This unit takes much inspiration from George Hillock's Jr.'s work in
Teaching Argument Writing
and seeks to engage students with increasingly complex problems. Hillock's rightfully draws attention to the fact that claims must begin with a careful examination of evidence, and that to "without analysis of any data…any thesis is likely to be no more than a preconception or assumption or clichéd popular belief that is unwarranted, and at worst, totally indefensible
. For this reason, each stage of this unit begins with the careful examination of data.
Initially, the data set and problem at hand are relatively simple. Students first examine mystery cartoons and their accompanying narratives in order to make what Hillocks calls arguments of fact. Such cartoons an be found in the "Crime and Puzzlement" series, by Lawrence Treat. These lessons introduce students to careful observation, description, and analysis of evidence in order to develop a logical claim. Hillocks focuses his lessons on the Toulmin model of argument and spends time teaching his students to develop warrants, or general rules, in order to explain the evidence they see in the cartoons. I would use slightly different language, substituting "analysis" for "rules" or "warrants," because my focus is slightly different from Hillocks, but the difference is minor. Our departmental rubric for literary analysis expects students to provide specific and thorough analysis of evidence, and I want to make the connections between our work with cartoons, paintings, and literature as clear as possible.
The second stage of the unit calls for the examination of the paintings described above. Students continue to carefully observe and describe the data presented in these paintings, but now begin to make interpretative arguments of judgment. Rather than arguing the facts of a murder mystery, students must develop claims that identify the paintings characterization of war. As in the previous stage, these claims must be drawn from the evidence presented in the paintings themselves, but the task here is far more complex, demanding that students make judgments based on far more sophisticated imagery.
Finally, students repeat the process using the poems I have chosen, making interpretive claims describing the experience of war. This is a far more difficult task because poems are inherently more abstract than paintings or cartoons, but students will by this point be well practiced in the routine of analysis. Students need to make the leap from describing what they see in a painting to describing a poem, using quoted words and phrases as evidence. Because they are likely to struggle with this transition, modeling and whole class instruction take on renewed importance at the beginning of this stage. By the end of the unit however, I would expect students to be able to conduct their analysis independently. One potential scaffold if students are having difficulty is to ask which painting most closely connects to the poem at hand. Questions like "Which painting would Wilfred Owen want on his wall?" would push students to draw on previously constructed knowledge and recognize similarities between the paintings and the poems. They should then be able to make similar claims about their meaning.
Each of these stages of the unit features a gradual release of responsibility as students become able to work more independently. We begin by working through a problem together. My initial role is to guide students through the process as students record and combine each other's contributions. We will also write a paragraph together to serve as a model. This is one of the real strengths in Hillocks' work with students. He provides numerous and extensive transcripts of teachers "coauthoring" with students, which he deems essential. Through class–wide, collaborative writing, Hillocks ensures that "students are exposed to the thinking processes involved in creating the form [of writing] required, and even to the kinds of syntax that students may need to learn.
In each stage of the unit, students will repeat the inquiry process in groups, using the work they did as a class as a model to guide them. At the end of each stage, students will work independently to solve an unfamiliar interpretive problem, providing summative assessments of their skills.
Classes at New Haven academy are 75 minutes long, which gives me a great deal of time to accomplish a variety of activities. The lessons could be easily divided into smaller pieces for classes that meet for shorter periods of time.