Trending in 2020: Have Educators Privileged Argument Writing at the Expense of Personal Narrative?

Although the Common Core State Standards have lost something of their influence over the teaching and curriculum of the English Language Arts, I think it’s undeniable that a lasting legacy of the CCSS is that they increased the centrality of the teaching of argument in the writing curriculum.  You can see the CCSS architects’ justification for this emphasis in a subsection of Appendix A aptly titled “The Special Place of Argument in the Standards” (http://www.corestandards.org/assets/Appendix_A.pdf).  You can see it also in this famous (or infamous) statement by David Coleman, the chief of those architects, that was reported in The Atlantic: “A boss would never tell an employee, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday, but before that, I need a compelling account of your childhood’” (Goldstein, 2012).  Argument, Coleman argues, should be taught because it’s practical.

And not just in the world of work.  I’ve been among those who have encouraged teachers to give arguments its special place because I recognize that argument is “the most highly prized type of academic discourse” (Andrews, 2009, p. 1), that college writing placement tests are characteristically argument based, and that the increasingly common placement of students into developmental writing classes before they can take their required English composition class is enormously costly both for the students and for their institutions.  That’s why in our work with 11th and 12th grade students in an under-resourced neighborhood urban school my students and I have focused on argument.

I’m proud of our work.  We engage students in thinking about a variety of important questions like “What does it really mean to be smart?” and “To what extent am I responsible for others?”  To prepare them for the reading, writing, and arguing they’ll be doing as we explore those big questions, we have them engage with less weighty questions, like “Who makes the best burrito?” And “What supervillain would be the best one to enlist if you want to take over the world?” Students seem to like our approach, at least for the most part, and our data demonstrate that our students have made statistically significant gains in their writing ability as measured by their responses to prompts designed to resemble those given on our university’s placement test.  (See Smith & Imbrenda, 2018 for more details about the program.)

But recently the privileged place of academic argument has begun to be questioned. Turner and Hicks (2017), for example, make the case that argument in the real world (in memes and infographics, for example) works differently than it does in the academy. Smagorinsky (2018) worries that instruction in argumentation may fail to recognize that arguments are often more emotional than rational.  Hobbs (forthcoming) is concerned that schools have neglected the study of propaganda, which she sees as vitally important, because, when it is compared to argument, it is regarded as insufficiently complex and serious to be the subject of study.

I take these critiques seriously, but I think our approach addresses these concerns, at least in some fashion.  When you engage kids in evaluating a wide variety of arguments and in thinking about if and how they work, it seems to me that you are helping them understand both formal academic argument and informal digitally-based arguments, many of which appeal to emotion rather than logic. Imagine, for example, a lesson that asked students to list all of the evidence a local college website uses to attract applicants and then to rank that evidence in terms of its effectiveness.

But another criticism of the emphasis on argument worries me more. DeStigter (2015), for example, critiques what he see as an overemphasis on argumentation because it “renders illegible other, nondominant modes of contemplation and expression.” In so doing, DeStigter continues, “the ascendance of argument limits our understandings of who we humans are and what we are capable of because it attends to only a tiny part of the communicative spectrum we occupy” (p. 20).  Johnson, the employee in the Coleman quote above, may have stories to tell as well as analyses to write.

My concern with this critique was amplified recently by reading Deborah Appleman’s remarkable new book, Words No Bars Can Hold (2019).  In it she chronicles the work she has been doing with men who are incarcerated. And she shares their writing and their thoughts about it at some length.  We hear China, a lifer, say “I write because I don’t have a choice.  Who else is going to be my voice, tell my story, and show my pain?”  And Johnny, another lifer, who says “I believe writing can heal the deepest gashes and restore a fragmented soul.” Nobody says such things about an argument, no matter how engaging.  Deborah’s book is a powerful reminder of what our work as literacy educators can mean in the lives of students.

I’m not here to say that I’m going to rewrite our curriculum.  I find the arguments for argument compelling, and as I noted above, I remain very proud of our work.  But Deborah’s book has created more than a little niggle for me.  In a time in which the privileged place of academic argument in the writing curriculum no longer goes without saying, I need to think more about the extent to which I, recognizing that time is a zero-sum game, have privileged argument at the expense of personal narrative.  I wonder whether our students would develop rich writerly identities like those of Deborah’s students if we devoted more time to helping them spin out their stories instead of just using personal anecdotes in service of their argumentative claims.  I need to make sure that in looking to the future we are serving our students appropriately in the here-and-now.


References:

Appleman, Deborah. (2019). Words No Bars Can Hold: Literacy Learning in Prison. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

DeStigter, T. (2015). “On the ascendance of argument: A critique of the assumptions of academe’s dominant form.” Research in the Teaching of English, 50, 11-34.

Goldstein, D.  (2012). The schoolmaster.  The Atlantic.  Available at https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/10/the-schoolmaster/309091/

Hobbs, Renee. (2020). Mind Over Media: Propaganda Education for a Digital Age. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Smagorinsky, P. (2018). Emotion, reason, and argument: Teaching persuasive writing in tense times. English Journal, 107, (5), 98-101.

Smith, M. W., & Imbrenda, J. (2018). Developing Writers of Argument:  Tools & Rules that Sharpen Students’ Reasoning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Turner, K. T., & Hicks. T. (2017).  Argument in the Real World.  Portsmouth, NH:  Heinemann.


Michael W. Smith is a professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning in Temple University’s College of Education. He joined the ranks of college instructors after 11 years of teaching high school English. His scholarly work focuses on understanding what motivates and supports adolescents’ reading and writing both in and out of school. He has reported his research and the instructional ideas that derive from it in 16 books, two of which he and his co-author Jeff Wilhelm received NCTE’s David H. Russell Award for Distinguished Research in the Teaching of English, as well as in a wide variety of articles and chapters.

Trending in 2020: School Discipline is Trauma-Insensitive and Trauma-Uninformed

I was asked to write a blog post about a recent trend in education that I find either exciting or concerning. I decided to write about a topic that is both exciting and concerning: the impact of trauma on learning and behavior.

First the exciting part: these days many educators are being trained to understand the impact of chronic stress and trauma on students’ development, behavior, and learning. Schools everywhere are devoting significant professional development time to this topic and prioritizing being “trauma-informed” or “trauma-sensitive.” Thankfully, as a result educators have far more empathy for how chronic stress and trauma can derail learning and be a primary cause of disruptive behavior in the classroom.

Now the concerning part: these very same schools often still rely heavily on punitive school disciplinary strategies. I recall visiting a school recently where the leadership proudly described their trauma-informed training and then proceeded to show me examples of the behavior contracts they use with their students. These traditional disciplinary strategies (including sticker-charts, time-outs, demerits, detention, suspension, and expulsion) aren’t very successful for the students to whom they are most often applied. Research has clearly shown that such disciplinary actions actually increase the likelihood of further disciplinary measures and are related to higher drop-out rates as well as lower academic achievement and even eventual juvenile justice involvement (APA, 2008).  And to whom are they most often applied? Sadly, to the most at-risk, misunderstood, and marginalized students including those with histories of trauma and exposure to chronic stress. Students who exhibit challenging behavior are often the students with trauma histories because being exposed to chronic stress or trauma delays brain development, causing lags in skill development which in turn result in challenging behaviors. As a direct result of their trauma, many of these students struggle with skills like flexibility, frustration tolerance, and problem solving. They don’t lack the will to behave well, they lack the skills to behave well. No wonder traditional school discipline doesn’t work with traumatized students: motivational strategies don’t teach students neurocognitive skills they lack.

Even more concerning: not only do punitive interventions not work with traumatized students, they can do developmental damage and make matters worse. Nowhere in the trauma-informed practice literature have I seen anyone advocate for the use of power and control to manipulate a traumatized student’s behavior. Using behavior charts and rewards and consequences is doing just that. It is leveraging a power differential to increase compliance. Put more simply, traditional school discipline revolves around rewarding students when they do what we want and revoking privileges when they don’t: a toxic dynamic that many traumatized kids are already all too familiar with in their past relationships with adults. In other words, traditional school disciplinary strategies are about as trauma-uninformed and trauma-insensitive as it gets!

There are additional side-effects of this vicious cycle of chronic stress and punitive discipline (Ablon & Pollastri, 2018). When punitive discipline is ineffective, it adds more stress; which further delays skill development; which results in escalating behavior; which is then often met by raising the stakes with even more punitive discipline. Systems of escalating consequences are sometimes called “progressive discipline.” But this is a misnomer: when it comes to curbing challenging behavior, those systems are anything but progressive. In fact, I like to refer to them as “progressive dysregulation”, since both students and educators become increasingly dysregulated, with dire consequences for everyone including the teachers. Dealing with challenging behavior in the classroom is one of the biggest sources of stress for educators; it drives talented, young teachers out of the profession just when we need them most.

Thankfully there is still good news: we have the power to interrupt this cycle of chronic stress and trauma. We don’t have to respond to challenging behavior with punitive discipline. Proven alternatives exist. Instead of adding stress that further delays skills and escalates behavior, we can buffer stress, build skills, and reduce challenging behavior in a truly trauma-informed and trauma-sensitive way (Perry & Ablon, 2019). Effective alternatives, such as Collaborative Problem Solving and restorative practices, are relational forms of discipline that do not revolve around use of power and control.

Schools represent a remarkable opportunity to help our most vulnerable, traumatized kids. Students spend the majority of their waking hours—the majority of their youth—surrounded by trained professionals who are experts in helping kids build skills. So, let’s harness that opportunity and turn trauma-informed principles into concrete, actionable strategies that transform school discipline.


References:

Ablon, J.S., & Pollastri, A.R, The School Discipline Fix. (2018). Norton: New York, NY.

American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force. (2008). Are zero tolerance policies effective in the schools? An evidentiary review and recommendations. The American Psychologist63(9), 852.

Perry BD, Ablon JS. (2019) CPS as a Neurodevelopmentally Sensitive and Trauma-Informed Approach. In: Pollastri A., Ablon J., Hone M. (eds) Collaborative Problem Solving. Current Clinical Psychiatry. Springer, Cham


J. Stuart Ablon, PhD, is associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and Director of Think:Kids in the psychiatry department at Mass General Hospital.  Among his publications is The School Discipline Fix: Changing Behavior Using the Collaborative Problem Solving Approach (Norton, 2018), co-authored with Alisha R. Pollastri. Dr. Ablon will be speaking at the SXSW EDU Conference on March 11, 2020 in Austin, Texas.