Archive for Argument Analysis

State of the Union Creative Assignment

The State of the Union is always such a rich speech.  It is a text that I think should find its way in every classroom regardless of the class, grade, or ability level.  For most of us, we weave it into our classrooms by analyzing the argument.  We might guide our students in analyzing the shifting argument within the speech, identifying the minor premises supported throughout, evaluating the evidence used for support, recognizing concession, considering the larger significance and implications of the argument, and studying the rebuttal by the opposing political party.  However, I don’t want to end the discussion on the State of the Union; I want to see my students demonstrating their knowledge and understanding.  I want them to reflect on the speech, think like an editor, challenge like a critic, and write like a wordsmith.

So, after studying the rhetoric of the State of the Union, I give students the following writing assignments and ask them to choose one they feel they can achieve the most success, allowing them freedom and choice.  The prompts allow room for creative thinking and creative writing, a task not often seen in a classroom geared toward formal argument analysis.  All of the prompts demonstrate a range of talents, but they don’t feel as tedious to the students as writing an essay.


1.)    It is your job to play editor.  What suggestions would you provide President Obama (and his speech writers) to best help him achieve his purpose?  Make sure to identify the purpose and provide concrete, specific suggestions to improve the speech and its persuasiveness.

2.)    Select one statement from the SOTU that strikes you.  State this clearly in your response.  Then, in your response, defend or challenge the statement.  Provide specific concrete proof.

3.)    Evaluate what President Obama (and his speechwriters) considered in composing the SOTU.  What is your evidence of this?  Which considerations appear the most significant given a close reading of the speech?

4.)    The opposing party always issues a response to the President’s SOTU.  While your response will be much shorter (200-350 words), compose a critical response to Obama’s SOTU addressing what you feel are the strongest points of the SOTU.

5.)    It’s catch phrase time!  The purpose of a catch phrase is to make a create a memorable statement that embodies an idea.  They are typically concise, short, and to-the-point but rhetorically powerful.  Pretend you are on Obama’s speech writing staff and working to compose the SOTU.  What catch phrase will you suggest Obama implementing into his SOTU?  Provide this catch phrase.  Then, provide a rationale for your suggested catch phrase.

Evaluating an Argument-Chevy Volt Commericals

I watch too much television.  I come home from work, plop myself down in front of the television and absorb whatever it is the television gods guide me to see.  However, being the forever teacher, I always find myself analyzing the rhetoric of whatever it is I see.  While lounging on my couch thinking about my students’ struggle to evaluate the argument, lo and behold the television gods sent me a gem of a commercial.  Typically I just fast forward through commercials, but this one is striking and I have found myself watching it over and over again.  There are a variety of Chevy Volt commercials for a campaign titled “Happy Volt Owners.”  Below are two of my favorites. Read more

Law in the Classroom: Week in Review

           Friday Dialogue from                

                                      Your Two Favorite Educators 

As Emily and Aubrey look back over the week they use their razor sharp wit to discuss John Edwards’ fate.


1.)  I know you love Clarence Darrow’s closing argument.  However, it was seven hours long.  C’mon, Darrow.  Really?  Seven hours?  That’s a little excessive.  Aubrey, in honor of Darrow, if you had to deliver a speech for seven hours what would be your topic?  Is there anything you could speak about for seven hours?
Listen.  We’ve had this conversation before.  LEAVE DARROW ALONE Is Aubrey right?or there is a distinct possibility that we fight and you lose.  Okay, so let me respond by giving you several categories.  In terms of literature I could speak on All the King’s Men for at least seven hours.  That would be the short, short version.  In terms of food, making pie crust from scratch.  In terms of pop culture, well, so many choices.  Probably something about Bristol Palin’s retooled show for Lifetime.  I could talk about that for hours.  
Emily:  Don’t mistake me.  I love the closing argument.  I think it is great.  I just think it is a little long.  I can’t imagine sitting in the courtroom listening to one person speak that long.  You, however, I could certainly listen to you talk about making pie crusts from scratch.  I’ve had your pies before and they are tasty!

2.)  To what extent do you think teachers need to be conscientious of controversy when selecting cases for students to study?
Aubrey: I think it’s very important to be aware and thoughtful of how controversy can impact students.  I want to create critical thinkers but sometimes there are things I don’t want us to cover in class.  We need to discuss global issues, dissect cultural norms because it makes for thoughtful argumentation but the biggest challenge is to find a way to do so where I don’t have to play referee.  I’m not sure I’ve found that happy medium.  

What does Emily say?Emily:  Sometimes I forget that they are kids.  I think they can handle talking about John Edwards using donor money to hide his mistress, but I’m not sure they can handle really graphic or extreme cases.  Correction:  I’m not sure I can handle dealing with the parent complaints from giving them a controversial case to handle. 

3.)  This week I profiled several skills lawyers must possess.  They must be able to analyze the audience of the judge/jury, sift through seemingly meaningless research looking for clues, and determine the larger argument that needs to be addressed.  What do you think is another important skill lawyers need to possess.  Feel free to be funny and poke fun of the rich, rich lawyers.
Aubrey: Well, what I’ve learned from The Good Wife is they need to have the power of both rhetoric and justice on their side.  Also a lot of money, some killer heels and a sensible haircut.   

Emily:  That is so sad…and so true.  I will say though that I do feel more powerful in a good pair of heels. 

3.)  Imagine you are a participant of the current John Edwards trial.  What role would you like?  Juror?  Defense?  Prosecutor? Judge?  Bailiff?  Why?
Aubrey: You’ve left out court reporter and sketch artist.  Since I can’t draw it’s definitely court reporter.  All I would have to do is type accurately and quickly.  

Emily:  Really?  Reporter?  I’d have too tough of a time keeping my opinion out of the article.  I’d love to be on the jury or serve as the presiding judge.  I’d just want access to all of the dirty evidence.

4.) In what way is a teacher like a lawyer?
Aubrey: I am constantly on trial and not by a jury of my peers.  Hmmm.  You said lawyer not defendant.  Okay, then I’m definitely doing pro bono work.

Emily:  Amen, sister.  I feel like I am constantly having to prove myself and validate the content I teach with evidence that it is valuable.  It’s a fine line to balance between entertaining and persuading.  I feel like I’m failing at both!

Researching the Argument

One of the dilemmas of an English teacher is how to teach students good research skills without assigning the dreaded research paper.  I have sworn off research papers because I’m so sick of reading “research” papers that locate “credible sources” to support lowering the drinking age or making marijuana Read more

Analyzing the Argument of Court Cases

Teenagers are so used to arguing with people; they’d make great lawyers…if only they could better identify the nature of arguments.  To make them better at convincing their parents to stay out past curfew, students need a lot of help getting to the implicit argument.  However, if you are looking for a new way to inspire students to analyze an argument, consider asking them to study court cases. Read more

Law in the Classroom: Overview

I hate math.  I really do.  I have a hard time multiplying any number past 7.  So much of my dislike of math is that I struggle to see its purpose in my life.  Why do I need to know the quadratic equation?  When will it ever impact my life?  However, I finally saw some meaning when my teachers would offer word problems, like “you are 90 miles away from the nearest town.  Your car gets 23 miles to the gallon.  How many gallons of gas will you have gone through when you get to the town?”  While I still had a hard time with basic arithmetic, I liked the applicability of these problems.  They made math seem more common place and useful in my world. Read more

Developing an Argument Week in Review

           Friday Dialogue from  

                                      Your Two Favorite Educators 

As Emily and Aubrey look back over the week they use their razor sharp wit to break down why “Call Me, Maybe” is the greatest song ever.

1.)  What do you like the most about teaching argument and persuasive writing?
Aubrey: If I could teach some version of the AP Language and Composition argument prompt all year I would die happy.  I love that the evidence isIs Aubrey right? always different.  I love that you can use the classical argument structure.  I love that you don’t have to just know literature.  You have to know EVERYTHING.  I also think it can be the most complex to teach since it relies on the student to pull evidence from their own knowledge base.  Scary.  Still, it forces students to contemplate the world as a mosaic. Read more

Teaching Logical Fallacies

Sometimes an argument is like a really good sale.  You look at it.  You feel it.  You are enamored by its flash and pizzazz.  In fact, sometimes it looks so good you have a hard time recognizing the snag in the stitching, or the small stain on the lapel, or the poor fit in the bust.  Yeah.  That’s what happens when we are won over simply by the appearance of it.  The flaws are unseen by the common eye.  While it pains me to admit it, I am the common eye and always buy the “really good deal, I promise” even if I’ll never wear the dress because color-blocking doesn’t work on my body type. Read more

Structuring the Argument

Writing an argument is a lot like putting together a puzzle.  The image itself might be beautiful.  However, if unable to put the pieces together effectively then the image doesn’t matter. The same is true with writing a persuasive essay.  Yesterday I presented ways to help students develop a deeper understanding of an argument.  However, it doesn’t matter how solid their argument is if they can’t effectively communicate it.  While it is important to teach students how to have a developed argument, it is equally important to teach them how to structure it.  One of the most effective ways to do this is to teach students to follow one of the key argument structures:

  • Classical Argument Scheme
  • Rogerian Argumentation
  • Toulmin Model

Regardless of which argument scheme you use,  the key is to engage your students in meaningful inquiry about the structure.  A lot of teachers introduce the key components of the scheme and then provide students with a sample persuasive essay asking them to recognize and annotate those components in the text.  This is absolutely a fine way to introduce the argument structure, but there are a lot of ways to deepen this knowledge and get students to produce better, more authentic versions of their argument.

  1. Some teachers argue that teaching students the various argument structures creates formulaic essays.  While I think there is some merit to this claim, consider introducing this concept to students by stressing that experienced rhetoricians might stray from the formal structure.  Provide them a persuasive piece that might not clearly address all components of the argument scheme your students are familiar with.  Similar to the above described commonly used strategy, have students read the piece identifying which components the writer does utilize.  Then, engage them in a discussion about why the omitted components are missing.  Have students evaluate the effects of not fully following the form. Ask them to pretend they are editors and they must provide suggestions to enhance the argument.  Depending on the piece provided, some might argue that the rebuttal isn’t necessary while others might suggest including the rebuttal would strengthen the overall persuasiveness.  This can lead to a healthy discussion about the choices rhetoricians make, which will hopefully translate into their own writing.
  2. Another way to use persuasive writing to teach the structure of an argument is to study the persuasive essay yourself, labeling and identifying which paragraphs are using which component of the argument structure you have taught.  For example, if teaching the Classical Argument Scheme I would label one paragraph as including the confirmation, one for including the refutation, etc.  Then, cut the essay so each paragraph is on its own piece of paper, like a puzzle piece.  Provide students with an envelope that contains the contents of the argumentative essay.  Ask students to read through each paragraph determining which aspect of the argument structure is most prevalently highlighted.  This is something they should be able to do with relative ease.  However, up the ante by asking them to rearrange the paragraphs like a puzzle, evaluating how the order of the paragraphs (and the different components of the argument structure) affects the way the argument is perceived.  Have students debate the correct order of the paragraphs and consider which organization they think is most effective in communicating the argument.
  3. Lastly, before teaching students a specific argument structure have them construct an argument.  You might have them respond to an ACT, SAT, or GRE writing prompt or possibly partner the argument with a text they have read (i.e. writing their own declaration after reading and studying “The Declaration of Independence”).  Then, while teaching them the various elements of the argument structure have them recognize which of the devices they use naturally in drafting their arguments.  Then, have the students revise their writing enhancing the components.

Students respond well to each of the argument schemes (Classical, Rogerian, and Toulmin).  However, the key isn’t which structure you teach them; it is how well you teach them.

Identifying and Extending Argument

Students think they know arguments.  However, just like when they read fiction, students have a hard time moving beyond a superficial reading of a text.  If anything, I sometimes think they are worse at extracting an argument from a persuasive essay because of the personal nature of it.  Students think that, since it is their own opinion they don’t need to develop it.  Common saying:  “This is it.  This is my argument.  This is all I intended it to be. Don’t read into it.”  But that isn’t good enough.  To be taken seriously as a rhetorician students need to finely craft their argument and make sure it is multi-layered.  This comes through reading and studying arguments extensively, but it is a skill that can be taught through practice.  Read more