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Playing Devil's Advocate

I can't count how many times I've reiterated one of the tenets of my teaching philosophy to students: "In here, talk drives learning." And in a world where I've noticed kids have much to say but sometimes struggle with recognizing that spoken words can become the written, I try to leverage their abilities to talk as much as possible before, during, and after writing.

I also believe that we learn the most when cognitive dissonance occurs. This is why my students participated in a round of devil's advocate on Friday, with several students sharing their claims and reasons, evidence, and examples in front of the entire class.

I have to say that the teaching and discussion were messy. Not only is it the first time students are really wrestling with writing about self-chosen topics and personally relevant subjects, but they are also having to defend those views publicly.

In order to provide students with some structure, we covered ground rules first. We agreed to not attack the person but, instead, challenge the examples, reasoning, and ideas. We're still working on establishing the difference, but they're getting there. I often have to remind myself that these are ninth graders; they aren't adults yet, so this is the perfect space to practice these potentially heated arguments with a mediator that my students trust (me).

We also talked about how we can leverage argumentative phrases that so many people use: "I believe that," "___________ should/n't," "One reason for," "You might consider," etc. There are so many, and we're adding to our lists every day.

The Common Core State Standards call for complexity. It's not just enough to take a stand for something, but you have to understand and consider the opposing side. These discussions added to the in-class generating we did earlier in the week, when I asked students to compose their own I Say/They Say charts about their topics (see below).


What I loved most about playing devil's advocate this past Friday is the energy from so many of the students. I was hoping to get through most students' claims and reasons, but we only managed to get through five or six each hour because of the time spent considering the newly raised counterclaims and examples. The discussion about racism was the most intense I saw all day. And this is understandable, considering what students are seeing unfold in the world around them. During that round, students were able to see how their claims should be refined based off the examples used to support, and how sometimes counterclaims can have a minutiae of truth. 

Here's a list of what some students are writing about:
  • Schools should not be allowed to search students for drugs. 
  • Racism is alive and well. 
  • Undocumented immigrants are more helpful than harmful. 
  • Transgender students should have equal rights in school.

With that said, I'm excited to see where students' drafts head next week. 

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