Models Plus Assessment
Ask anyone who has taught trait-based writing and they’ll tell you that the two top secrets to success (and, in fact, the very things that have made this approach so popular) are these:
1. Providing models
2. Providing opportunities for students to be assessors
We learn by seeing examples of how something is done. We also learn by assessing the work of others–determining what’s working and what’s not, and what could be done to make weaker performance stronger. Now, we just need to connect these strategies to the Common Core Standards . . .
Persuasive Writing and the Common Core
We can use these two secrets to success and apply them to persuasive writing in the context of the Common Core Standards. It works like this: First, we need a model. I’m going to use an article from the November 7 issue of Time Magazine. It’s from the “Money” section, and it’s titled “Zones of Seduction: How supermarkets turn shoppers into hoarders” (November 7, 2011, p. 58). The article is written by Martin Lindstrom, an advisor to Fortune 500 companies and author of the book Brainwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy. The article is written, of course, for adult readers. But it is short, just a page, and is easily manageable by readers in grades 5 and up, perhaps with a little coaching in vocabulary. Consider having students work in circles of three to read, analyze, and assess.
Second, we need to review what the Standards say about persuasive writing–or opinion pieces. If you look under commoncorestandards.gov, then Writing, then grade 5, you will find an introductory standard followed by four bullets that expand that standard. Here’s a quick summary:
5.1 “Write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons and information.”
[Note: The following are summaries, not quotations]
* Introduce the main topic clearly and organize details/information to support that idea.
* Present supporting facts and details in a clear, logical order.
* Use transitional words (for example, as a result, for this reason) to link reasons or details to each other or to the main idea.
* Provide a clear, relevant conclusion.
Sharing with Students
To make this work, you need to share both the article and the Common Core Standards on opinion pieces with students. Unless they know what the Standards require, they have no means to assess the strength of the article. Use the Standards like a checklist. You can summarize what is said, as I have done here, or you can use a word-for-word copy. You may want to spend a few minutes clarifying terminology. Any time you use a rubric or checklist of any kind with students, there’s a good chance that some words or phrases are unclear. What makes perfect sense to teachers looks like jargon to others. So talk about things like main idea, support, detail, logical order, support, and relevance. Here’s a tip: When defining any writing term, think of it from the reader’s point of view. Take relevance, for example. From the reader’s perspective, relevant details are clearly related or connected to the main idea. They don’t pop at you out of the blue. They seem important to the topic at hand–and they’re things that you, as a reader, need to know or be aware of to make sense of the writer’s main idea.
Assessing Lindstrom’s Article
Let’s go through those bulleted points, one by one–just as you would with your students. Tip: Ask them to review one bullet at a time. Give them time to talk within their writing circles, then open discussion to the whole class.
Does the author state his opinion clearly and organize information in a logical way? Yes. In the very first paragraph, he states “In this fearful climate, retailers are applying ever more scientific and psychological tactics to lure shoppers.” He goes on to describe his experience in a Chicago laboratory, watching people study videos of shoppers. He gives an example of a woman buying soup. She is apparently lured in by the elegant floor tiles and the nature of the display–about which Lindstrom provides great detail. The discussion is interesting and very easy to follow–so we could readily say the information is ordered in a logical fashion.
Does the author provide logically ordered reasons supported by facts and details? Absolutely. In addition to the specific example of the woman buying soup, he goes on to explain that retailers have learned to remove dollar signs from prices, recognizing that these trigger a negative response (This will cost me money) in the potential buyer. Retailers are also sensitive to aesthetics, such as lighting or attractive floor tiles, and are aware of the consumers’ built-in hoarding response. A sign saying “Limit of 3” can trigger this response and make the consumer purchase. These examples can help students understand what we mean when we say things like “Tell me more” or “Be specific.” Such admonitions are vague and don’t really speak to students. But when those same students have to analyze someone else’s writing and tease out the examples for themselves, they get it.
Does the writer use transitional words or phrases to link ideas? Well, here’s a tricky one to answer. Lindstrom does use transitions, yes. The problem is, they’re not like the simple examples provided in the Standards list. Here are a few: Three years later, In this fearful climate, Only instead, Sophisticated as we may be, No doubt, Every element, One thing is certain. This can make for a wonderful discussion: What are transitions? How do they work? How do we recognize a transitional word or phrase? Why is it that lists of transitions, no matter how long, are of only limited help in identifying transitions in a real, live piece of writing??
Does the writer provide a clear, relevant conclusion? Oh, yes. It’s a warning, in fact, telling us to watch for signs that we are being manipulated. And it’s virtually guaranteed to make your next trip to the grocery store a heck of a lot more interesting–provided you have an interest in human psychology. From a teaching standpoint, the question to ask is, What makes this conclusion effective? Conclusions to persuasive pieces are too often simple summaries: Now you know the main reasons to recycle. This one is different, and that’s refreshing.
What if you don’t have the November 7 article?
No problem. First, this article is only the fifth in a series that Time is running–there will be more. Whether they will all have a persuasive flavor is another question, of course. But editorials abound. Check other journals, as well as newspapers (including your local paper). Don’t forget film or book reviews, which often voice strong opinions.
What about Standards for higher grade levels?
One thing you’ll notice about the Standards; they’re parallel, grade to grade. So what matters at grade 5 also matters at higher grade levels. But in addition, other requirements may be added. By grade 7, for example, students are asked to introduce alternate or opposing claims–something that the writer of this article on consumer manipulation does not do. But guess what? For you as a teacher, that’s a plus! You can ask students whether Lindstrom introduces alternate or opposing ideas, and when your students determine that he does not, ask how he would obtain such opinions. What people should he interview, for example? Or where should he go to conduct some research that might support another view?
Students at grades 7 and beyond are also asked to maintain a “formal style” in persuasive writing. This requirement, of course, is connected to the trait of voice, which varies with audience and purpose. And it is fascinating to ask of an article like this one, What sort of tone or voice does the writer maintain? I would argue that it is indeed appropriately formal for a publication in a well-respected news magazine. But Lindstrom is clearly aware of the need to keep readers interested. He uses many conversational phrases, such as “speed-bump area,” “tactics,” “sealed the deal,” and “grab three cans of something.” He’s informing us–but he’s having a chat at the same time. This is a highly sophisticated form of voice–and it’s the secret to getting informational and persuasive writing published.
The Bottom Line
By the way, one of the most interesting things to discuss with students is the reason, the driving force, behind persuasive writing. What’s the goal here? Is it (a) Getting someone to agree with you, or (b) Persuading someone to take a specific action? What do your students think? What do you think? I would argue that it is both of those–but that neither is the primary purpose behind this complex genre. The real purpose of persuasive writing is to guide the reader through a complex set of issues so that he or she can make a good decision. Lindstrom’s article does that very well, by the way. I will never shop the same way again–and that’s quite an outcome, considering he only had one page to win me over.