Ssshhhh...don’t say it out loud, don’t even murmur it, keep your thoughts to yourself, to even think it is an admittance that the maxim is true: “All schools are now just exam factories.” Regardless of the exam culture, however, we can still teach our young charges skills that will set them up – I would argue – for life.
Life can throw a lot at us as we meander from school, maybe on to college, perhaps through university and then hopefully on to work. We all know that being able to write, arguing that a particular course is right, or a specific job is deserved, or an applied penalty fine is unjust, is a skill in itself. We just need our students to be aware of the fact...
However, the fact is our students struggle to realise the worth – and struggle even more with the concept – of writing to argue; offering up more questions than answers regarding the validity of the art form: How can I come up with enough arguments? How can I plan effectively? In reality, how can this help me in the long term?
As we know “prior preparation prevents poor performance” and this aphorism must be instilled in our students.
Manufacturing a scenario that our students will understand the arguments for – “no, Charlie, not arguing in an EastEnders sense” will pay dividends that you can build on in your classroom.
Make up an argument, classically for and against, for a supposed local music festival being built in their area, drawing a map on your board (getting them to draw the map in their books, thus helping them to visualise) and pointing out who would benefit from the introduction of the festival and clearly who would not.
Obviously, the local pubs and supermarkets would be in favour, although, the wildlife reserve and butterfly farm may have strong feelings too. Allow your students to articulate their ideas, for and against, out loud, pressing them to expand and explore: “Sir, won’t the noise offend the people in the old folks home?”
When I fabricated a scenario about an impending boat race through a historic town, one student argued that the sheer number of people visiting the site would have to walk over the historic bridge that is both “crumbling” and “protected.” Yes, you can make up your arguments! Ongoing arguments that are being acted out locally add real flavour and if there is a burning issue in school, then adopt the argument...shortened lunchtimes anyone? Suits the SMT on duty..."but what about our socialising time, Sir?"
Producing two columns in their books alongside their detailed maps will allow the pupils to produce two lists of arguments for and against the proposed skate park being built. The two lists will help the students elucidate individual and collective contributions because as we know the best teachers are magpies and students are no different. So with a list of arguments for and against the new free school, you could also introduce the idea of counter argument at this stage.
At a certain stage of my life, while moving home and school, a genuine reality check occurred. I omitted for a whole month to tax my car. Taxing is the only word to describe the impassioned missive I wrote to avoid a £1,000 fine. All was fine as I was excused the month of tax-free driving, but that letter has held the attention of students and TAs alike.
Students like model letters writing to argue and as we teachers know, these letters are great to have in our toolbox. I was greatly impressed once when I wrote to a Premier League manager asking if my girlfriend, Joanne, could accompany him for a day to observe his management style – he wrote back, declining, but at least he responded – the students were mesmerised.
Mesmerising is the only gerund to describe the manager that did allow Joanne to attend his club for a day following my argument, which impressed my classes even more. Letters of application work well too, especially when students are informed that the letter took three hours to write...just to get an interview. Believe me, this is keeping it real!
The reality is as teachers of English we have a duty to ensure that our students are armed for the modern world. If Charlie can write a missive or an email where the recipient takes him seriously then we have done our job. All we have to do now is put pen to paper or fingers to keyboards...but that is another blog in itself. And to think I didn’t mention the exams once.
Ronnie Albion works at a very special school.