Everthing's an Argument: Combining CCSS Reading and Writing Standards 9-12

One aspect of the CCSS for Reading and Writing that we might consider is how to create a cohesive connection between literary analysis and writing an argument paper. 

For a literary analysis, the goal should be an arguable thesis, supported by textual evidence from the given short story, poem, drama, or novel. Again, the Reading standards are somewhat similar for lower/upperclassmen, with 11th/12th  moving into greater depth:

  • RL.9-10.1. Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

  • RL.11-12.1. Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.

  • RL.9-10.2. Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.

  • RL.11-12.2. Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.

  • RL.9-10.3. Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.

  • RL.11-12.3. Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).

To help them make the transition to this level of thinking (and for them to be able to determine a theme(s) on their own eventually) consider scaffolding them by first creating a thematic unit on a larger concept, such as Integrity, Revenge, Beauty, Love, or Evil.

Before reading the text selection, students marinate on the given theme. You can introduce it in any number of ways, but the goal is to have them convey their thoughts and opinions on the theme. We'll walk through a potential unit on Evil, which students seem to particularly enjoy.

It’s helpful to have them discuss with each other. Who is evil? What is evil? Why is evil? Where is evil? Then, after they've reached their conclusions, you  throw a wrench into their thinking with an assertion. 

(You can find any number of possibilities for an assertion searching by topic on a quotation site, such as Thinkexist.) My favorite assertion for Evil is:

“Evil is unspectacular and always human,
                                          And shares our bed and eats at our own table ....” 
~W.H. Auden

Students have already discussed what they think on the topic, so now, they analyze and argue the validity of Auden’s point about the topic. Aren’t serial killers the most evil of all? How can he be right in saying that Evil is right in our homes? My family isn’t evil. What does he mean?
Students will both agree and disagree, which is fine and should be encouraged. Let them know it’s okay for them to change their minds, too! The goal is the thinking.  

Most literary texts will incorporate some aspect of your proposed unit concept; it’s up to you how you “clump” them together. 

For example, in a 12th grade class, you might consider Othello, "My Last Duchess", Heart of Darkness, A Child Called It, or Frankenstein for Evil, providing a spectrum of texts. In an 11th grade class, you might consider The Great Gatsby, Trail of Tears, or Of Mice and Men, "Theme for English B", for Integrity. 10th graders might enjoy Antigone, "Dulce et Decorum Est", Night, or Lord of the Flies for Morality. (I’m sure you get the idea.) 

Each time the students read a text, they determine that text’s argument for the topic. For example: 

What argument does Shakespeare make about Evil in 

How does he make this argument (e.g. using symbolism, through the character of Iago, through the innocence of Desdemona)?  

Why does he make it? 

After students have written on that topic, you take it one step further (either in a separate assignment or tagged onto this one):

     Does Othello support or refute Auden’s assertion about Evil?
     Why do you think so?      

As they submitted their essays on the individual texts (I considered these informal, rough drafts), I might pinpoint a pattern of punctuation for them to work (such as comma usage), but the onus was on them to correct it once noted. If a pattern of error emerged that warranted a class explanation, we addressed it (such as semi-colon usage or use of second person p.o.v.). I concentrated on the fluency of these drafts, mostly.

It saved me a great deal of stress having them write only one formal paper. The goal was to help them with their thinking, first, so the emphasis of the preliminary essays was on reasoning, which the CCS emphasize and strive so diligently to accomplish. Then, and only then, did we concern ourselves with correctness on the formal papers. 

This final paper was typed, in MLA format (all the bells and whistles), and it was their assessment for the unit. They were expected to use at least two, but no more than four, of the texts from the unit to argue the validity of Auden’s assertion. 

Essentially, they answered this question: Based on what you’ve read, why do you support (or refute) Auden’s assertion?

This is where you’d move back into CCS writing standards for argument, thus satisfying that standard with a purposeful use of the literature. (Of course, we followed a process of first draft, revision, editing, and polishing, the whole nine yards.) 

By the time students have 1) evaluated their opinions on the topic, 2) analyzed/argued other’s assertions, 3) analyzed a text, and 4) argued whether or not that text supports the general assertion, they’ve come a great distance in their critical thinking skills!  
Students don’t necessarily love reading, but when they have a purpose for doing so, they may be so inclined to actually do the reading. Further, since teenagers love arguing above all else, when they read with the idea that they’re going to make an argument about something, it’s a win for everyone. 

Let me know what you think!  

(Next up:  narrative as argument!)

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