The importance of getting beyond writing that argues, informs, or narrates
From kindergarten through twelfth grade, students learn to make an argument, convey information, and narrate a series of events (NGA Center for Best Practices & CCSSO, 2010). Every year, it’s just those three types of writing. Of course, young people should learn to argue, inform, and narrate: they’ll argue, inform, and narrate in every profession, college course, and community. But why did we pick arguing, informing, and narrating as the only three important functions of writing?
Let’s imagine shifting our emphasis from arguing a single perspective to unifying multiple perspectives, from distributing information to asking for it, and from narrating our own stories to inviting stories from others. What could these types of writing look like?
From “I Believe” to “We Believe”
If success in college courses and in the workplace aren’t reasons enough for students to learn argumentation skills, maybe what passes for political discourse is. People shout at each other on TV and social media, often resorting to personal attacks and reaction gifs. Teaching kids to argue a point using scientific or historical evidence feels like a civic imperative.
Still, those who start flame wars are sharing authentic feelings, hoping others will listen and understand. Can our students practice something besides judgment—whether it’s the positive kind (a high-five, a “like”) or the negative (an insult, a one-upping comment)? When they have strong beliefs and emotions, can our students do more with writing than assert their rightness?
Let’s look at an argumentation writing prompt: “Should our school assign seats during lunch?” You can probably imagine papers arguing against assigning lunch seats: students would have the freedom to choose seats, develop friendships, and feel comfortable between classes. And you can imagine papers arguing for assigned lunch seats: students would get to know classmates beyond their friendship cliques, no one would be excluded, and adults could more easily identify students who have eating disorders or food insecurity.
But what if, instead, we asked students to find common values among those who’d argue for and against assigning seats at lunch? Instead of staking out and defending a position, students would explore why their peers, teachers, and parents care about lunch seating. They might discover that those advocating free seating and those who’d assign seats want students to have friends, feel connected, relax, and eat a nourishing lunch.
To identify common values among people who disagree, students would have to listen to people on both sides. What problems are they trying to solve by, say, assigning seats at lunch? What are their hopes and fears? What kind of community are they trying to build? These are values questions, and given the opportunity, students might discover similar values underlying opposing positions.
A good argument acknowledges alternative views, but dismisses or qualifies them to advance the writer’s own view. But students writing to unify would introduce multiple perspectives, not to assert which one is “right” or “best,” but to discover what the people holding these perspectives have in common, and to suggest ways they could work together and move forward.
From “What I Know” to “What Can I Learn?”
Could there be a place for writing that asks questions alongside writing that gives answers? Imagine that given a writing-to-inform prompt, “Explain the relationship between two symbiotic organisms,” a student decides to write about tree frogs and bromeliads. Even if you know nothing about the organisms, you can probably imagine the essay. First, the student describes the tree frog and bromeliad, then she explains how the frog affects the bromeliad, then she explains how the bromeliad affects the frog, and she concludes with why symbiotic relationships matter.
Now imagine the student is given the prompt, “Ask questions about the relationship between two symbiotic organisms.” We can imagine all sorts of questions the student might ask about bromeliads and tree frogs. How do the frogs and bromeliads find each other? Do other kinds of frogs have symbiotic relationships with plants? Do they need each other? What could people learn from the tree frog? From the bromeliad? From the relationship? Is it only under certain conditions? Will climate change influence this relationship? Or will the relationship between tree frogs and bromeliads help them survive and adapt as the climate changes? How can we survive and adapt as the climate changes? How will our relationships impact us positively and negatively? Again, what can we learn from the frog-bromeliad relationship?
Asking questions sometimes sends us in circles, like how I circled back to the question about what people can learn from the frog-bromeliad relationship. Questions might engender more questions in ways we don’t anticipate or understand. How do we make order out of that chaos—at least to the extent that our reader can understand what we’re asking and wonder along with us? I doubt the classic five-paragraph structure will lend itself to the rambling, associative, creative, and curious writing-to-ask prompt. What do you think?
From “Here’s My Story” to “Please Tell Your Story”
If there’s room in the curriculum for students to hear stories from literature, science, and history, surely there’s room for them to tell their own. Still, in narrative writing, we’re once again asking students to privilege their own perspectives and miss opportunities to seek other people’s. What if, in addition to telling stories, students also invite others to tell stories?
Let’s take another typical prompt: “Write about a time when you showed courage.” We can imagine all kinds of stories, from traveling alone to standing up to a bully to starting school in a second language to losing a parent. What if, in addition to telling their own courage stories, each student invited someone to tell about a time they showed courage? Perhaps a student would write to a grandparent who survived a war, or a classmate who delivered a speech to the entire school, or a teacher who took a job in a second language, respectfully inviting them to share these experiences.
In order to write such a letter, students would still think about what courage means, and they’d still tell their own stories—of noticing and appreciating another person’s experience, and seeking further understanding. Students might imagine multiple potential recipients of their letters within their families, among their peers, and in their communities. Or they could “invite” fictional characters or historical actors to tell their stories. Even if the students don’t or can’t expect a response—or if they simply don’t send their invitations—they’d still pay attention to how other people carry stories.
Students who consider sending their letters might feel anxious imagining the recipients actually reading them. We can help students reframe this anxiety: “What if your hesitation means you care about this person’s feelings? What if your nervousness is telling you this story matters? If that’s the case, what do you want to do? What would be the easiest move for you? What would be the most satisfying? And what would be easiest for the other person? What would be most satisfying for them?”
Why do we think young people in an increasingly divided nation need to learn argumentative, informative, and narrative writing, and nothing else? If we only ask students to defend what they think, say what they know, and tell their stories, do we encourage them to focus too much on themselves? If we sometimes introduce other purposes of writing—to unify, ask, and invite—would we encourage students to be more open to diverse perspectives, curious about the world, humble about their own ideas, and empathetic toward others?
Writing to argue, inform, and narrate is potentially audienceless. I might be shouting into the void. If I do have an audience, I might be more interested in proving myself right, advancing my own views, and hearing my own voice than in creating a relationship. But if I seek common ground with you, ask you questions, or invite you to tell a story, doesn’t there have to be a you? I might address you without knowing who you are, or “you” might not be alive or even real, but still I imagine how you’ll receive and respond to my words.
Writing to argue, inform, or narrate is also outcome-driven: I’m trying to get you to agree with me, know what I know, or hear my story. If I achieve these outcomes, I’ve done my work as a writer. The end. But writing to unify, ask, and invite are process-driven. When I finish writing, it’s not the end. I’ve only just started a correspondence, a collaboration with you. I’ve sent out a call. What will your response be?
|Writing assignments privilege learning to:||Let’s also try teaching our students to:|
|ARGUE: I believe…
Take a position on the proposal that our school should assign seats during lunch.Which character do you think has the lead role in A Midsummer Night’s Dream?Should the United States ban hydraulic fracturing?
|UNIFY: We believe…
Find common values among those who would argue for and against assigning seats during lunch.Define “lead role” such that readers might consider different characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to have the lead role.Who wants to promote hydraulic fracturing, who wants to ban it, and what concerns do the groups share?
|INFORM: Here’s what I know.
Explain the symbiotic relationship between two organisms.Explain how the United States Constitution is based on the constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy.Describe the steps of how to do something you’re good at.
|ASK: What can I learn?
Ask questions about the symbiotic relationship between two organisms.Ask questions about how the United States Constitution is based on the constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy.Ask questions about how to expand or improve at something you’re good at.
|NARRATE: Here’s my story.
Write a story about a time when you had courage.Retell Jean Toomer’s story “Becky,” from Becky’s point of view.Describe how you learned to do something you’re good at.
|INVITE: Would you tell your story?
Write a letter to someone, identifying a time when you think they must have had courage and asking them to tell you the story.Write to the fictional Becky, asking her to share her story.Identify something someone else is good at and write about why you’d like them to teach you.
|These types of writing encourage students to be:
||These types of writing encourage students to be:
National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers.
(2010). Common Core State Standards for English language arts and literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Washington, DC: Authors. Retrieved from www.corestandards.org/wp-content/uploads/ELA_Standards1.pdf on August 5, 2017.