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Voices from the Middle--Moving from Print to Practice, March 2014 (21.3)

This Issue’s Focus: Narration, Persuasion, Argumentation: Teaching Writing with Purpose

Our editors remind us that once students leave secondary school, they will seldom be asked to write their own stories or five-paragraph essays. The focus of this issue is how to facilitate clear writing through activities and forms that are more closely related to real-world applications. Middle school students are always searching for relevance in the activities we design for them. Focusing on real-world writing can help to motivate young adolescents to see purpose and value in becoming better writers.

There are several examples of real-world writing in this issue. Let’s begin the discussion by considering even more. How many ways can you and your students think about using writing to communicate in today’s society? Try using a graffiti wall to brainstorm and capture all of the ways we use writing as a means to communicate in today’s world.

Visit the VM Podcasts page to access interviews with authors of this issue's articles.

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Focus on Feedback

"First Do No Harm" by Carol Jago

"'It’s a Juggling Act Sometimes': Peers and Teachers Supporting Students’ Writing Lives" by Shelley Stagg Peterson

"Accuracy in Digital Writing Environments: Read Up, Ask Around, Double-Check" by Thomas DeVere Wolsey [FREE ACCESS]

General Discussion Topic

These three articles focus on feedback. Jago asks teachers to consider the difference between providing feedback and serving as copyeditor. Too often we see our red, green, or purple pen marks on student papers as providing feedback when in reality, all we are doing is copyediting. Middle school students crave success and positive feedback from adult mentors. Jago suggests beginning from a positive stance, helping students to see what they did right, before we lead them to fix what might be wrong in a piece of writing. How does this difference change your thinking about providing feedback to your students?

Peterson focuses on integrating peer feedback into writing instruction. Young adolescents not only crave positive feedback from adults, but also from peers, and sometimes the opinions of peers carry more weight. Peterson explores types of peer feedback and how teachers can scaffold peer feedback.

DeVere Wolsey builds on Peterson’s idea of peer feedback by focusing on accuracy. DeVere Wolsey cites reader-based peer feedback as one way for young writers to check for accuracy and authenticity, either in facts or experiences. He suggests sharing writing and asking peers for advice, response, and direction.

Key Points

  • Middle school students need to believe they can be successful before they are willing to expose themselves to failure.
  • Today’s students are not writing enough to learn how to write well.
  • If we expect students to write well, they need many opportunities to write and receive feedback on what they have written.
  • To write cohesively, students need both supportive and critical feedback.
  • Students need to learn to give feedback that is content-oriented, not conventions-oriented.
  • Peers provide an authentic audience that is highly motivating, which helps students persist through the writing process.

Common Core Connection

CCSS Anchor Standards for Writing—Grade 5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.5: Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach.

CCSS English Language Arts Standards for Writing—Grade 7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.7.5: With some guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on how well purpose and audience have been addressed.

CCSS History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects Writing Standard—Grades 6–8
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.6-8.5: With some guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on how well purpose and audience have been addressed.

Using These Articles with Your Team

Jago talks about the importance of feedback. She suggests that in order to give effective feedback, teachers need to share the load of writing and responding across disciplines, as reflected in the Common Core State Standards for Literacy. As your team plans, include in that planning opportunities for writing in all content areas, and stagger them so that neither students nor teachers are overwhelmed at any given time with the amount of writing that is being produced or read.

Encourage your team members to incorporate the use of peer feedback to give students additional practice in discussing writing. All teachers, but especially those in the content areas, can use DeVere Wolsey’s ideas for developing accuracy in combination with peer feedback. Structure peer feedback in the content area to include fact-checking and accuracy. Assign students roles in small groups, rotating the responsibility for checking accuracy, thus adding a layer of review or extended practice with the material.

Why Not Try This?
  • Use think-alouds to model reader-based feedback. Try using a piece that you have written and ask your students to respond to you as practice for providing peer feedback.
  • Scaffold early peer feedback with guiding questions or a graphic organizer that leads them to examine content rather than conventions.
  • Be aware of relationships among students when grouping and asking them to give each other feedback. Think about doing some class- or team-building activities first to build community in the classroom. Consider assigning partners or groups rather than letting students choose so that you can balance student experiences and positive peer relationships.
  • The use of blogs, document sharing, or other digital platforms allows students to respond to peers anonymously. It will also allow for multiple students to comment on each other’s writing in a shorter period of time, and it helps to document comments for the writer.
  • Create a form or graphic organizer to encourage students to focus on accuracy in their feedback to each other. Tailor the organizer to the assignment to guide that conversation. If the assignment is about a science topic, ask reviewers to document the source of the information. If the topic is narrative, prompt feedback related to authenticity of voice or verisimilitude of setting.

Resources Used in These Articles

Databases as Resources


GALE apps for smartphones and Apple products:


Google Scholar:

Forums and Cloud Sharing for Peer Review


Google Groups:

Teen Ink:

Box (file sharing):

Dropbox (file sharing):

Citation, Copyright, Fair Use

The Media Lab at the University of Rhode Island:

The Son of Citation Machine (citation generator):

Persuasion and Argumentation

"A Call for Action: Engaging in Purposeful, Real-World Writing" by Lori Czop Assaf and Joël Johnson

"Aristotle in the Classroom: Scaffolding the Rhetorical Situation" by Paula M. Carbone

"Developing Argument Writing through Evidence-Based Responses to Student-Generated Questions" by Wolfram Verlaan, Evan Ortlieb, and Sue Oakes Verlaan

General Discussion Topic

These three articles help us approach persuasive or argumentative writing by helping students to construct arguments based on a rhetorical stance. Two articles incorporate teaching students the difference between logos, pathos, and ethos and how we use these concepts to construct arguments and persuade our audience. The third helps students to read and analyze the arguments of others.

Assaf and Johnson show readers how they created a unit that helped seventh graders identify an issue that was important to them and then use persuasive writing to try to convince others of its importance and maybe even to take action. In the previous section, we suggested using a graffiti wall to brainstorm and collect ideas for real-world writing. This article encourages us to sort those ideas and find the ones that require action. Try taking ideas from the graffiti wall, transferring them onto index cards, and sorting them on a word wall or bulletin board by the type of issue, the need for research, or the location of the problem, whether it is local, national, or even global.

Carbone shares a similar focus, teaching students to construct arguments and enter into conversations about important issues as part of living in a democratic society. Carbone’s approach is broader, focusing students on Aristotle’s triangle model and using that as a means of scaffolding an argument. She continues the scaffolding, expanding the triangle into a square by adding purpose as a fourth component, along with logos, pathos, and ethos. Verlaan, Ortlieb, and Verlaan focus on student-generated questions to analyze the arguments of others as a model for their own writing.

Key Points

  • It is our job to teach students not only how to write, but also why they must write.
  • A spiral model of curriculum emphasizes that curriculum and instruction should revisit basic ideas previously learned, repeatedly building on them until students fully understand new concepts.
  • Through scaffolding, teachers help students to master a task or concept that he or she may not be able to master independently.
  • Deep scaffolding aims to raise the level of comprehensibility of a text by making it more accessible through appropriate cultural examples and the reduction of language barriers.
  • Arguing may be a basic human activity, but educators cannot assume that students’ transition from using persuasive arguments in their lived experiences to writing a persuasive essay will meet academic expectations without carefully planned instruction and scaffolding.
  • Using rhetoric as a starting point from which to develop students’ argumentative writing facilitates the use of complex, warranted writing.
  • Generating a think and search question often requires the kind of close reading that is referred to in the CCSS Anchor Standards for Reading.
  • An effective response to a think and search question will typically require students to justify and provide evidence for their answers.

Common Core Connection

CCSS Anchor Standards for Writing
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.4: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

CCSS Anchor Standards for Reading
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.6: Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.8: Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.

CCSS English/Language Arts Writing Standards—Grade 7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.7.1: Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.7.10: Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences.

CCSS English/Language Arts Reading Standards—Grade 7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.7.6: Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how the author distinguishes his or her position from that of others.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.7.8: Trace and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient to support the claims.

Using These Articles with Your Team

How can you and your team use “A Call to Action” in a cross-disciplinary or interdisciplinary unit? Are there topics in science or social studies that can inspire students to take action? A local election issue? A waterway in the area that is being polluted? A need for a recycling program? Can they use mathematical problem solving to help strengthen an argument or use of evidence?

Why Not Try This?
Johnson uses I-Charts to help her students organize their writing. Here is a link to I-Charts as used in her classroom:

Blank I-Chart template:

A structure like Carousel Feedback can be used to scaffold the use of peer feedback. This strategy guide will help students to examine each other’s arguments or claims and give feedback. Refer to the DeVere Wolsey article in this issue to encourage students to examine arguments based on authenticity.

Four Corners Activity

When asking students to argue an issue from multiple perspectives, they learn to emphasize point of view and purpose. Try using a cooperative learning strategy like Four Corners to help students examine differing points of view or intents. Use the template from Carbone’s article to teach the rhetorical square. Here are four ways to use a Four Corners activity with these articles:

1. Designate areas of the room to house differing views or combinations of support or bias and have students rotate, creating the matching argument at each station.

2. Examine the four pillars of the rhetorical square. Designate each corner to an element of argumentation: logos, pathos, ethos, and purpose. Give students a sample argument, maybe something from a recent reading or something cross-disciplinary. For example, if students are studying Ancient Greece, work with the social studies teacher to give students an argument Ancient Greek leaders might have used to persuade their people to enter the Peloponnesian War. Then have them rotate around the room to answer the key questions in the graphic above.

3. When writing their own argumentative or persuasive pieces, label each corner as logos, pathos, ethos, and purpose. Use these corners for a focused discussion in writers workshop. As students craft their arguments, they gather in groups or with the teacher to examine their own arguments against each rhetorical element.

4. There are four question types in QAR. Use question labels for each corner of the room. Have students either write a question for each type or analyze a question to determine why it matches the question type for that corner.

To learn more about Question-Answer Relationship (QAR) go to:

Resources Used in These Articles “Yes We Can” video:

Video for gender-neutral Easy Bake Ovens:

Petition on

WNBA Jerseys:

"The Scarlet Ibis" by James Hurst:

Language in Content Area Classes

"Spanish, Mathematics, and English: The Languages of Success in a Grade 8 Class" by Jane Hansen and Kateri Thunder [FREE ACCESS]

General Discussion Topic

Students in the mathematics workshop featured in this article were faced with the challenges of negotiating three language systems: their home language of Spanish, the classroom language of English, and the mathematical language of the discipline. The teacher and researcher worked to find multiple ways for the students to use their varying levels of fluency in one language to support their learning in another, with the ultimate goal of content fluency and mastery. Consider your classroom; how many languages are your students balancing? How can you use one to support another?

Key Points
  • Even students who were reasonably fluent in their preferred language met with difficulty when they tried to figure out the mortar words that cemented the vocabulary into supposedly readable mathematical sentences.
  • The language and symbols of mathematics served as the third language the ELLs needed to understand. In many cases, the mathematical procedures did not pose the difficulty; the language did.
Common Core Connections

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.4: Determine the meaning of symbols, key terms, and other domain-specific words and phrases as they are used in a specific scientific or technical context relevant to grades 6–8 texts and topics.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.6-8.2d: Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to explain or expand the topic.

Using This Article with Your Team

This article provides a solid foundation for collaboration between language arts and mathematics teachers. The focus is on the language demands in mathematics, but language arts can provide additional practice and support. Use the ideas below for word walls and sentence frames in a cross-disciplinary or interdisciplinary lesson. Focus on the mortar words as described in this article during language arts class to support transfer into mathematics.

Why Not Try This?
Our classroom space can often provide a wide teaching canvas. In this article, the physical atmosphere of the classroom was described in part. Wall space may not have been available, but if it is, there are many ways to use a word wall to support ideas in this article.
  • Create a section of the wall to illustrate mathematical symbols and labels. Students in the article struggled with concepts like greater than and less than when given their symbols. Have students create index cards or word posters to illustrate these concepts and display them around the classroom for reference.
  • ELL students in this article often relied on their home language to help solve problems when English created a barrier to understanding. Use other space on the word wall to give English/Spanish translations for key content vocabulary.
Sentence frames are another tool to assist ELL students with content vocabulary and writing. Students in this article experienced difficulty with mortar words, non-content words that were integral to the comprehension of problems or solutions. Try using sentence frames with the content vocabulary intact, but the mortar words missing to scaffold students’ writing and note taking. Color code key mortar words to support visual learners. Have them highlight in their notes or on a copy of the text to distinguish between content vocabulary and functional English words that are giving direction or key pieces of information to solve a problem.

For a reference, check out:

Non-Traditional Text Types

"Four Reasons to Write List Articles with Middle School Students" by Denise N. Morgan, Leslie Benko, and Gayle Marek Hauptman

General Discussion Topic

The authors of this piece use list articles as the model for another kind of real-world writing. We all love to read articles that tell us the top ten places to go, things to eat, ways to save, or movies to see. This article outlines a project using this type of article as mentor text to build a writing unit. Students read examples, researched topics, and wrote their own list articles.

Key Points
  • List articles require students to first think about topics they are interested in or knowledgeable about.
  • Once students select a topic, they have control over how they shape it.
  • Students become invested in their pieces because of their personal choice of topics.
Common Core Connections

CCSS Anchor Standards for Writing
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.4:Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.5: Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.6: Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.7: Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.10: Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences.

Using This Article with Your Team

In many schools, advisory time is themed. Often those themes include hobbies, interests, or activities that teachers and students share. Building on the motivational power of choice, how could your team incorporate reading or writing list articles into your advisory curriculum? Try spending some advisory time searching for articles, maybe creating a class wiki that captures everyone’s choices to share. Try finding the best list articles for the theme that your advisory period, grade, or school has selected. Find list articles about the top ten NASCAR events, top ten indie rock bands for the year, best places to fish, or all-time favorite cookie recipes.

Why Not Try This?
Sources for mentor texts, resources for ideas and research:

Time Magazine Top 10 of Everything 2013

ESPN Top Ten of the Week

The Newseum Top 10 Front Pages

Travel and Leisure Best Places to Travel

The Teens Are All Right: 2011’s Top 5 YA Novels

Document and Site Resources

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