December 3, 2006

Argument Class Round Up

The second class I taught was an Introduction to Argument class for 6th-9th graders. I limited my class to six students and I had six boys and it was a lot of fun for me. Teaching this class made me realize how much I miss coaching debate and reminded me how much I love teaching argument and how important I believe the skill to be.

For me the greatest challenge in teaching this class was figuring out how to narrow my teaching topic down to a mere 6 hours. This six hours was really more like three actual hours of in class teaching time because the boys had to present their arguments in class and we had to spend some time preparing for showcase.

If you only have three hours to teach key elements of basic argument what do you choose? This was the question I had to answer and I decided that argument construction was the most important thing to teach them. I presented a basic format and structure for argument. A very simplified outline for them to follow and asked each student to pick a single topic they wanted to work on for the semester. The class would be spent refining that argument so their last argument was much better than their first argument.

These boys were patient with me because they were my guinea pigs and I did learn along the way and have better ideas about how to teach the class in the future. Still I think in the end they got something out of it. Some of them were really responsive to the teaching and comments and seemed to make big improvements. Now whether they were just jumping through assigned hoops or really got it is a seperate question that only time will tell.

What I hoped they would leave the class with was two main things. First that argument is about constructing well reasoned and supported claims for a position and not so much about attacking an opponent. Secondly I wanted them to walk away with an understanding of basic elements that should be found in all good arguments and an ability to use that structure themselves whether it be for a personal or a political issue they want to prove. I think they understood those things in the end and had at least an initial experience of actually doing them.

The thing about teaching argument is most of it is done through the refining process. I spent a lot of time with each students paper writing at times pages of comments on how they could improve or strengthen their argument. Then I watched them do just that and see for themselves why my comments and suggestions made their arguments better. So some of the teaching was actually not done in the class itself but in the discussion we had in the writing of their assignments.

The tough part about this class is that there is not enough time for them to really practice these skills over and over again and that is what really build argument skills is practice of the skill. That is why debate is so wonderful because it offers you many opportunities to practice your craft.

I have decided in the future to divide the class into two parts. Argument Construction and Answering Argument. With the first being a pre-requisite for the second class. With only 6 hours a session that is the best I can do so I can really give time to build each skill. Then anyone who is serious about learning and refining argument skills can move into a debate team or advanced argument class offered somewhere else.

Teaching the class reminded me that I love argument and love debate. I kind of hope my kids will want to be involved in it someday so we can get back involved in the community. Right now my kids are too young for me to offer to coach other people's kids as debate is very time consuming and that time simply has to go to my kids. Still it was fun to have a taste of that again and have an opportunity to work with some really talented and gifted kids who had both an interest and a natural ability for argument.


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