Engaging Students with Editorials

 

Relevancy. Rigor. Authenticity.  These are buzzwords in education.  Pundits overuse these terms, which makes teachers ignore their meanings.  We may avoid confronting these terms because we know, deep down, that these concepts are difficult to achieve in the classroom.

It’s difficult to make a curriculum relevant to the lives of 25 teenagers,  meeting all of their needs and wants.

It’s difficult to scaffold lessons, pushing students to the edge of their zones of proximal development.

It’s difficult to create a classroom  where students read and write authentically, not just “playing school” for extrinsic rewards.

I try to create a classroom full of relevant, rigorous, authentic reading and writing.  While I sometimes fail, one instance where I think I’ve succeeded is in teaching students to read and write editorials.

The Project

Recently, my students wrote editorials inspired by The New York Times’s Room for Debate series.  Students formed groups, developed guiding questions and wrote from various viewpoints. Many of the final products were even formatted like the Room for Debate pages from The New York Times.

Relevant

By studying writing through genre, students and I have freedom in selecting meaningful topics.  I choose mentor texts that teach students about the craft of writing while piquing their interests. Students can write about topics that they feel passionate about.

Last year, we began with editorials responding to the question, “Is social media making us narcissists?”  This year it was, “Do American high schools make sports too important?”  Both had students eager to discuss, and with some prompting, they were returning to the texts to support their opinions.

Rigorous

Studying editorials by focusing on writer’s craft is rigorous because the editorial is as far from formulaic as an essay gets.  Writers use a set of tools to manipulate the reader into believe him or her–there’s no one path to success.

The editorial was an entry point to discuss voice.  We often “hear” a writer when he or she makes a passionate argument.  Pieces by Leonard Pitts, specifically, “Healthcare? One Desperate Man Finds It in Jail” and “Violence, Videotapes and Police” led students towards identifying  rhetoric and discussing voice–but not without some of the aforementioned scaffolding.

I presented the first Pitts piece, asked students to find craft moves, and share where they could hear Pitts’ voice.  The response was mediocre.

Then, I handed out the second Pitts editorial, and asked the students, “Where in this piece do you read something that reminds you of the first piece?”  Now, there were a flurry of hands, with students pointing to punctuation, syntax, repetition and anecdotes.

Here, I learned that sometimes the more challenging task is more interesting to the students.  Comparing two texts was more interesting–and I’d argue, more “rigorous”–than looking at one.

Authentic

This year, I wanted to raise the bar, after seeing The Contrarian Librarian’s presentation at the Conference on English Leadership about sharing writing with authentic audiences.  She said that teachers talk about publishing student writing for authentic audiences, but few teachers do it. I was guilty of this.

So, towards the middle of the unit, I told students that I’d changed the requirements for the assignment.

They had three options: submit their editorial to a newspaper, mail their editorial to a public figure, or display their writing with a graphic element (many used Infogra.am) in the halls of our school.

The results of this shift were significant.  When I met with students, I asked, “what do you want the reader to think/feel/experience here?”  and “how can you clarify this for the reader?”

No more “playing school”

Earlier this year, a student told me that she loved reading and writing, but had rarely enjoyed English class.  She could “play school” well, but she wanted something more meaningful.

This conversation sent me reflecting deeply.  I won’t romanticize the results, but the conversation has led me to ask, “how can I achieve instructional goals while giving students meaningful experiences?”

There are moments where I catch and find students “playing school.”  And while some teachers may call this phrase just another buzzword, I argue that it’s another one that’s easy to ignore, but important to deal with.

 

Gerard Dawson teaches English and Journalism to high school students in New Jersey.  You can read more from him atGerardDawson.org.

5 thoughts on “Engaging Students with Editorials

  1. Hey Lindsay,

    Thanks for reading!

    Finding authentic avenues for students to publish their writing has been a focus for me this year, and it seems to yield some great returns in terms of students putting care and attention into their writing.

    Have you had students submit to the contest?

  2. Hey Gerard, loving this post a lot! It has given me a lot of ideas.

    I am currently long-term subbing (1st year) and I am transitioning my students now into an editorial unit. My district uses these MAISA units that set up a progression of subjects based on the Common Core standards. They are pretty handy because set up a specified number of sessions and activities to engage students throughout the unit. They encourage teachers to make modifications as they see fit, which I really want to do because my students up to this point (especially this semester) have experienced very choppy instruction because their regular teacher being in and out so often, and I just want to really get them engaged with this unit of study because it offers them so much opportunity to explore everything that is going on in the world.

    I was wondering if you had any good resources you could point me to, or if we could communicate via email so that I could get some more tips for what really works for your students, the best ways to really get them discussing, etc?

    Thanks

    Adam

  3. Hi Adam,

    Congratulations on your first year of teaching.

    It’s thoughtful that you are taking the initiative to modify the supplied curriculum in order to best serve your students.

    To start off, check out this explanation of the unit from the Learning Network:

    http://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/08/27/reader-idea-using-room-for-debate-to-teach-argumentative-writing-and-discussion-skills/?_r=0

    Consider checking out the chapter entitled, “Take a Stand/Propose a Solution” of Kelly Gallagher’s book, Write Like This. He outlines a structured approach towards having students select topics, outline arguments and write.

    A quick Google searched yielded this presentation on the ideas in the book, which seem fairly accurate: https://prezi.com/tzk_fhzo2spa/take-a-standpropose-a-solution/

    You may also be interested in checking out the section of Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them in which she discusses editorials and argument writing. She provides some insights on using mentor texts to help students hone their style when writing arguments.

    My overall advice is to give students feedback early on in the process. Instead of collecting entire drafts from students and realizing you need to back track, shift the feedback and conferencing towards the beginning of the unit as students are developing their arguments, outline their main points, and doing the early drafting.

    Hopefully that gives you something to start from. I’d be glad to discuss any specifics further.

    Thanks for reading and reaching out.

  4. Hi! I am a fledgling middle school teacher in Aurora, Colorado who is struggling to find engaging persuasive news articles (op-ed) for my students to study for immersion writing. What articles could/would you suggest for my 7th graders that would give them a great understanding of persuasive news writing? I think I have too much Leonard Pitts Jr…haha! I need some other great perspectives that illustrate the different styles of writing this particular genre. Thank you!

    -Kel

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