Over the past few weeks, my 11th grade ICT class has been working through a unit on nuclear power. After reading through several arguments both for and against the new energy source, the class has been charged with writing an argumentative paper either in support of or opposed to building a nuclear power plant in our area. Students are to consider the readings and find claims and evidence that supports their position, as well as refute counterclaims against their position.
This has been no easy task, for teacher or student. In addition to pushing students further into the argumentative writing demanded by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), my co teacher and I are in uncharted territory in our own right (honestly, I’ve learned quite a bit about nuclear power, and my own position on the issue is still evolving). Along the way, I picked up a few ideas about making argumentative writing accessible and engaging for students with or without disabilities who are struggling with the CCSS.
For almost any topic, there will be documentaries, videos, advertisements and interviews. Find them. Use them. One of the most effective “texts” my co-teacher and I used was a clip from an old advertisement about global warming. It makes the issue real.
Find an expert.
I knew no more than the average person about nuclear power when we started this unit. I know much more now, but there’s no way I could have explained the scientific process behind the splitting of the atom and the dangers of nuclear waste as well as our school chemistry teacher. In addition to this, I also happen to have a school social worker who has been reading up on nuclear power for years. Sure, they don’t have Ph. D. after their names, but they were able to explain more clearly and with a deeper understanding of concepts I was only beginning to understand myself.
One of the most effective exercises my co-teacher and I did to prepare students to write was structure a class debate. We broke up the class into four different groups, each of which would have a role to play in the debate. Two groups were debaters (one for and one against) made up of higher-level, quick thinkers with very different opinions. Their task was to outline three major arguments supporting their position and refute their opponent’s claims, which required them to anticipate counterclaims.
Another group acted as judges. Their role was to take notes and evaluate the arguments on both sides. They would have to submit a written piece explaining their decision and outlining the major arguments.
Lastly, for students who find it difficult to think on the fly, there was a group of reporters. They had to summarize the arguments on both sides, which gave them extra time to work with the readings and materials prior to the debate and the writing assignment.
In addition to helping students think about the structure and purpose of argumentative writing in real life circumstances, the debate allowed students to have fun in class and liven up a seemingly unappealing topic.