In Language Arts 2, students are mapping arguments, identifying assumptions, and learning to counter-argue.

 

In “Staging Literature” this block, students read the novel Passing, which grapples with important and interrelated social issues (race, gender, class). It does so by presenting the inherent complexity of these topics rather than providing “answers” about them. In discussion, then, students used the close reading skills they've been developing this year to consider what questions the text was raising and the extent to which the text did or did not answer these questions.

One issue we've discussed is race in the novel. Is it something biological like the color of your skin, or something socially constructed such as how you self-identify, how others perceive you, or what community you live in? We saw that each of the novel’s characters had a different conception of race, just as we ourselves had different ideas based on our own experience and understanding. The have gotten very good at referring directly to passages in the text to provide evidence for their ideas—a skill they worked on in blocks 1-2.

Beyond the questions we considered together, students practiced having discussions on their own, without teacher intervention. They even set “disposition goals” for themselves; some students indicated they wanted to speak up more while others wanted to listen more attentively to their classmates or pose questions to the group. We've used writing to reflect on how well they accomplished their goals. 

Becoming aware of their goals helped them on our next task: reading two pieces of literary criticism about the novel. This kind of non-fiction helped us better understand the challenges of Passing, but it also helped challenge their literacy skills. Literary criticism is a  different type of text, one that presents explicit answers to the novel’s questions in the form of an argument. Students mapped out each argument, tracing its movements paragraph by paragraph, and they discussed connections and similarities between the two apparently disparate critiques. In week six we’ll return to the novel—full of questions that our two critical essays answered in very different ways—and we’ll consider what allows there to be multiple arguments about a piece of literature.

For their final written assignment, the students will formulate their own arguments about the novel. More specifically, they’ll write a short essay in which they must argue against themselves. They will first summarize the argument of one of the critical essays, identify what assumptions that argument is predicated on, and articulate their instinctive reaction to the argument (agree or disagree); then they will identify what assumptions they themselves are making in their reaction; lastly, they will present an argument against their original ideas and then reflect on how their thoughts on the critic’s argument or on the novel have changed.

In addition to practicing their analytical writing skills in expressing their ideas clearly and persuasively with evidence, they will be working on identifying their own assumptions. In class we practiced identifying assumptions in various statements about the novel, and we also reflected philosophically on the consequences of not being aware of one’s own assumptions, in literature class and also in everyday life.

--Sydney Cochran