Why can’t these kids argue?!

I have been teaching my current Year 12 English class for four years – this is highly unusual in an Australian secondary school setting. I started teaching them as an English Extension class in Year 8 and have been timetabled onto their class each year since. Why? Because I have been interested in the impact that one teacher can have on a group of students and their approach to literature and learning. OK – and to be honest, I just really like the kids!

Over the years we have spent many lessons discussing how to write a quality essay in English. However, the focus has often been on a highly structured paragraph (we use the S.T.E.W structure) and the essay questions they have been asked to answer have always been quite open and general.  There essays have always got them great marks and at the beginning of this year (Year 11), I felt confident that this group would do extremely well in the HSC.

And then reality hit …

These students have become very, very good at giving me back my ideas in the structure that I requested. But is this thinking critically and creatively? No! After four years of teaching them, I’ve realized that they have missed out on learning the fine art of developing an argument. Their writing lacks passion, authenticity and depth. There is no ‘personal voice’ – a quality that as an HSC marker I know is deeply important to a convincing, compelling essay.

I have been working hard this term to get my students (now Year 12) to move from being ‘passive’ to ‘active’ learners. I have reorganized our lessons so only one in four is teacher-centred whilst the others are centred on independent, paired or whole-group activities. Yet what I knew I needed to address explicitly was their inability to develop a convincing and personal argument in their writing because of their over-reliance on MY ideas. (Aside: My joke is that I spend 2 hours on google preparing for their lessons, so by relying on me as ‘fount of all knowledge’ really they’re just trusting a really watered-down google search, lol!)

I want my students to REALLY have something to say about the texts and concepts that they are studying. (After all, these texts are just mirrors of their world, and a failure to say something authentic about these texts is a failure to say anything authentic about their world.) I want them to consider multiple perspectives (readings) of a novel/play/film/poem and then articulate their PERSONAL interpretation and why this has developed. I DON’T want them to swallow my ideas like they’re gospel. I DO want them to think critically about texts by considering opposing views and the genesis of these views.

So how do I do this with a group of kids who are rather resistant to opposing the ideas of their teacher(s)?

Having, myself, evolved into a complete edu-tech geek over the last two years, of course I looked for a web 2.0 tool to help me! And guess what? I found one!

Hmmm … I just noted how long this post is already without getting to the real guts of my post … so check out my next post devoted to my latest fav web 2.0 tool – evidence chart! (www.evidencechart.com)

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9 thoughts on “Why can’t these kids argue?!

    • I do think that – but maybe it’s fear. At Year 12 grad last week a boy told me he was intimidated by me and therefore never contributed to class discussions – oh no!! Trying to step back when I’ve always enjoyed being in the front is certainly hard – but well worth it. It’s not about me, but them.

  1. Let’s debate – a polar debate- via VC?! My students love ’em. Don’t we too stressed, I’ve only had this group for 12 months and they started like that, I hope I’ve allowed them to develop their own perspectives, but it is always a work in progress.

  2. You have to consider, that your class in part of an overall diet – in other classes thinking for yourself might be seen as a big no no. I hear legend that some teachers cycle though materials year in year out on auto-pilot …

  3. I don’t teach senior classes, being in a junior secondary context. Recently I surveyed my year 10 geography class on a DER project, part of which involved reading a Blog and posting comment or questions. I was surprised by some of the responses. Here’s a few relevant ones:

    – all question were already answered in the information provided
    – I felt my inferior knowledge and literacy skills would not make much different with its absence.
    – I found that the input that I could suffice for this discussion would be unwanted, and rather,
    unnecessary. I felt that it was in everyones best concern for me to avoid posting what little
    information I had onto the blog. I am deeply sorry if my beliefs and/or opinions have offended
    and/or disappointed you.

    No questions needed to ask – all questions were basically answered in the information given

    it was faster finding it on the interenet then waiting for someone to respond

    • It’s interesting isn’t it, how trusting they are of the information that is ‘put’ onto the internet. Perhaps your task next time needs to be ‘challenge’ one answer provided in the blog post – that might get them thinking, lol!

      I had trouble with my Year 7 yesterday in the library – they couldn’t figure out how to get the information from the books or website into their own words to make it engaging for a Year 7 audience! Oh dear … spoke to our librarian and she is going to work on research-skills with them early next year!

      Thanks for your comment!

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