How can you help your students become better writers?

 Because structure is so important, it is useful to get your students to think about it all the time:

Take 10 or 15 minutes (ideally several times a week) to have them formulate a short argument in response to an open-ended question. Such questions can be general (e.g., What is success?) or specific to a work you are studying in class (e.g., Would Atticus Finch have been a more effective defender of Tom Robinson (and Civil Rights) if he had been more publicly outraged over the discrimination he saw around him?)  SAT prompts are great questions to assign for this exercise, and a list of such prompts is listed below.

The goal is to have students think about such questions for a few minutes, and formulate an argument outline – as though they were getting ready to write an essay — by answering:

    • What’s my point?
    • How do I back it up?
    • So What? (Why do we need to know this?)

 Then they can take turns getting a little improvisational speaking practice by sharing their outlines aloud with the class. 

 This activity is a wonderful way to maximize use of your class time:  Post the question on the board as a “do now” activity for students to work on as soon as they enter the classroom.

Sample Questions for Developing Arguments[1]

 Questions about ethics:

  • Is conscience a more powerful motivator than money, fame power? 
  • Should modern society be criticized for being materialistic?
  • Can knowledge be a burden rather than a benefit?
  • Should people take more responsibility for solving problems that affect their communities or the nation in general?
  • Do circumstances determine whether or not we should tell the truth?
  • Is it important to try to understand people’s motivations before judging their actions?
  • Can deception (pretending that something is true when it is not) sometimes have good results?

Questions about success:

  • Can success be disastrous?
  • Is the effort involved in pursuing any goal valuable, even if the goal is not reached?
  • Do people achieve greatness only by finding out what they are especially good at and developing that attribute above all else?
  • Are people more likely to be happy if they focus on goals other than their own happiness?
  • Is it best to have low expectations and to set goals we are sure of achieving?
  • Are all important discoveries the result of focusing on one subject?
  • Do people achieve more success by cooperation than by competition?
  • Is it more important to do work that one finds fulfilling or work that pays well?

 Questions about technology and a changing world:

  •  Is the world changing for the better?
  • Is the most important purpose of technology today different from what it was in the past?
  • Have modern advancements truly improved the quality of people’s lives?
  • Does a strong commitment to technological progress cause a society to neglect other values, such as education and the protection of the environment?
  • Should people always prefer new things, ideas, or values to those of the past?

 Questions about self discovery:

  •  Do you think that ease does not challenge us as much as diversity to discover who we are?
  • Do we need other people to understand ourselves?
  • Is identity something people are born with or given, or is it something people create for themselves?
  • Do people truly benefit from hardship and misfortune?
  • Do we really benefit from every event or experience in some way?
  • Is education primarily the result of influences other than school?
  • Is it better to change one’s attitude than to change one’s circumstances?
  • Do memories hinder or help people in their effort to learn from the past and succeed in the present?
  • Does true learning only occur when we experience difficulties?
  • Is it better for people to be realistic or optimistic?
  • Is happiness something over which people have no control, or can people choose to be happy?

 Questions about heroism:

  • Should heroes be defined as those who say what they think when others lack the courage to say it?
  • Should we admire heroes but not celebrities?
  • Is there a value in celebrating certain individuals as heroes?

 Questions about independent thinking versus “groupthink”

  • Is it always better to be original than to imitate or use the ideas of others?
  • Is there any value for people to belong only to a group or groups with which they have something in common?
  • Do people need to “unlearn,” or reject, many of their assumptions and ideas?
  • Is it always best to determine one’s own views of right and wrong, or can we benefit from following the crowd?
  • Is it more valuable for people to fit in than to be unique and different?
  • Can people ever be truly original?
  • Is creativity needed more than ever in the world today?
  • Are people more likely to be productive and successful when they ignore the opinions of others?
  • Is it important to question the ideas and decisions of people in positions of authority?
  • Are established rules too limited to guide people in real-life situations?
  • Is it sometimes better to take risks than to follow a more reasonable course of action?
  • Do we tend to accept the opinions of others instead of developing our own independent ideas?

 


[1] Source:  The College Board and Examdude.com