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My Greatest Lesson On Teaching Argument, Opinion, and the Power of Writing

Carrot

 In a few interviews this week I’ve referred to what has transpired over the last month as “my greatest lesson.” I know there are hundreds of thousands of people out there who would like me to admit I learned my lesson, but that is not what I mean, nor is that what happened—sorry.

Because this is a blog about education, and about the very real struggles we face at the ground level of our public schools, I tailor my writing around teachers and how the struggles we face reflect who we are as an American people. I feel like the way we treat education shows a lot about who we are as a country, so I want to show the country very clearly how we treat education. As I digest what has been a week of shutting down my Facebook and shouting down journalists, what I want to talk about the most in my last blog of the year is what it means to write an argument and have an opinion, because I think it says a lot about how we got here.

I’m also assuming that my audience for this post will be my normal audience of educators who enjoy my take on what it is like teaching in a low-income urban public school. I’m assuming that because I did not put a celebrity’s name in the title this week.

I am a teacher of writing who believes that if I am going to ask students to write, I should be able to do it myself. That is the driving force behind my own pedagogy. We are tasked with teaching students how to write and I don’t see how I can do that without showing them first that I am a writer. So when I teach students about writing an argument and having an opinion, I must first prove I too can do both of those things in the professional world.

I think the biggest mistake we make as teachers when teaching argumentation is making students write about topics in which they are not invested or have had a chance to choose. Argumentative writing should be based on Inquiry. Students are at their best when they are writing about something they care about, and the first goal of argumentative writing should be to foster that curiosity. I show my students this through my own passion: education. And I show them how they take something they believe in and turn it into a targeted argument within that larger topic. I think that is how it should be done—you give them an umbrella topic (usually related to the theme of your unit or the book you are teaching), and allow them to hone the topic down into their own very specific argument.

This is where our culture of test prep and standardized testing falls short because so much of the focus is on timed writing about stupid topics. The kids have to write five paragraphs on some topic about which they could care less. It doesn’t leave any room for curiosity or real opinions, it simply asks them to follow a dried up essay structure and argue about things they’ve been writing about since the fifth grade, like the death penalty or abortion. If we want students to be critical thinkers and get their opinions out in the world, when we approach argument in the classroom it should be with an eye on getting them interested and engaged by whatever means, letting them delve into a topic, research it, and form their opinion based on facts.

AND THEN WE TEACH THEM NOT EVERYONE IS GOING TO HAVE THAT SAME OPINION.

Any writing teacher who deserves to have a job doesn’t teach their students to be afraid of making their voices heard. They never tell their students to make sure their opinion is the popular one to avoid making others upset. We lead our students into finding an argument they feel passionate about and then we TEACH them to be strong about their opinions. I mean, are there ANY teachers out there who tell their students they can’t write an opinion if they think others are going to disagree?

We tell our students to take a side, ARGUE, give their reasons, acknowledge the other side, but hammer home your point. We tell them to take a stand and offer solutions, or help us imagine how things could be better. We ask them to CARE. But most of all we tell them that if they truly believe in something, then they need to defend it with all their might, even if others don’t feel the same way.

You see, we want kids to be inspired to write.

Also, we want them to be a little bit better than us when it comes to seeing both sides. Today we live in a culture where either I am right, or you are an idiot. But can we teach the next generation to look at all sides without painting the opposite side as clownish and ignorant? I think we should try.

This is what it means to have two sides to an opinion: I’ve had email after email after email after email from teachers and professionals and real people who thanked me for saying what they’ve always wanted to scream from the mountaintops. I’m talking so many people I’ve lost count. I have a list of professionals who heard my call and want to come talk to and inspire kids in our schools. And there are just as many people out there who disagree with my argument that sports and celebrity needn’t be the driving force in our schools. So I ask you this question: Who is right?

Here’s the answer: Everyone.

Can you admit that? Because I can. We are all right because these things are called opinions and Aristotle and Socrates would be tripping if they heard of so many people convinced their OPINION is FACT.

I’m not just tired of arguing about it because I’m tired, I’m tired of arguing about it because figuring out who is right is not the point, nor is it possible. Writing is about asking questions, growing ideas, getting a discussion going and getting some opinions flying around. It doesn’t matter if I’m right or not, what matters is that for two weeks we’ve had people arguing about the role of sports in schools, the nature of dreams in young people, how to foster well-rounded kids, how we bring professionals into our public schools, the invisible barriers our students face, and the reality of privilege and opportunity. This is what matters. This is what ideas are about. This is what writing is about. For two weeks we’ve had people SCREAMING ABOUT PUBLIC EDCUATION OF ALL THINGS!

A teacher at my school summed it up best when he said this, “Look Matt, I didn’t necessarily agree with everything you said, but I keep telling people, THAT IS THE POINT.” And he isn’t even a teacher of writing.

I call this my greatest lesson because in my entire career I doubt I will be able to teach a class more about writing (and life) in the real world. A talk-show host asked me the other day, “What did your students learn?” I had to pause, because they’ve learned so many things I knew I wouldn’t have enough airtime to capture it all.

They’ve learned that when opinions, especially controversial opinions, go viral, that you have to be prepared for hate. They’ve learned just how much we worship celebrities to the point where we are almost not even allowed to be critical of them. They’ve learned how to use a trending topic and how to write a title that will attract attention. They’ve learned the importance of critical thinking because they can see what happens when people don’t do it. They’ve learned that you usually can’t convince someone of your opinion, and therefore you need to understand that everyone is entitled to their own. They’ve learned about privilege and opportunity. They’ve learned about what it takes to become a professional athlete. They’ve learned about the power of writing in creating discussions, and the importance of having to right to do it. They’ve learned that people are more likely to care about important things like education when you include celebrities.

My students will never forget this—they will never forget what was born from an opinion and some words. They will never forget having a front-row seat to the world coming into our classroom.

Summer is here, and as we pack up our classrooms and turn off the lights, it is always a time of introspection and reflection. We will look back at our failures and we will look back at our successes. The last day of school is the only day of the school year when a teacher isn’t thinking about the next day and the next lesson. It is the only time when we can say, “There, now it is done.”

I’m not sure I can say that just yet, but I can say that it has been a fascinating couple of weeks and I’d like to thank everyone out there who has been so kind in reaching out, and thanking me for this message, and telling me to stand strong, and offering to get involved in our schools. And those of you who have been challenging me, all I can say is: I hear you, and I hope you hear me too.

So what does it mean to teach our young people how to argue, have opinions, and show them the power of words?

It means we cannot silence people because what they say is unpopular. It means the discussion is usually more important than any one opinion. And we cannot stop writing opinions just because we think people will disagree. I don’t know a single teacher who believes that.

Reader Feedback

10 Responses to “My Greatest Lesson On Teaching Argument, Opinion, and the Power of Writing”

  1. Lisa says:

    Amen, Matt. I teach a class called Business Communications and I often hold impromptu, informal debates for these very reasons. If you walk in before we get started you would hear me ask the students why we are about to have such a debate and you will then hear the room in unison say, “to learn to speak in an articulate intelligent way, to learn to see all sides of an argument, and to learn to be a good listener.” Trust me when I say my classrooms are filled with boisterous students from different cultural backgrounds, and nothing pleases me more than when I see them listening to another’s opinion and shooting their hand in the air to respond. The reason: they are listening first, then speaking. So many people don’t take the time to really hear what someone else is saying before they jump in with their own opinion. Sadly, as you have seen it appears, many adults have not yet learned the skill.

    • Lisa, you’ve just hit on how you are supposed to teach. It is about discourse, not who is right. People are going to have different opinions about all kinds of things, and we can rarely change someone’s mind the first time, and we certainly can’t just get mad at people for thinking differently. If every teacher was doing what you’re doing, people would understand to listen first, understand both sides of an argument, make their own judgements, and form strong opinions even if they are unpopular. Thanks for the input.

  2. Karen Conner says:

    “For two weeks we’ve had people SCREAMING ABOUT PUBLIC EDCUATION OF ALL THINGS”!

    That is awesome.

  3. Andre says:

    Thank you for the great lesson Amaral. All I can say is that everything is Rhetoric.

  4. Dear Matt,

    You assumed wrong! You’re not only being read by your usual audience. I’m a Canadian university student, and I’m following your story with enthusiasm.

    I read your letter to Curry, and I read Charlton Jimerson’s response to it. My take on it is that you’re fundamentally arguing the same thing, and your recent blog post hammers that in. The point isn’t whether Curry should visit your school, it’s that disenfranchised youth need to see the world for what it really is. And they need to learn, from the most credible sources, how to navigate it.

    I’m in the middle of writing a piece that joins your opinion with Charlton’s, and I hope to be able to reach out to you with some questions in a short while. I run a blog about achieving success and what it means to do so, and I believe a discussion on the issue of role models and education is particularly important. What would be the best way to reach you for comments/answers to questions? I’d love for you to be involved with this.

    Yours truly,

    Dana

    • Yeah Dana, as I say in your nicely worded blog, I don’t really feel like my critics and I are arguing about as many things as they think we are. When the link is up respond to this comment so we can all read it. Thanks for the support, and I am impressed by your ability to see all angles and sides- a skill I appreciate more and more these days…

  5. Pmacfar says:

    Nice job, Matt. Well-spoken.

  6. Awesome entry! I’ve seen many times how teachers try to spark up debate amongst their students on old, tired topics. They wonder what happened to kids nowadays. Some of the best crafted persuasive arguments I’ve seen have come from two teenage boys debating over whether Kobe or Jordan were the greatest of their respective generations or the greatest of all time. They demonstrate their compare and contrast skills when talking about why Kendrick Lamar is the new Tupac and J. Cole is the new Biggie. You have got to find ways to make the source material relatable. Find the right context for the content to matter.

    Keep plugging away at improving our community, Matt. Much respect.

  7. James says:

    Count me among those who got to know your writing via the Curry piece — I think I saw it first in a Canadian hoops writer’s timeline, warm and merited praise — and although it was strong, timely and combustible stuff, I’ve also enjoyed the pieces that preceded and followed it. A writing teacher who tries to teach by *example*? A word geek who also loves basketball AND young people? After a career in English (mainly writing) classrooms, and still haunting gyms as a coach, and trying to make sense out of the world by writing, count me glad to know your work. Count me in your corner. You write well, and you’re doing The Great Work…

  8. Thomas says:

    Matt
    You friggin portugee
    Hope all is well
    Go warriors
    WSH
    Monarchs !!!

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